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My International Bog Day Bonanza

My International Bog Day Bonanza

H. Bradford

7/25/17

Last week at work I had a several stressful situations arise.  When I am stressed, I like to fantasize about my time off.  So, I determined that I was going to really enjoy my time off by celebrating International Bog Day.   International Bog Day was first celebrated in Scotland in 1991 in honor of a pretty unique ecosystem.  In the United States, it was first celebrated in 2008 at the Volo Bog State Nature Area in IL.  There are not a lot of bog related celebrations in Minnesota, even though Minnesota actually has more bogs (10% of the state or 6 million acres) than any other continental state.  The biggest celebration for International Bog Day in Minnesota appears to be at Big Bog State Park.  However, I didn’t feel like driving three hours to attend festivities such as the “bog jog.”  Maybe next year.  In any  event, I can’t say that I know a lot about bogs, but they are dear to my heart.  I grew up near a bog and have many great bog memories.   I can confidently say that bogs are my favorite ecosystem.  Thus, I relished the idea of celebrating International Bog Day!

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I like to invent holidays or holiday celebrations.  Some take off, such as Marxmas (which I did not invent, but have passionately planned a well-attended party for each year).  Others, such as Radon Awareness Month- don’t really pan out.   I felt that International Bog Day had a lot of potential.  I began to dream about visiting bogs.  Where would I go?  What would I do?  Oh, then there are the other details such as…what should I wear?  Each holiday needs special apparel.  So yes, I bought myself a “bog shirt.”  Yes, yes, shame on me for consumerism, but details matter.  And, it was hard to find a bog shirt!  I found a pretty cool shirt with a woman wearing a pitcher plant on her head.  Aside from this, I wanted a “bog cake” but this turned out to be too much work.  Then, there were the activities!  I decided that I would visit three bogs.  My first adventure would be a visit to the Sax Zim Bog in Minnesota to do some birding.  This would happen on “International Bog’s Day Eve” or Saturday.  Then, the following day I would drag my comrades Adam and Lucas on an adventure to Cable WI, to visit the Forest Lodge Trail.  I read online that the trail was the best interpretive bog trail in Wisconsin.   Then, on the day after International Bog Day, I would revisit Savanna Portage State Park for some camping…and you guessed it…a visit to a bog.   Three days.  Three bogs.  No one can com”peat” with this bog day bonanza. DSCF6115 (2)


Day One: Bog’s Day Eve

Located about an hour and fifteen minutes north of Duluth, the Sax Zim Bog is one of the best birding spots in Minnesota.  It happened that the Sax Zim Bog was hosting a Bio-blitz this past Saturday.  The goal of the event was to take visitors on various field trips to count the biodiversity of the wetland.  Field trips throughout the day logged such things as dragonflies, butterflies, spiders, wildflowers, birds, fish, etc.   I decided that attending the birding field trip would be a great kick off for Bog Day and a way to add more birds to my birding list.  So, I awoke very early.  In fact, I hardly slept at all.  I dragged myself out of bed at 3:30 am and headed out the door at 4:15 am.  The morning was foggy and cool.  I wanted to stop for coffee or a snack, but waited until I was out of Duluth to make a stop.  Unfortunately, I waited too long to stop and the gas stations near Cotton, MN were still closed.   I was the first to arrive for the 6 am birding field trip and felt a little groggy and thirsty.   I nibbled on graham crackers from a previous camping trip and found a single lime La Croix in my backseat.  Still, I felt that I was graduating into a more serious birder, as no normal person would wake up at 3:30 am for something they weren’t passionate about.

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The early bird catches….the bird.  (gray jay)


Our field trip began with a journey to where a Great gray owl was thought to be nesting.  The Great gray owl is the world’s largest owl by length, though it is mostly a mass of fluffy gray feathers.  Sure enough, we saw a family of Great gray owls.  The mother took flight, moving a little deeper into the woods.  It was astonishing to see an owl that looked to be the size of an eagle.  It was my first time seeing a Great gray owl.  We stayed there a while, also spotting a Black backed woodpecker.  That was also a first for me.  After observing two woodpeckers dart from tree to tree, we moved on to watch birds elsewhere.  Three hours of birding yielded quite a few birds, including Sandhill cranes, a sedge wren, a swamp sparrow, a group of curious gray jays,  a few alder flycatchers, black billed magpie, and others.  I learned that the Sax Zim Bog is the eastern most range of the black billed magpie.  I added seven birds to my life list.  Also, I was again amazed at the other birders.  They can easily spot and identify birds.  I feel pretty dumb sometimes, but hope that with effort and time I will someday be as proficient.

Not the best photos, but offers a visual of what I saw…Image may contain: plant, outdoor and nature

 

Sedge wren

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Black backed woodpecker–can you tell?  Nope.  I couldn’t.  But the other birders could…


Aside from the birds, I saw some pretty neat wildflowers.  These included purple fringed orchids and a purple fringed +ragged fringed orchid hybrid.  Another unusual flower was called Marsh grass of Parnassus.  It is not actually a grass but a fen dwelling flower that is threatened in WI and declining in MN.  I also learned that a lily that I had been calling Turk’s cap lily is actually called Michigan Lily (the former is found further south).  We saw some Michigan lilies as well as a black-eyed susan with a goldenrod crab spider perched on a petal.  I would have liked to have gone on the wild flower walk, but after birding for three hours on two hours of sleep (I could not sleep!) I decided to head home.  I had some other social obligations on Saturday as well.  Nevertheless, I hope that next year I can participate in the Bio blitz again- hopefully partaking in other field trips.

Marsh grass of Parnassus

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Purple fringed orchid

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Day Two: Forest Lodge Trail

On International Bog Day itself I set off with Lucas and Adam for Cable WI.  I had read online that there is a bog north of Cable, WI that is supposed to be the best interpretative bog trail in Wisconsin.  This is a tall order, but I had high hopes for an exciting bog adventure with my comrades.  Unfortunately, I started the day off in a crabby mood.  It was another early morning and I felt stressed out.  My cellphone does not get very good reception in rural WI or rural anywhere.  I had some printed maps, but I was the driver and no one was keen on navigating.  I could have forced the issue, but ended up doing 98% of the navigating myself.  Oh well, I should be proud of usurping gender roles as both the driver AND navigator.  AND photographer.  AND planner.  Okay, so I became a bit of a Swamp Diva as the day progressed, as in the moment I could not find the joy in being so empowered.  Sorry guys.

A comrade

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There were some snags in our adventure.  For one, we hiked the trail, but did not see a bog board walk…as I had seen online.  The bog itself seemed pretty ho-hum.  It was a long drive for a bog and board walk that didn’t seem to exist and certainly not to the degree that I would call it the best in Wisconsin.   However, the trail itself was nice.  There was a variety of terrain and only one other pack of hikers.  As we tried to find the trail, we stopped by the Gormusch Resort- a bizarre German themed petite-bourgeoisie lake resort.  But, for all of our trials finding the trail and traveling the trail itself, we saw little more than a blanket of moss punctuated with swampy puddles.  (I later learned that there is an extended trail…and the bog walk must be off of that.  I also learned that the Natural History museum has trail booklets as the trail does not have posted information on signs).

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Despite a disappointing bog, our spirits were lifted by a visit to Cable.  Adam bought us brownies, which he called “bog cake” (even though he never knew I had wanted to bake a bog themed cake!).  I found two geocaches and endured some teasing for my dorky, pointless hobby.  Lucas went as far as to call it a petite bourgeois past time.   The Natural History museum was closed, but we vowed to return and see it.  Otherwise, we also paid a short visit to a community farm, where we were impressed by the resources that the community had put into developing a farm wherein the produce was donated to local food shelves.   We decided to return to Cable again and set off to find the legendary Delta Diner.  This is where my Swamp Diva nature climaxed.  I was not paying close enough attention and had to back track twice.  I cursed and grumbled about my inability to find the Delta Diner, which seemed to be the Brigadoon of restaurants.  We eventually found it.  Had I been more patient and attentive this would not have been an issue.  As for the diner, it was a hipster oasis on rural WI.   Interestingly, the diner has a no-tip policy as the prices are inflated 20% to make certain that the staff make a living wage.  Despite my tantrum about getting turned around, I did enjoy the experience of eating there AND I did see a family of trumpeter swans along the way. Image may contain: outdoor, water and nature


Finally, we set off back towards Superior.  I was in better spirits.  We stopped by the old King’s? school and a marsh off of HWY 13.  We went for another short hike.  I did some more birding while Adam and Lucas hid in the bushes, pretending to ambush me or something.  I think they were planning military strategies.  In order to get Lucas more engaged in the birding I told him it would be useful for “the revolution.”  After all, it would improve his skills as spotting something unusual in the landscape, such as a bomb, mine, or sniper.  I have zero sense of what is a useful “revolutionary skill”, but it seemed to work.  Finally, we stopped by the Davidson windmill where I finally found my geocache (that I could not find before).  Adam and Lucas wearily rested in the grass while I searched around the windmill.   I also tried to convince Lucas that geocaching is a useful revolutionary skill, as it can help us become better at hiding and finding messages or packages.  However, it seems there is a limit to how well I can pitch my hobbies as “useful to the revolution” before my manipulations become obvious.   All and all, I had a fun day.  I exhausted my poor comrades though.

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Day Three: Savanna Portage and Rice Lake Wildlife Refuge-

Although my first two days of International Bog Day celebrations were rather exhausting, I didn’t feel that I had my fill of bogs.  After all, I had yet to see a carnivorous plant and the Cable bog was a little lackluster.  I mustered my strength for one final bog slog.  However, I decided that camping was too much effort.  So, I went on a day trip to Savanna Portage State park and the Rice Lake Wildlife Refuge.  I nixed the camping, since packing, setting up a tent, and sleeping outside seemed overly ambitious.

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I visited Savanna Portage State Park back in March, so I knew it had a decent bog walk.  I was eager to see it in the summer, so I set off for a hiking and birding adventure.  This turned out to be worth the drive, as once again, the park was pretty empty.  It is nice to go somewhere and feel alone.  I only met one other person on the trails, though a few people were there for canoeing and fishing.  The first order of business was checking out the bog walk.  This time, it was alive with vegetation.  I saw what I thought was an unusual orchid, but it turned out that it was actually the flower of the pitcher plant.  I never new that pitcher plants had flowers!  I always thought that the pitcher plant was simply a pitcher shaped trap for insects.  I was enamored with the elegant, nodding green and purple flower on a slender stem.   The usual suspects, like cotton sedge, sphagnum moss, and Labrador tea also blanketed the bog in green. Image may contain: flower, plant, nature and outdoor

Pitcher perfect!


After enjoying the bog, I walked around Lake Shumway.  It seemed daunting to walk the perimeter of the lake, but it turned out to be a relatively short hike.  Along the way, I saw what I thought was a hairy woodpecker.  Upon closer inspection, I saw that it was actually a yellow bellied sapsucker.   I think it was worth taking a second look simply because it will help me to pay closer attention to details and become a better birder.  After finishing the trek around the lake, I went on another short hike alone the Continental Divide Trail.  Water to the west of the trail flows into the Mississippi River, whereas water to the east flows into Lake Superior.  Again, it was nice to have the trail to myself.  I definitely want to return to this state park in the fall and do some camping as it is quickly becoming one of my favorite state parks.  It has nice trails, a quiet atmosphere, an awesome bog, and patchwork of lakes.

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As a grand finale of the day, I went birding at Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge.  I had planned on visiting my mother in the evening, but ended up staying at the refuge until sunset.  The refuge contains lakes, forests…and bogs.  It also is also a historically and culturally important area to Native Americans, who have inhabited the area since at least 1000 BC.  Rice Lake, as the name suggests, is a source of wild rice, which is still harvested from the lake by local Ojibwe.  On a previous visit last spring, there were Native Americans harvesting maple syrup at the refuge.   I saw quite a few birds on my visit, including common loons, Great blue herons, trumpeter swans, bald eagles, unidentified fly catchers, eastern kingbird, belted kingfishers, common yellow throats, etc.  Once again, I was the only person in the entire nature area.  It was liberating to explore the refuge in the joy and solitude of my own company.   The park closes at sunset, so I reluctantly left it behind and began the drive home. Image may contain: bird, sky, outdoor and nature

Eastern kingbird

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I had a fun, if not exhausting, three days.  Oddly enough, I spent today birding and hiking as well.  Tomorrow, I will return to work (though, I won’t get bogged down by the stress should it arise).  But, I feel that I have spent almost all of my time off in the outdoors.  Summer is precious and short, so I don’t regret this marathon of bogs and hikes.  As for bogs, I think they are worth celebrating.  For one, bogs have really unique plants!  As a child, I wanted to become a botanist- so bogs naturally interested me because they were home to carnivorous plants and orchids.  Tamarack trees are also common in bogs!  What’s not to love about a  deciduous conifer tree or a tree that sheds its needles and grows them back! Heather is a type of bog plant, so, even my name has a bog connection.  Although bogs are rich in peat, or layers upon layers of dead, slowly decomposed vegetation, they are acidic and oxygen poor-resulting in interesting adaptations for the plants that live there (such as carnivorous plants or stunted growth).   Bogs are important carbon sinks (though as frozen bogs thaw or peat is burned, the carbon is released) and soak up water, thereby preventing floods.  Culturally, bogs have been important as a source of fuel (peat) but also used to store food and a treasure trove of archaeological information (i.e. bog bodies).  While I certainly have a lot more to learn about bogs, I think that they are a fragile and unique ecosystem that deserve appreciation.

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Not a Happy Camper

Not a Happy Camper

H. Bradford

7/15/17

Back in May, I went on a short camping trip at Wild River State Park to enjoy International Migratory Bird Day.  I enjoyed this little adventure, as it gave me the opportunity to do some birding and hiking.  Well, I thought that it would be a good idea to do another little camping trip.  I have some post-travel blahs and this would be a way to enjoy nature.  To combat these blahs and take advantage of my time off, decided that I would head to Mille Lacs Kathio State Park for a little camping adventure.  As it turns out, it was a miserable time!

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The Plague of Traffic:

Mille Lacs Kathio State Park is about two hours from Duluth and located in an area steeped with Native American history.   The earliest signs of human settlement in Minnesota are found in the Mille Lacs area.  As for the lake itself, it is the second largest inland lake in Minnesota.   Like many state parks, I haven’t visited it, so it was another incentive to visit the area.  Thus, I set off for a short adventure.  It was raining when I left Superior, but the forecast indicated that the rain would stop.  It didn’t.  Most of my drive involved driving in the rain.  I took my time since there was no point arriving in the rain.  The rain did eventually stop, but I did not predict the enormous traffic jam by Mille Lacs Lake (which seems odd to say Lacs Lake, since it is “lake lake”).  It has probably been over a decade and a half since I was out by Mille Lacs and even then, it was never for anything tourist related.  The towns dotting the giant lake only have a few hundred people, yet, I was stuck in traffic for an hour as trucks with boats tried to merge into one lane.  I watched time pass by.  I watched the lake.  I felt annoyed by the mass of fishermen and women who were scrambling to return to the Twin Cities.  I also felt annoyed with myself for choosing to camp on a Sunday (when everyone else is returning home from the weekend).  Considering the throngs of traffic, it is no surprise that the lake is empty of walleye (well, that and climate change warming the lakes). DSCF7140DSCF7152DSCF7183DSCF7186


The Plague of Flies:

After suffering through the traffic, I set up my tent.  Despite the crowded herd of slow moving trucks, the park itself was nearly deserted.  There were very few campers in the park that night.  This was encouraging.  I decided that I would spend several hours hiking, so I went to the trail center and picked a trail that looped around one of the lakes in the park.  I immediately found that the trail was rather muddy and infested with swarms of flies.  The flies surrounded my head, buzzing loudly and getting tangled in my hair.  I picked out pieces of dead flies from my hair, swatting the others who seemed equally determined to meet their death in the snarls of my black and blue tresses.  It occured to me that perhaps I could use my super duper DEET 100 to deter them.  So, I doused myself in DEET.  The DEET was so concentrated that it took the nail polish off my nails.  I suppose this provides makeshift beauty advice.  While camping, DEET can be used to take the varnish off your nails.  While it removed my nail polish, it did not remove the flies.  The flies seemed completely indifferent to the chemical stench wafting from my body.  I even sprayed a handkerchief with DEET and wore it on my head.  The flies did not care in the least.  This cut my hike short.

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Not pictured: a plague of flies.

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(What could possibly go wrong?)

 


Instead of hiking, I made a detour to climb a fire tower.  I figured that if I couldn’t hike, I could at least climb up the tower.  This was a good challenge for me, since I really hate heights.  And, I actually had to tell myself out loud to keep going up after I was above the tree tops.  I focused on looking up and made it to the top without incident.  Though, on the way up I imagined getting stuck up there…too afraid to go back down.  Since I was all alone, it would begin my new life.  My new life on top of the fire tower.  It was completely fine.  The view from the top allowed me to see Mille Lacs Lake and several of the lakes in the park.   I felt a little accomplished. DSCF7119 DSCF7115 DSCF7122


After clambering down the fire tower, I thought I would take a short hike on the Interpretive Trail.  The flies continued to harass me, but at least I was distracted by the various signs about the history of the park.  It was interesting to learn that many of the campsites in the state park were places were Native American villages or camping sites were also located.  The park also contains burial or ceremonial mounds that date back to 3000 BC.  The park is filled with archeological sites, including the remnants of settler homesteads.   It was also interesting to learn about the ecological history of the park.  From about 300 BC to the late 1800s, the area was dominated by white pine.   The white pine forests were ended in less than 50 years with the arrival of white settlers and logging companies.  Deeper in history, the park was Oak Savanna, Aspen, and other variations of forests.   The park was at the edge of the glaciers of the last ice age, which carved out the lakes of the area.   Another highlight of the trail was seeing a catbird.  I heard a strange, crying noise from the bushes and spotted the catbird tucked into the foliage.

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  The Rain:

Since my hikes were thwarted by flies, I decided that I would venture out of the park back to the town of Garrison.  It would offer me the opportunity to take some photos of Mille Lacs Lake and explore some landmarks.  This went wonderfully.  I enjoyed the evening taking photos of the lake and watching some purple martins catch insects by a boat landing.  I even saw an immature eagle in a dead tree.  I watched the birds and lake until near sunset. Little did I know, that back in the park, it had rained.  The glossy pavement as I approached the park was a sign of the isolated shower.  I wasn’t worried, as my tent…should be water proof.  This would have been the case but part of the flysheet on the backside of the tent was not pulled down far enough.  Somehow this tiny slit had let a deluge of water into my tent.  I was astonished by the lake that had formed in my tent, soaking my sleeping bag and forming puddles on one side.  Thankfully, I had two emergency blankets in my car.  I was also thankful that I had a spare towel in my car as well.  I sopped up the soggy mess, but was not happy. DSCF7189DSCF7188DSCF7179


I went on to make a fire, where I sat and journaled.  I also spent some time reading various articles on a Marxist critique of Intersectionality.  I will try to write up my thoughts on these articles on a future blog.  Writing and reading restored by sense of peace.  I decided that I would devote several hours to hiking the next day and studied the map to see which trail I would chose.  There was something peaceful and restorative about taking time to delve into those articles.  I stayed up late, took a shower, admired the nearly full moon, then headed into my moist tent.  Yes, it wasn’t perfectly dry.  Sopping up the water had made it moist at best.

 

 


Then I sat there, tossing and turning, bumping elbows with something wet.  I pushed my soggy sleeping bag into the corner.  I stared up at the ceiling of the tent.  It rained again.  Even when it didn’t rain, the forest sounded like 1,000 leaky faucets.  I felt that somehow the moisture outside had penetrated by bones, making me feel chilled and uneasy.  The raindrops continued to pound the tent, drop by slow, torturous drop.  When it became clear that I wasn’t going to sleep, I took a Tylenol PM.  I hate taking these because they have been connected to dementia.  But, they work very well.  I dozed off and slept.  The next morning I continued sleeping.  I slept and slept…and slept some more…missing the opportunity to hike.


When I finally forced myself to get motivated, I decided the adventure was done.  My tent was still wet on the outside.  I packed it up, picking off a few slugs.  I felt wet and dirty putting everything away.  I had a feminist meeting later in the day anyway, so I was okay just leaving the park.  I was disappointed, but there were some highlights.  I enjoyed the fire and my time reading and writing.  I enjoyed my encounters with birds.  I can add purple martin to my life list, as I have not seen one since I started birding about two years ago.  I enjoyed climbing the tower.  So, even though I wasn’t a happy camper, I didn’t regret my mini-adventure.

 

Devouring Dictatorship: Reflections on Privilege and Travel in Ashgabat

Devouring Dictatorship: Reflections on Privilege and Travel in Ashgabat

H. Bradford

7-13-17

I was excited to travel to Turkmenistan.  I had read that there are only 9,000 tourists who visit the country each year.  By comparison, over 100,000 tourists travel to North Korea annually.   Of course, comparisons to North Korea are abundant on travel websites.  The idea of traveling to such a mysterious place filled me with fear and excitement.  I didn’t know what to expect.  Some travel websites warned that tourists had been denied visas upon arrival or faced harassment from the police.  Documentaries about Turkmenistan (from Niyazev’s rule) made it seem like a bizarre country where in women could not wear makeup on television, video games, opera, and the circus were banned, everyone had to get off the streets by 11 pm, and government officials were made to go on grueling marches once a week to ensure their health.  These kinds of stories made me worried that something might go wrong.  I began to feel real anxiety as my trip approached, as I would be spending a few days in Ashgabat alone before joining the group I would be traveling with.   If Ashgabat was truly like Pyongyang, as some websites suggested, it was a worrisome thought.  I was afraid that I might accidentally break a law.  The fear was unfounded.  The visit to Turkmenistan went beautifully.  Still, during my time there, I reflected on my privilege and my desire to see strange places.  Thus, this post is about both my experience in Turkmenistan but also the dark urges and privileges of a tourist.


The unusual nature of Turkmenistan began with my flight.  The flight from Frankfurt to Ashgabat made a stop in Baku.  I had never been on a flight that stopped to let off passengers before.  The plane landed and to my surprise, let off almost all of the passengers on the plane.  When we continued from Baku to Ashgabat, there were probably less than six people on the flight.  All of these six people were foreign tourists.  It was bizarre to be among the few remaining passengers and that all of us were foreign.   Foreign travel is somewhat restricted in Turkmenistan, as in order to travel the country a tourist must have a local guide and a letter of invitation.   However, tourists are able to travel to Ashgabat on their own without a guide.  As for locals, the economy of Turkmenistan is built upon oil and gas.  There is a wide gap between the very few rich and poor, with an unemployment rate of about 60%.   Poverty is almost certainly one of the reasons there was no one from Turkmenistan on my flight.  As for myself, I had a letter of invitation and a local guide accompanied our tour through Turkmenistan.  Thus, I breezed through customs without incident.  However, I arrived late (at midnight) and was one of very few people at the airport.  This meant that my bag was inspected for a long time.  After it was put through the x-ray machine, several workers sifted through my belongings.  They studied each medication, opened them, looked at the contents of each bottle.  They also took special interest in my snacks, making commentary to each other about my belongings.   I suppose they might have been bored.  I think my snacks were probably disappointing.  As for the thorough inspection of my medicine, opiate drugs are banned in the country, even with a prescription so I can only assume they were looking for banned medication.


Once I passed through customs and the baggage inspection, I had a feeling that everything was going to be okay and that I’d worked myself up watching too many documentaries or reading travel horror stories.  I was met by the local tour guide and driven back to the Ak Altyn Hotel.  By then, I was sleepy from my 20+ hours of airports and flights.  So, I barely paid attention to the city.  I dreamily looked back at the airport, a giant white structure shaped like a bird.  I also took note that there were other cars on the road, despite the 11 pm curfew.  I was informed that shops close by 11pm and also warned not to smoke outdoors (as it was illegal…though I don’t smoke anyway), but there were no other immediate signs of dictatorship.


The following day, I decided I would set out by myself and explore the city.  A few other tourists from the group arrived, but I gave them a cold welcome.  I was more interested in my own agenda of seeing the city than getting to know my future travel companions.  So, with a guidebook, map, and to do list, I set out walking.  I decided to walk because the buses seemed confusing (as there was no central map of routes).  It was hot.  I was disoriented at first and spent some time walking the wrong direction.  When I found my bearings, I turned around and set off for the statue of Lenin.  It was located about an hour or so walk from my hotel, provided one does not get turned around.  My walking brought me to a random amusement park with rides, a Japanese garden, and dinosaur statues.  People seemed to be having fun, though each few blocks seemed punctuated by a police officer.   Some meandered through the parks as well.  It seemed that despite the 60% unemployment rate, there was no shortage of police jobs or jobs sweeping or cleaning the many monuments.   Still, the city did not really feel like Pyongyang at all.  The fact that I could travel freely and solo, made it seem very different.  And, after wandering the streets alone for two days, I was only approached once by a police officer.  When it happened, my heart began to race, but…it was only to check the time.


Once I found Lenin, I spent several hours exploring other monuments and parks.  Lenin was only important because of my politics…but also because Turkmenistan has sought to distance itself from its Communist past.  Although Niyazov was a communist leader during the Soviet Union and his party was the reincarnation of the communist party after the Soviet Union collapsed, the iconography of communism as well as remnants of Russian colonization have been dismantled.   The Turkmen script was changed from Cyrillic and statues and images of Marx and Lenin were replaced with the images of Niyazov.  The guiding ideology of the nation was set forth in the Ruknama, a book by Niyazov on the history of the Turkmen people and himself.   Gas revenues were invested into creating a showpiece capital.  Thus, almost all of the buildings in Ashgabat are new and made of Russian and Italian marble.  The city is full of well kept parks and monuments.  It really is unique.  Still, despite the changes, a statue of Lenin remains…not far from the American embassy, in a less visited park.

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I spent the day visiting parks and viewing buildings.  Towards the end of the day, I visited the National Museum of Fine Art.  I was the only tourist in the three story building.  The staff seemed surprised to see me.  This was a common occurrence in Ashgabat.  The museum was filled with interesting Turkmen and Soviet art, such as giant carpets.  There were images of rivers, workers, giant melons, tractors, and happy people with musical instruments.  On the way back to my hotel, I wandered through Inspiration Alley, a park of various statues of Muslim scholars.  They were unfamiliar men, owing to my lack of knowledge of Muslim history.  The history is so foreign to me, it is hard to imagine that Al-Zamakhshari or Abu-Biruni might be household names and that not knowing them would be the same as ignorance of Einstein, Shakespeare, or Newton. Image may contain: sky and outdoor


The following day, I set off to visit the Botanical Garden, as I thought it would provide a nice opportunity to watch birds.  The Botanical Garden was closed.  This is a theme of my life.  When I went to Minsk the garden was closed.  When I went to Bishkek, I also found that the botanical garden was closed.  I feel that I somehow have very bad luck with botanical gardens.  Anyway, I instead visited the Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral.  It was a very hidden and modest orthodox cathedral.  I didn’t stay long as it was hosting a service.  Later I visited a bazaar and did some more walking, revisiting some sites I had seen the other day.   I was approached by two Russian speaking Jehovah’s Witnesses.  I was actually curious to talk to them (for the first time ever), but our conversation was cut short by two police officers and I was quick to walk away.  Jehovah’s Witnesses are illegal in Turkmenistan.  In all, the city is quite large and spread out, so I found it impossible to see some of the major sites by foot.  These had to wait until my tour actually began, as we were promised a sight seeing tour by bus and a night time tour to see the city lights.


The bus tours offered a wide array of strange sights.  We saw the largest indoor Ferris wheel in the world, the Arch of Neutrality, and the largest fountain in the world.  Once again, it is unsettling that the largest fountain in the world is in a country that is 80% desert!  The Ashgabat fountain is guarded by stern statues of the ancestors of the Turks: Orguz Khan and his sons.  We even passed by the Walk of Health, where government workers were expected to trek the 23 mile path through the Kopet Dag mountains once a year.  Perhaps the grand finale of the eccentric was a visit to the Turkmenbashi Mosque.  The mosque holds the remains of Niyazev and his family (his mother and brothers died in the 1948 earthquake that struck the city).  It also features quotes from the Ruhnama on the walls of the mosque and the eight pointed star.  The eight points represent the eight pillars of Islam.  Niyazev added three more pillars to Islam, including reading his book and visiting local holy sites in Turkmenistan.  These revisions were not welcomed by Saudi Arabia and consequently, Wahhabism is also banned in Turkmenistan.  We revisited the city later in the evening, when every building was lit up and the city looked like Las Vegas. Image may contain: 1 person, outdoor


All of this probably sounds pretty astonishing.  I thought it was astonishing.   Although Niyazev is dead and some of his monuments have been shuffled around, the country is still considered one of the most repressive countries in the world (by Human Rights Watch for instance).   Yet, as a tourist, it was…well, fascinating.  My detached position from it all and speaks to my privilege.   I believe that when we travel, we consume the exotic.   In Turkmenistan, it was the experience of dictatorship and the legacy of Niyazev.  If we consume the odd food or threat of danger, we can take on the qualities of the fearless or the bizarre.  Just as the flamingo becomes pink from eating crustaceans and algae, the traveler consumes experiences to become something more colorful.  As travelers, our privilege allows us to migrant from experiences.  We are not mired in the same realities of oppression.  When a tourist goes to jail or becomes very ill, the reality of the world returns.  This painful reality is framed as shocking.  It is framed as a bad travel experience.  Anything that is too real or too inescapable is not travel…it is a crisis or tragedy!  Hence, the case of Otto Warmbier in North Korea or Bakari Henderson, who was recently killed in Greece after taking a selfie…are not viewed as part of the travel spectrum.  Travel should be cushioned from the world’s harshest realities.

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Perhaps the exotic should be made normal.  In Turkmenistan, it may seem exotic that drivers are fined for having dirty cars.  But, are our own laws any more rational?  The fundamental assumption behind both is that laws exist and breaking them results in state administered punishment.  An alien might find little difference between the marbled fantasy land of Ashgabat and the red carpet of Hollywood or neon glow of Las Vegas.  One was built as a dictator’s legacy, the others built upon a similar fantasy of wealth and beauty.   The weird mosque of Turkmenbashi is only unusual because “legitimate” religion must be at least a few hundred years old.  But, these too were created by individuals and interpreted by other individuals until they were made normal by legitimizing power structures.  The excess seen in Ashgabat…with giant fountains and white marble statue are no more heinous than the same excess that is commonplace in advanced capitalist countries.  What about our giant malls, thousands of Walmarts and McDonald’s, and mountains of garbage?  Turkmenistan is a country smaller than Spain with a GDP that is smaller than Croatia’s, Lithuania’s, Kenya’s, and well….87 other countries and a population of less than five million.  Surely, even with its excess…the country has an ecological foot print far less than much of the world. Image may contain: sky


At the same time, differences do exist.  We are not all perfectly the same.  To glaze over difference by normalizing the strange, fails to recognize the social conditions which brought about a particular set of traits.  It is terrible that so much gas wealth was put into building the show case capital than building schools, hospitals, or housing.  It is also unfortunate that wealth and power in the country is concentrated into the hands of so few.  As for the social conditions that brought about Niyazev’s dictatorship, that is a long complicated story that I don’t have the time or knowledge to answer.   The political/economic development of the country…and the very existence of the country itself as a unique entity with a unified identity is a Soviet construction.  But, even this construction is a dialectical process as it was constructed in a world at odds with the Soviet Union.  Prior to this, its development was shaped by Russian imperialism- and that itself was shaped in reaction to British imperialism.  There are always bigger forces at play.  No dictatorship exists in a vacuum.

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Returning to privilege, to some degree, all travelers must exist in the fantasy land of their own ego.  My ego is hungry for experiences.  This is in part so I can patch together an identity that is not a disappointment to myself.  An identity that siphons as much living out of the world as possible.  The truth is, I am not wealthy and free.  I am oppressed.  I am a worker.  I will live and die like a billion humans whose stories will fade into the blurry memories of a few close friends or family members- before disappearing entirely.  In the grand scheme of things, I am not even here.  I never existed.  My importance is so minuscule, that for all practical purposes I am already dead.  Isn’t this the epitome of privilege?  Exerting what little power and freedom I have for the purpose of living selfishly?  The rest of the world be damned.  This is something all travelers do.  Many loath to return to work.  The most privileged don’t have to.  So, while we are privileged enough to enjoy some ego driven escapism, what are we escaping from?  For me, the gravity of wage slavery will always draw me back home.  Thus, I think my travels are fueled by escapism, ego, and existential crisis.  It is a combination that makes it hard for me to be perfectly mindful of my impact on the world and in this case, the wanton consumption of dictatorship.


So here I am.  Chronos eats its children.  Every human eats its reality when it becomes aware of its existential crisis.  Yet, we don’t all have the power and privilege to be titans.  Every titanic consumer is a blight on the environment, the lives of others, and the world around them.  There are moments when I am a titan.  But, usually I am just a proletarian.  I don’t know how to remedy this contradiction.  I love to travel.  I love a chance to get away.  When I am at home, I work very hard as an activist, worker, and human being.  I try to be engaged and mindful.  Then, when opportunity permits, I escape for a bit and consume piece of the world in the form of leisure and a particular form of selfish living.  I am hungry for the darkest, strangest bits.  Dictatorships, nuclear accidents, and spectacular tragedies.  Maybe there is a little cult of personality in each of us.

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Asleep on the Deserted Sea

Asleep on the Deserted Sea

H. Bradford

7/1/17

One of the draws of travel to Central Asia was the opportunity to visit where the Aral Sea once was.  I learned about the Aral Sea eons ago.  It was one of the few things I remember reading in my “Weekly Reader” as a first or second grader.  I am sure that I have learned about the Aral Sea in every environmentally focused science class since.  Decades have passed since the sunny autumn days at Wright Elementary School, but the sea continues to disappear.   I believe that the sea was about 40% of its original volume when I was in the first grade.  Today it is less than 10% of its original volume.   I was told by a fellow traveler that the sea continues to shrink by a yard each day.   Really, it is sad to think about the death of a sea.  Living next to Lake Superior (the second largest lake in the world by area to the Caspian Sea), it is hard to imagine a giant body of water just disappearing.   It would be as if in a few decades, someone from Duluth would have to drive to Marquette, Michigan to see the shoreline of Lake Superior.   While I did not spend a long time visiting what was once the Aral Sea, the sea shaped several days of my trip.

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My trip began in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, a city lush with trees and fountains.  The many fountains and white marble create the illusion of serenity and coolness in the midst of the punishing heat of the Karakum Desert.  The miracle of endless water for fountains, well watered trees, and shiny clean cars and buildings is made possible by the Karakum Canal.  The 850 mile canal was built by the Soviet Union to divert water from the Amu Darya River to the hungry fields and cities of Turkmenistan.   Apparently 50% of the water the passes through the canal vanishes to evaporation.  Still, the canal is large enough to be navigated by boat for most of its length.  Ashgabat requires its own blog post, but suffice to say that my journey to the Aral Sea began with a visit to a water hungry and water wasteful city in the desert.  The city served as a brush stroke in the painting of a vanished sea.

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Between Ashgabat and Uzbekistan, there was little water at all, spare a salty lake en route to the Darvaza Gas crater.   However, as we neared the border with Uzbekistan, the landscape began to change.  The sandy, white blonde desert morphed into a less arid desert made of sage scrub.  This gave way to fields and trees along the legendary Amu Darya River.  Beyond this, hours along bumpy roads brought us closer to the sea itself, or where the sea once was.  We stopped at Moynaq, which was once a fishing town on the Aral Sea.  The fishing and canning industry in Moynaq employed over 30,000 people at its peak.  Art at the Savitsky Museum in Nuukus depicted various scenes of Moynaq in its heyday.  Paintings of fishermen, burgeoning nets of fish, and pastel sunrises over the pier decorated the walls of the museum.   However, when I visited, the town seemed small and empty, with just a few thousand residents remaining.   There was nothing pretty, pastel, or burgeoning about Moynaq.  The city reportedly has high rates of cancer and respiratory disease from the polluted remains of the sea and all of the chemicals used to grow cotton and other things.  None of this was apparent from a brief visit.  The people did not roam about like zombies, but carried on like any other village or town we had visited.  My traveling companions munched on five cent ice cream bars from a shop with a hodgepodge of supplies.  We’d intended to visit a museum to the Aral Sea, but much like the sea and most of the people, the museum was gone when we arrived.

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At first I was disappointed, as I didn’t see any sign of the sea or anything unusual in the dusty town.  However, once we boarded the truck, we set off for a memorial to the sea and the sea bed itself.   Just up the road we came upon an expansive basin- an empty bowl of sand and brush that extended to the horizon.  It was a dramatic crater that spread over 200 kilometers to meet the muddy shoreline of the shrinking sea.  The rusty wrecks of ships dotted the landscape.   Cows trod along, stomping over grass, sand, and broken seashells.  When I finally saw it, I was impressed by the astonishing melancholy it invoked.  After somehow negotiating with the local police, we managed to camp in the ship graveyard.  This did not prevent the fire department from paying us a visit to check on our campfire.  Otherwise, the camping was without incident, spare the swarms of mosquitoes.  Camping in the sea bed was certainly surreal.  In an alternative history, it might have been a beach resort and in the near history, it was a way of life.  I couldn’t help but feel angry.  It has to be the worst thing that humans have done to the planet.  At the same time, it is a cautionary tale of what could happen if climate change is not stopped.  We will see the Aralization of the planet.

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Seeing the Aral Sea certainly made me angry at the Soviet Union for prioritizing cotton production over the environment.  Of course, it also made me angry at the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia for continuing to grow cotton…(and now rice!) at the expense of the sea.  It is a tragic loss for the planet.  The sea is only 24,000 years old, young in geological time, but it vanished in less than 50 years.  Of course, it is easy to blame the Soviet Union and post-Soviet countries.  Since I have no control over history and these countries are impoverished, it is hard to blame them for continuing what is cheap, easy, and provides income.  Thus, it raises the question of what I can do as an American.  Really, there is precious little I can do for the Aral Sea.  However, rather than blaming the Soviet Union or Central Asian countries, it is more useful to draw lessons from the Aral Sea which can be extended to current water use practices in the United States.   For instance, aquifers in the United States have been depleted by about 25% over the last century.   56,900 million gallons of water are used each day in the United States for irrigation.  32% of the depletion (over the last century) of the Ogallala Aquifer in particular occurred between 2001-2008.   Someday, we might look upon the loss of the Ogallala Aquifer as a tragedy like the Aral Sea…something entirely preventable, wasteful, and irreplaceable.   Corn (and beef fed by corn) could easily be our cotton, something that future generations will look upon as wasteful and too thirsty for the landscape.  The truth of the matter is that all countries pursue easy profits over environmental sustainability.  It is the nature of the system and dooms us to environmental catastrophe and economic instability.   One of the greatest ecological mistakes seems to be the assumption that resources are endless.  While we are drowsy, we consume too much water, too much oil, too many passenger pigeons or Greak auks.  So, while the Aral Sea is particularly sad, it should be a wake up call to continue to organize.

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The Politics of Travel to North Korea

The Politics of Travel to North Korea

H. Bradford

6/29/17

I was recently on a vacation.  During this time, I avoided social media and the internet in general.  I wanted a break from my life.  So, I didn’t get much news while I was away.  The only piece of news that I heard about while I was gone was that Otto Warmbier was returned to the United States in a vegetative state.  I didn’t even know that he had died until after I returned.  This news haunted me.  It was horrific and mysterious.  What happened to him?  Why hadn’t he been released sooner?  Would he recover?  In a way, I became haunted by the fragments of the news story.  At the same time, now that I have returned, I have been able to read the news regarding his release and death as well as how it has been politicized.


I traveled to North Korea in 2010 without incident.  I was impressed with how clean the country was and how the sky was blue and free of air pollution (at least in places that I visited).  The roads were empty.  The country seemed empty.  I was there for over a week and saw many monuments, the mass games, Kaesong, the USS Pueblo, the DMZ, etc.  It was a memorable, amazing time in a very unusual and misunderstood country.  I felt extremely safe the entire time.  Of course, it was an enormous privilege to travel there, just as all of my travels are an astonishing exercise of privilege.  2010 was the first year that Americans were allowed to travel to North Korea year round.  I felt privileged to go there just as the doors to tourism were expanding for Americans.  I also felt that as an American, I could break some stereotypes about us.  After all, I am anti-war and anti-capitalist….anti-American.  When North Koreans learned that I was American, they seemed shocked, curious, and confused.  I sang The International on the bus with the guides.  The other tourists treated me like I was one of “them” (a communist), even though there is a enormous political difference between North Koreans and myself, a Trotskyist.   Nevertheless, I wanted to see what North Korea was like.   After studying in South Korea, I wanted to see the other side of the story.   I am eager to visit any country that has experimented with/experienced socialism in one form or another. No automatic alt text available.


Otto Warmbier traveled to North Korea as well, but with a much different outcome.  We were both similar in that he probably also went there out of curiosity, a sense of adventure, and bragging rights.  Though, unlike me, he was not anti-capitalist or anti-American.   He wanted to be an investment banker, was a Zionist, and was athletic and popular.  I am a tee-totaling, socially awkward, socialist.  He and his tour group went drinking and celebrating the New Year.  One member of his group even went missing for several hours.  I would have spent the New Year quietly reading or journaling.  He took a sign and was detained on his way out of the country.  I left without any incident or perception of danger.  Although I was very careful to follow the rules, it might have happened to anyone.  And, even if he did make a mistake by taking the poster, the punishment of 15 years of hard labor and his ultimate death is grotesquely unjust and deeply disturbing.  I feel terrible for him and his family!  I feel horrified by the mysterious circumstances of his death.


His death has resulted in some controversy and debate.  On one hand, the Left has been accused of hating Otto Warmbier for questioning his privilege and treating him like an ignorant, white, frat boy.   Interestingly, his career goals in investment banking and Zionism has not been as central to criticisms about him.   It is frustrating that so much discourse is focused on privilege, but does not connect this to the larger mechanisms of capitalist exploitation.  At the extreme of the privilege discourse, he is believed to have gotten what he deserved.  Those words cost Katherine Dettwyler, a professor at the University of Delaware, future employment with the college.  While it is not a kind thing to say, it is disappointing that the college did not honor academic freedom.  Personally, I don’t think that anyone deserves to come home in a vegetative state or get sentenced to hard labor for any offense.  Surely, there are more compassionate ways to express frustration with racial and class privilege.  But, at the same time, oppression is real and does not express itself with kind words.  We live in a brutal, violent, frightening, world wherein the majority of humanity has been immiserated by systems that grant power to a few.  For most humans today and throughout history, life is not a hedonistic quest of self-actualization but a struggle to meet basic needs.   Unfortunately, travelers such as myself,  are looking for a distraction, indulgence, or adventure.  The cost and context of this is often ignored.  Even to those who might be a bit more socially minded, must compartmentalize any modicum of pleasure derived from travel as it most surely has negative impacts either on the planet or other humans.   In any event, there should be the social space to speak freely about privilege, even if it is expressed in unpretty ways.


On the other hand, the right has called for banning American travel to North Korea and some kind of action against the country.  In this narrative, the Trump administration is viewed heroically for securing his release and taking more initiative on the matter than the Obama administration.   Americans should avoid North Korea because we are hated there.  This narrative portrays North Korea as a brutal, horrific pariah state which deserves a dose of American retribution (a.k.a regime change, liberation, etc.).   While certainly North Korea is a frightening dictatorship, this narrative does not uncover why we are disliked and feared by North Koreans.  It ignores the fact that during the Korean War, the United States killed 20% of the population.  The United States targeted refugee populations during the war and General McArthur ordered the destruction of every village, means of communication, factory, and city in the north.   Long before the famous famines that North Korea faced in the 1990s, the United States starved the country by flooding farmlands through destroyed dams.   The United States dropped more bombs on North Korea during the Korean war than it dropped in the entire Asian theater of World War II.  The country was punished with bombs and napalm in a destruction more complete than Germany and Japan faced as a result of WWII.  So, North Korea does have rational reasons to dislike the United States.  Our foreign policy since the Korean War has not done much to dispel the notion that we are not a peace loving nation.

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This raises the question of if Americans should travel there at all?  Assuming that one believes in travel, I don’t think that Americans should impose a ban on travel to North Korea.  Each year, around 6,000 Western tourists travel to North Korea, but around 100,000 in total (mostly from China).  For the most part, these tourists, like myself, travel there without incident.  While Americans have been detained in the past, this has typically been for religious activity or illegal entry into the country.   Of course, our own foreign policy plays a role in the safety of travelers there (just as it plays a role in the safety of travelers to many countries).  Our foreign policy regarding North Korea seems particularly aggressive at the moment.   I have no illusions that somehow travel opens minds or spreads peace.  Travel can be colonizing and damaging to the planet.  So, I don’t believe that travel will somehow liberate North Korea by introducing new ideas or new people, nor should it.  Yet, at the same time, I think it can be useful in seeing The Other and learning something new, even if it is skewed by minders and propaganda.  In a way, it also normalizes North Korea.  Normalizing North Korea is useful in creating an anti-war movement that can stand against U.S. foreign policy.  This isn’t to argue that human rights abuses should be normalized, but rather that U.S. aggression against sovereign countries should not be normalized.  Recognizing the right of other countries to exist is important to thinking against the norms of U.S. imperialism.  Of course, a person does not have to travel to North Korea to come to that conclusion.  A travel ban distracts from the “why” of U.S. and North Korean relations.  All travel involves some risks.  A traveler should consider these risks, of course.  A dark skinned traveler to the United States could be shot by the police.  An American traveler to North Korea could be detained for political reasons.  While there are plenty of compelling reasons not to travel at all, travel is a part of normal relations between countries.  If the government is concerned about the safety of Americans, our safety is best ensured by scaling back our military power around the world. No automatic alt text available.


The death of Otto Warmbier is terrifying.  I hope that someday there are more answers regarding what happened to him.   I don’t think that he deserved to die any more than a woman who drinks too much deserves to be raped.  The world is made unsafe by many things.  Crimes such as theft, sexual assault, gun violence, etc.  Preventable disease.  Terrorism.  And, in Otto’s case, detainment by a repressive regime.  Yet, all of these things…sexual assault, terrorism, preventable disease, etc. have causes and solutions.  While the solution for North Korea is complicated and not something that the United States can or should solve, admitting our own role in history as well as the political landscape of the present is important to understanding why Otto Warmbier died.

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A Little Solo Camping

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A Little Solo Camping

H. Bradford

5/21/17

I was feeling a little stressed out last week, so I decided that I was going to go camping.  The stress stemmed from the fact that I felt that my plate was a little full.  I sometimes put in a little too much effort into some activist activities.  For instance, I devoted more time than I should have to researching pollinators and Frida Kahlo for recent presentations.  While these papers were for informal settings with friends, it made my week feel a little like finals week!  I needed a little break, so I set off on a solo camping adventure.  Honestly, I have never gone camping alone before.  Really, until just last year, I had never even gone camping before.  My first real camping experience was my trip to Africa last summer.  I will be camping again this June in Central Asia.  Go big or go home, I guess?  Local adventures are also fun (and cheaper).  For a small dose of adventure, I checked the Minnesota State Park’s website and decided to go camping at Wild River State Park because the park was hosting two birding hikes in celebration of International Migratory Bird Day.


Wild River State Park is located about fourteen miles east of North Branch, MN on the St. Croix River.  I don’t recall visiting the park before, but I may have visited it while I lived in Cambridge, MN as a teen.  It was about a two and a half hour drive from Duluth.  I left on Friday at around noon and arrived by the late afternoon.  I stopped for lunch along the way and also picked up some DNR approved firewood outside of the park.  I had reserved a campsite that was several sites away from other reservations, as I wanted to be alone.  Upon arrival, I checked in, set-up my tent, and read a little from the Frida Kahlo biography.  The campsite was fairly busy, with many of the sites reserved.  I was a little surprised to see so many massive RVs, complete with trucks, bicycles, grills, and scampering hordes children.  From six to nine pm, each of the campsites seemed to be a Thanksgiving feast of grilled foods.  The campground itself was a little too chaotic to be relaxing.  I walked around a little to orient myself, then hiked for the next three to four hours along the various trails near the campsite.   Thankfully, the trails were quiet.  I only saw a handful of hikers once I was away from the campground.  I was immediately struck by the bountiful birdlife.  The forest was alive with the sounds of numerous birds, which flitted by with frustrating speed.  I noticed several bluebirds and a rose-breasted grosbeak during my hike.  I also heard an owl later on, but could not identify it.  Another highlight was a pair of noisy ravens.  Beyond the birds, the forest was teeming with trilliums and other wildflowers.  Since it was warmer than in Duluth, the season was further along, with more flowers and foliage than in the north. DSCF6175 I wore myself out with walking and settled back down at my campsite.  I build a fire, but didn’t actually pack any foods for cooking as I was only going to be gone for less than 24 hours.  Instead, I nibbled on the snacks that I had packed while watching the fire and listening to the sounds of the forest.  It was very calming and empowering, since it provided me mental space from the daily demands of work and activism.  It was empowering in that I felt proud of myself for hiking alone, driving there myself, setting up the tent and fire, and entertaining myself with my own company.  The only downside was that it would have been nice to pack a lamp or candle so that I could have written in my journal after sunset.  I also forgot to pack extra batteries.  I also managed to forget to pack my glasses and a pair of flipflops.  My headlamp went dead and it made using the restroom difficult.  Despite these shortfalls in my planning, I enjoyed staring at the fire and remained with it until it died.  I then retreated to my tent for sleep.  Even after using the bathroom twice before bedtime, I inevitably awoke in the middle of the night to contemplate answering nature’s call or trying to wait until morning. DSCF6192 DSCF6208 My sleep was uneasy.  I certainly felt worn out, but I tossed and turned.  My mind was full of thoughts and ideas.  I was also excited about my mini adventure.   I am not sure how many hours of sleep I managed to obtain.  By five in the morning, the birds were singing in full force, so I abandoned my efforts at sleeping.  I woke up early, packed up all of my things, and nibbled on granola while studying bird books.  I found a used book on warblers of the Midwest from the Superior Public Library book sale.  At about seven in the morning, I left the campsite for the boat landing on the St. Croix river, where a bird walk was scheduled.  I was the first birder to arrive.  Two seasoned birders began their work listening for songs and scanning the treetops.  They adeptly identified birds by their songs and picked them out even as they zipped through the sky.  I was not very skilled at identification, but at least saw some familiar birds and took notes on what the others saw and heard.  I am not sure how every birder I meet is so skilled.  There must be beginners like me.  It takes years of studying to identify birds.  Where are all of the novices?

(Some of the photos are blurry, but it should depict a Scarlet tanager, black and white warbler, American red start, yellow rumped warbler, and Eastern bluebird) Once more birders arrived, we hiked around for two hours.  The goal was to record all of the species of birds we saw that morning so that the data could be compared to other International Birding Day counts at the park.  There were bluebirds and Baltimore orioles.  We saw tree swallows living in bluebird houses.  A female wood duck flew overhead.  An Eastern kingbird showed off the white markings on its tail feathers.  A few house wrens had taken up residence in some ramshackle abandoned bird houses.  We also saw many warblers, including a blue winged warbler, yellow warbler, golden winged warbler, palm warbler, black and white warbler, and American redstart.  The warblers were quick and kept to the top of the trees.  A flash of yellow would sail by overhead and everyone immediately knew what it was.  Faint chirps were also readily identified.  I stood there, stupefied by the variety of quick moving, similar looking, yellow birds.  Since this hike, I have gone out birding around Duluth and Superior and managed to identify some more warblers.  Maybe someday I will know them as well as the other birders.  In all, I wrote down over twenty birds that were new to my life list.  The group counted over fifty birds for the total species count.


Following the count, I decided to go on a final hike.  I drove to the visitor’s center, where a scarlet tanager was hanging out in a treetop.  An ovenbird sang in the distance.  The visitor’s center was soon visited by a young black bear.  I wandered along a trail for a short final hike.  Along the hike, I saw several more scarlet tanagers and Baltimore orioles.  I also saw a yellow bellied sapsucker and a group of cowbirds.  With the final hike out of the way, I set off for the two hour drive home.  But, the birding adventures had helped me with my bird identification skills.  For the past several evenings since then, I have tried to memorize bird songs.  Auditory bird identification is not a skill that I have spent any time developing and I can see how useful it is.

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Learning to identify birds is challenging.  There is a lot of information that one has to gather in a short amount of time.  Birds are very quick, so size, color, beak shape, flight pattern, song, behaviors, etc. are some of the data that one must collect within a few seconds.  The reward is a better understanding of the inhabitants of the natural world and a keener eye for the hidden details around us (at least in regard to birds).  Another bonus is the ability to add a bird to a life list.  I like lists.  They make me feel accomplished, since it allows me to quantify and organize some aspect of my reality.     Even camping adds to my lists, as it added to my list of state parks I have visited.  More than an odd obsession with quantifying my life, camping offered quietude and self-efficacy.    It also offered a relatively low cost sample of adventure.

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Travel and My Fears

 

Travel and My Fears

H. Bradford

5/21/17

I am getting ready for another trip and I feel a little afraid.  This time, I am traveling to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan for three weeks.  Like always, I will go alone, though I will meet up with a group of strangers after a few days in Ashgabat.  From there, we will embark on an overland camping trip through the stans.  When I first fantasized about the trip, I imagined the wonder of seeing the dehydrated remains of the Aral Sea.  I imagined myself following the Silk Road through ancient, exotic cities.  I would traverse the rugged formerly Soviet states, admiring mosques, monuments, and a few remaining statues of Lenin.  It seemed very intrepid.  All winter, the trip was abstract.  I read books about the history of the region.  But, now that the trip is less than two weeks away, a new reality is setting in.  I am going to have to bush camp in the desert with scorpions, cobras, and several days without a shower.  I am going to have to navigate Ashgabat alone as a solo female American traveler.  Turkmenistan gets a fraction of the tourists that North Korea gets each year (about 9,000 compared to 35,000).  I am also moderately terrified of contracting dysentery, typhus, or any number of food or waterborne diseases.  (I do have some antibiotics from last year’s trip and was vaccinated last year against a variety of illnesses).   Also, ATM use in those countries is unreliable, so, I will have to carry a lot of cash and hope it is enough for the duration of my trip…and that I don’t lose it or have it stolen.  Internet is somewhat patchy in those countries and my cellphone does not work out of the country.  I have faced that same dilemmas before and fared alright, but, it does make me a little worried.

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The Darvaza gas crater in the Karakum desert- one of the places where I will be “bush camping” in just over two weeks from now.


Fear is not new.  I’ve always been afraid of travel.  Usually, there is this brave person inside of me, who is full of fantasy and confidence.  That person decides on some adventure, which looks great as a portrait in my imagination, but is not as fun as a lived reality.  Let’s call that person “Brave H.” For instance, when I was 19 years old, I decided that I would go to London and Paris alone.  I came from a town of 250 people and had never been on an airplane or road in a taxi.  Go big or go home, Brave H. says…until I am actually trying to figure out how airports work, on my first plane ride, and going across the ocean.  In retrospect, it is really no big deal.  That sort of travel seems easy.  But, to 19 year old me, that was a pretty big deal.  Over fifty countries later, I am still afraid, but the fear changes with new challenges.


Last year, I went to Southern Africa for an overland camping trip in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe.  As the plane took off, I was pretty terrified.  I was terrified before then.  I had never actually gone camping, but somehow Brave H. signed me up for three weeks of it…in Africa.  I was afraid of being alone.  I was afraid of being the victim of crime- sexual assault in particular.  I was afraid of becoming very ill.  I was afraid that I was not up to the challenge of camping or the long days on bumpy roads.  I was a little afraid of insects, snakes, and animals.  Somehow, it wasn’t as bad as I feared. In fact, it was wonderful, fun, and even much easier than I imagined.  It took a few days of camping to come to the conclusion that I was going to make it.  Any small hardship was more than compensated for in the form of astonishing landscapes and animals.

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(A view of Victoria Falls from a helicopter.  I had a lot of anxiety as I had never been in a helicopter before.  But, overcoming fear and anxiety does have its rewards).

I was afraid the year before when Brave H. decided it was a good idea to visit Belarus and Ukraine, entirely alone.  After all, Brave H. wanted to see Chernobyl.  Brave H. wanted to visit a nature reserve outside of Minsk and partake in the weird splendor of the Cold War remnant.  So, that is where I went.  I don’t regret it.  Kiev was really beautiful and there was so much to see.  Minsk was not really pretty at all, but unique.  Neither place was teeming with tourists, adding a sense of bravery to my adventure.  I only spent a few days in each place.  I think that traveling often has waves of fear.  For instance, there is the anxiety of getting from the airport to the hotel without being ripped off or taken advantage of by a taxi driver.  Upon arriving at the hotel, there is elation after overcoming the first challenge.  After that, there are anxieties around finding a currency exchange, navigating the metro system, walking alone in the park, the other individuals staying in the hostel, the mysterious military parade, getting turned around, trying to find the monument to Baba Yar, etc.  It is like this on every adventure.  The ups and downs of figuring things out and staying safe in unfamiliar places.

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I have felt at least a little afraid during each of my trips.  I don’t particularly like being afraid, but I do like the feeling of accomplishment from figuring something out or successfully completing a task or adventure.  I suppose it makes me feel stronger and braver.  Of course, this only serves to inspire Brave H.to dream up bigger adventures and greater challenges.  I am not a robust, energetic, extroverted adventurer.  I am cowardly.  I like books and birds.  I enjoy museums and botanical gardens. I don’t really care for being dirty, lonely, terrified, tired, or sick.  Brave H. won’t stand for that.  Nope.  Life is too short.  I want to see interesting things and test myself.  Granted, there are people who test themselves far more.  For instance, there was a woman in her 60s on my last trip who went scuba diving with alligators in the Zambezi river.  Brave H. wants to be her.   Normal, nerdy, cowardly H. does not like water or all the pressure from being under water.  The same woman climbed mountains and scuba dived all over the world.  She also traveled to the “Stans” for an overland trip.  I will never be one of those amazing adventurers that I meet when I am out traveling.  The ones who inspire Brave H. to concoct an adventure or dream of new challenges.  I will always be afraid.  As I test myself, the boundaries of the fear extends to the next horizon.  I hope that horizon takes me to interesting places.  Maybe I will trek up mountains (at least smaller ones that don’t require actual climbing gear).  Maybe I will learn to scuba dive.  Maybe I will never do those things.  Maybe there is a limit to how far the boundary can be pushed.  It may be limited by experiencing disease or a discomfort so great that it pushes me back into my comfort zone.  Whatever happens, it is my hope that I can one day be that old lady who inspires others with her fearlessness and zeal for life.

dscf4256Brave H. thinks she is a bad ass.   Well, maybe someday it will be true.

Orniscaching?: Birding and Geocaching

 

Orniscaching?: Birding and Geocaching

H. Bradford

4/17/17

This weekend I went on a Feminist Frolic and tried geocaching for the first time.  I downloaded an app to my phone and found one awesome, mushroom shaped cache with our group.  The event was a Cache in Trash out event, so we also collected some garbage from the park as part of the adventure.  It was a fun time.  Although it seems that there is a lot of jargon and rules regarding geocaching, I am eager to continue with this new found hobby.  I think that the best thing about this activity is that it involves spending time outdoors while investigating nature for a hidden world of secret treasures.  I was surprised to see how many caches appeared on the map of Superior.  To think that all this time there have been hidden items all around me!  I also like the collective and individual nature of the activity.   Geocaching creates a sense of community, since many people have visited the same site in pursuit of the same time.  The community is evident by the logbook and online logs about the site.  The activity also builds community since it can be done in groups and appeals to all ages.  As for the individual aspect, it can also be done solo, as I did today.  So, it can feel like an individual quest to follow in the path of many others to a common destination.


After trying the activity for the first time on Saturday, I decided that I would head out on a birding + geocaching adventure.   Adam decided that he was interested in coming along, so we headed to Cloverland, WI to the Roy Johnson Wetlands.  I also wanted to visit the Davidson Windmill to try to find a cache.  So, we set out on an adventure to the rural areas outside of Superior.


Early on, I became quite frustrated.  I soon learned that it is very hard to operate a car, a camera, and the geocaching app on my phone.  I also learned that there is very spotty cellphone reception in that area.   I hadn’t downloaded the maps for geocaching which made this aspect of the adventure impossible.  I was angry at myself, since I wanted to try out my new activity.  I also became angry because I saw various hawks on wires and flying over the farmland.  However, they either flew away before I could identify them or I was unable to stop.  Adam wasn’t keen on the slow driving and stop and go, as he wanted to head to Cloverland.  I was unhappy with trying to juggle driving, birding, and caching.   In any event, I passed up several birds on the way to the Windmill.  Thankfully, my phone sort of worked at the Windmill, but after milling about for 20 minutes, I failed to find the cache.  This was a very bad start to our journey and heralded the end of my attempt to geocache.  Instead, I would focus on birds.


We traveled to Cloverland and went on a short hike, but didn’t spot any birds.  We continued down a dirt road past an old barn, where Adam said he’d seen an owl in the past.  Adam spotted a dark, moving object in a tree near the barn.  This was hopeful!  However, it turned out to be a porcupine.  The porcupine lifted my spirits a bit, and we continued onward.  Our drive did not yield any unusual birds, but we pushed on towards the Roy Johnson Wetlands.


Not far from the wetlands was a trail or narrow road, which ascended a muddy hill.  We hiked up the hill and our luck with birding changed.   The top of the hill featured a small pond with a nesting goose.  The road was flanked by scraggy bushes, where small birds flitted back and forth.  They were too quick for me, but I managed to photograph a robin and a dark eyed junco.  By then, the sun was setting, so our time was limited.  A large hawk flew by, keeping low to the ground as it hugged the curves of the marshy landscape.  I captured a blurry photo of what appeared to be a light gray hawk with a white underside.  I believe that it was a Northern Harrier hawk.  Finally, as we continued a little further down the trail I spotted what looked like a chickadee with a yellow bottom!  Of course, this little bird did not turn around, so I had a hard time determining what it was.  My best guess is that it was a yellow-rumped warbler.   Spotting these two birds redeemed the adventure, though by then I was already over my earlier frustration over my lack of organization and inability to juggle my activities.  I decided that I would try geocaching + birding the next day!

Today, I woke up and realized it was cold and windy out.  This put a damper on my outdoor adventures until the late afternoon.  Once the sun peeked out and the wind seemed less intimidating, I hurried to Park Point…determined to make geocaching and birding work.  I set out alone and on foot, which is the key to balancing these two hobbies.   It also helped that I had cellphone reception.  With my bird books, camera, and phone, I started hiking!  The hike was pleasant and birds were plentiful.  Several birds of prey flew overhead.  However, they were too fast for me to identify.  One was quite large with dark banding under the wings.  I am new at identifying birds, so this usually involves photographing birds and then comparing them to the bird guides.  I admired the birds as they passed by, then continued into the woods.  I spotted a red-breasted nuthatch and then a quick moving bird that bounced from branch to branch and tree to tree.   I spent quite a while observing it, trying to photograph it and commit its features to memory.  The bird had a bright yellow crown and solid white or gray stomach.  Its eyes were masked with a black stripe.  I assumed that it might be some kind of warbler.  There are numerous warblers and I don’t really know how to identify any of them.  However, using the bird guide, it seems that the bird most closely resembled a golden-crowned kinglet.

Near where I spotted the golden-crowned kinglet was a cache.  I looked around, but did not find it.  However, there were several more up the trail, so I continued.  Along the way, I found two caches.  This was great!  But, I failed to find a third cache further up the trail.  As I had a meeting at 5:30 pm, I hurried along, trying to find one more cache before I had to turn around.  I managed to find one more, but failed to find one more for lack of time.  With that, I turned around and hurried back to my car.  The hike back yielded two more birds of prey.  One of them had distinct black wing tips on its underside and a head that was darker gray than the rest of its body.  Its underside appeared to be lightly barred.  I was confused, but I think it may have been another Northern harrier hawk.   Finally, I saw one last bird of prey at the top of a conifer.  It was smaller than the others and of course, hard to see.  I moved around to try to view it from different angles.  It may have been a female merlin, but I can’t know for sure.  I also spotted a common merganser.

Prior to Saturday, I did a little birding at WI Point and Loon’s Foot landing.  Many of the ducks I had seen in the previous weeks have seemingly moved along.  I did capture a picture of a female cardinal though.


In all, it seems that geocaching and birding compliment each other.  In both activities, I am searching for something.  Both have highs and lows.  It is certainly disappointing to miss a cache.  It is also frustrating when I struggle to identify birds as they are too quick or I am just not skilled enough.  However, these struggles make identifying a new bird or finding a cache all the more exciting!    I know that some people do both activities at the same time, but oddly, there is no name for it (that I saw online anyway!).  Since geocaching seems to have developed its own language, I think I will call it orniscaching!

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12 Things I did for My Birthday: 2017

 

 

12 Things I did for My Birthday: 2017

H. Bradford

2/12/2017

   Today is my birthday, which is normally a pretty big deal.  However, I have been very busy lately.  As such, celebrating my birthday feels a little more like a chore this year.  It is just one more thing to add to my “to do” list.  Yet, I really want to push myself to celebrate.  I feel that I have been in a black hole of work and activism, so taking time to celebrate is a very important “to do” list for the month of February.   With that said, here are some of the things that I did this weekend for my birthday.  Of course, my birthday celebrations usually last the entire month of February, so this is just a sample of what the month has in store for me.  Why bother?  Well, I happen to like being alive.  I won’t always be alive…so I best enjoy it while I can!  I won’t lie, this year’s birthday weekend was a little less fabulous than most years.  But, I did my best to make the most of it.

1. Worked:

Ten hours of my birthday consisted of working.  This isn’t the most fun way to spend a birthday.    Work has been a little stressful this weekend.  I can’t go into details, but I work at a domestic violence shelter and things can get a little stressful at work.  So, yep, there you go, I spent a good portion of my birthday working.

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2. Felt Sick to my Stomach

I worked on Saturday night, but felt sort of bloated and gross.  My stomach discomfort continued on Sunday.  I could not sleep well.  The howling wind outside of my window and my heavy stomach kept me awake.  I could hear the crows cawing in the creaking trees outside.  I even had a dream that there was a giant crow in my bedroom window.  In the dream, I debated if it was a crow or a raven.  The thicker beak and wedge shaped tale told my dream brain that it was actually a raven.   In any event, I had planned on going to a Darwin Day celebration hosted by the Lake Superior Freethinkers.  That was supposed to be the highlight of my actual birthday.  However, my stomach felt unhappy, so I decided to stay in bed.  I actually called in sick to work because I felt that if I moved around too much, I might become sicker.  I try not to call in sick, but I figured that I didn’t have to push myself through a shift on my birthday.   Thus, aside from working, I spent a good portion of my birthday in bed.  Thankfully, my stomach eventually felt less icky (after 12 hours in bed).

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“Caw, caw, wake up!  Wake up!  Will you throw up?  Is it just diarrhea? Caw, caw!”


 

3. Drank Tea:

Wow, who would have known that February 12th is Hot Tea Appreciation Day?!  At least it has been hot tea appreciation day since it was established in 2016.  I certainly appreciate tea.  It is my caffeinated drink of choice.   While working on Saturday night, I took time to drink some Bhakti brand Fiery Masala Chai tea while at work (I really like the flavor of this tea, which we actually have for residents).  Well, whoopee I drank some tea.  Still, sometimes having hot tea is like a bubble bath for my innards.  It is the little things in life.


4. Read:

I’ve been pretty good about reading lately.  On Friday, I finished a really interesting book about the environment history of Russia.  Saturday, I started on a very short book.  It is Anton’ Treuer’s Ojibwe in Minnesota.    The book is a very quick read that offers a basic overview of Ojibwe history in Minnesota.  Here are a few interesting facts:  1. The 1898 Battle of Sugar Point at Leech Lake was the last conflict between a U.S. tribe and the military. 2. Ponemah on the Red Lake Reservation has never held a Christian funeral.  3. The Ojibwe and Dakota formed an alliance, wherein they shared territory and were at peace for 57 years- before the better known conflicts after 1736.

 

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5. Full Moon Snow Shoe Hike:

On Friday, in celebration of my birthday weekend, I went on a full moon snowshoe hike with UWS’ outdoor adventure program.  I signed up at the last minute and wasn’t sure if I wanted to attend a three hour snowshoeing excursion before working a 10 hour shift.  I went anyway.  The night was lovely.  At the beginning of the trip, the sky was clear and the temperature was about 35 degrees F.  The outing offered me a good view of the full moon (which was experiencing a partial eclipse) as well as some wintry constellations like Orion, canis major, Taurus, Gemini, etc.  Because the moon was slightly dimmed by the eclipse, the constellations were easier to spot than during a regular full moon.  The snowshoe hike itself was along Lake Superior on Wisconsin Point.  We clambered up the ice hill along the lake and continued that precarious path for about an hour before turning around and heading back.  I imagined that I was walking along a glacier or ice cap in Greenland as I carefully trod across the small mound of snow and ice.  It was fun, but it wore me out!  Thankfully, I survived my night shift on Friday night.


 

6. Watched Documentaries:

 

Since I took Sunday night off of work,  I had some free time for some sedentary activity.  I filled this time by watching documentaries and videos about the “stan” countries on YouTube.  I am planning on traveling to several of the “stan” countries this summer, so I have been reading about them lately.  I read a book about the Great Game in January and finished a book about early communist policies regarding the stans earlier this month.  I read a book about the Silk Road in December.  I am slowly increasing my knowledge of the stans, which I will meet in person in June.  Anyway, on Sunday night I watched a BBC travel series about the “stans.”  I also watched a short video about Turkmenbashi, the former dictator of Turkmenistan and another short news video about upcoming elections in Turkmenistan.   I have enjoyed learning about this region of the world.  Nevertheless, like always, I have some anxiety about the upcoming trip.  I worry the most about health, but also the conditions of travel.  This trip will involve overland travel and camping.  The camping conditions will be more rustic and challenging than my previous trip to southern Africa.  Am I up to the challenge?  On the bright side, I will probably get to see part of the Aral Sea and the giant gas crater in Turkmenistan.

 

Gas crater

 


7. Fed the Squirrels:

After finishing work on Sunday morning, I decided to head to the grocery store to pick up a few items.  I decided to pick up some hazelnuts and leave them out for the squirrels in my yard.  I know that Flappy’s favorite food was hazelnuts.  Thus, the nuts were a little Valentine’s treat for my squirrel friends.  I love squirrels.  Happy Valentine’s Day to my favorite rodents!

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8. Went for a Walk:

I went for a walk with Dan in the Superior Municipal Forest on Saturday evening.  I didn’t actually want to walk, as my stomach was already starting to feel a little iffy.  But, it was nice to be outside and I felt better once I was walking.  I chalked the iffy stomach up to nerves or stress from a busy weekend at work.  Perhaps that is all it was?  Perhaps it was just a very mild bug?  Who knows.


 

9. Ate Mexican Food:

After taking a walk on Saturday, Dan and I went to Guadalajara Restaurant.  I really like Mexican food.  After eating, I felt bloated and that feeling didn’t go away for about 24 hours.  I don’t think that this is what made me feel ill today, but probably added to my uneasy stomach.   Oh well, it was worth it since I really do like Mexican food…


10. Drank Lime La Croix:

So, two of my twelve activities involve drinking.  While most people probably have a drink on their birthday, it probably isn’t tea and lime sparkling water.   Well, I am a teetotaler.  I have never drank an alcoholic beverage in my life.  Oddly enough, I have not smoked a cigarette or tried an illegal drug.  I am not against these things and don’t look down upon people who do these things, but when you haven’t done them there is a certain momentum to maintaining the identity of a teetotaler.   And, I have plenty of other vices…such as junk food.  However, my drinks of choice remain unsweetened tea and lime La Croix.  I was very happy to find 100 cans of La Croix in the kitchen when I finally rolled out of bed today!  Thanks Adam.   February 12th should also be Lime La Croix appreciation day.

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11. Booked a Trip to a Sloth Sanctuary

Next November, Dan and I are going on a trip.  We haven’t been anywhere together for about seven years.  He rarely gets time off of work and really isn’t that interested in travel.  Thus, for the most part, I travel alone.  However, in November 2017, he was able to take some time off of work, so we are going to go on a cruise.  While this trip is a long while away, I booked a trip to visit a sloth sanctuary in Costa Rica today.  I thought it would be a small way to prepare for that trip and brighten my mood about being sick.   I am more of a squirrel person and Dan’s favorite animals are toads.  Still, sloths are really cute.  And, my bloated, slow digesting stomach…coupled with my lack of energy….certainly makes me feel like a sloth today.

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12. Wrote a Blog Post

Last year I wrote a blog post about 12 things I did for my birthday.  I didn’t work on my birthday last year…and I wasn’t sick, so I had a bit more time/ability to do fun things.  Despite it all, I think I successfully managed to squeeze some birthday fun out of my weekend.  Perhaps it isn’t the most fun I’ve had for my birthday, but the month isn’t over!

Thanksgiving in Texas

 

Thanksgiving in Texas

by H. Bradford


This Thanksgiving, I visited my brother in San Antonio, Texas.  I love visiting my brother since I feel that we can sometimes have interesting discussions.  I also like that my brother likes to be active, so he usually is up for going for a hike.  The trip to Texas was an opportunity to spend time with my brother and my nephews Layton and Orrin.  My mother also went to Texas for Thanksgiving, so it was an opportunity to be together as a family.  I have never been a huge fan of the holidays, but I always like to travel.  This makes the holidays less constricting for me, as it offers the opportunity to explore and try out new traditions.

The Commissary:

My brother lives on a base, which makes visiting there unusual.  The base is a little like a college campus in that it is an enclosed community with housing, recreational centers, shopping, food, a service station, a museum, etc. all located in one area.  A person could probably live quite well without a vehicle, as most needs can be met within walking distance of base housing.  The housing is somewhat similar, with some variation in the style of homes used for various ranks of officers.  A base is a planned economy, so as a socialist, I can appreciate the logic, planning, and uniformity.  Of course, it is planned within the context of capitalism and in the interest of capitalism.  As such, the market shapes what appears on the base.  For instance, there is a Subway and Chic Filet (I believe).  Which fast food places appear on the base are less about the needs of the soldiers and the military than about contracts and prices.  Still, since many Americans have experience living in college dormitories or bases, these living situations make socialist living seem less far fetched.  In any event, the base is a planned community of America’s working class, poor, and people of color.


On my first day in San Antonio, my brother brought me to the commissary to buy some food for our Thanksgiving meal the following day.  The store appeared like a grocery store like any other.  In my imagination, I thought it would be like a Sam’s Club or a giant warehouse of supplies.  I enjoyed observing what foods the people were buying.  For instance, corn bread and collard greens were among the Thanksgiving foods on sale.  I noticed several carts with these items in them.  These are not typical Thanksgiving foods in Minnesota.  I also noticed that people purchased small sized marshmallows to put on their sweet potatoes.  In Minnesota, I have observed that large sized or medium sized marshmallows are more common.  Finally, I purchased a turnip.  The clerk had to look it up in his produce book, even though I told him it was a turnip.  The clerk insisted it was a rutabaga and it was actually listed as such in his produce book.  This is not correct, as turnips and rutabagas are two different vegetables.  A turnip is an ancient vegetable named Brassica Rapa.  A rutabaga is a new vegetable that is a cross between a turnip and a Brassica Oleracea (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, etc.) which is usually larger, yellowish inside, and less bitter.  In any event, it was fun to go to the grocery store to explore the differences in Texan Thanksgiving v. Minnesotan.


Government Canyon:

On Thanksgiving day itself, I visited Government Canyon.  Earlier this spring, I visited Government Canyon recreation area.  At the time, the park was flooded in areas.  This made seeing the park’s dinosaur tracks difficult.  I wanted to return to the park, since I felt that a hike on Thanksgiving Day would be a constructive start to the holiday.  Visiting the dinosaur foot prints was a Thanksgiving pilgrimage to the ancestors of the modern turkey.  After all, turkeys and chickens are believed to be more closely related to dinosaurs than other modern birds!  In fact, one of the earliest galliform fossils  (from 85 million years ago) was discovered in the Austin Chalk near Austin, Texas.   Government Canyon contains the footprints of Acrocanthosaurus and Sauroposeidon, which are believed to be from 110 million years ago.  At the time, Government Canyon was a beach along an ocean.  The tracks themselves were only discovered in 2014 when a drought uncovered them and scientists excavated them from the muddy riverbed.

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We thought that we would find the park deserted on Thanksgiving Day, but we saw several groups of hikers during our four hour hike.  The terrain can be rocky and inclined, so both times I have hiked there I found it challenging enough to feel worn out by the end of the endeavor.  I kept my eye out for birds, as another homage to the turkey was an appreciation of other birds.  However, the bird life was absent.  I did see hundreds of butterflies though!  It made me wish that I had brought a butterfly guide.  It also inspired me to try to take up the hobby of butterflying.  I don’t think I have ever seen so many butterflies as I had in Texas.

 

Thanksgiving Dinner:

After the hike, I got to work making Thanksgiving dinner.  I prepared sweet potatoes (sans marshmallows), buns, and wild rice, mushroom, and cranberry stuffing.  I also wanted to introduce some new traditions to Thanksgiving, so I made quinoa and the “mash of nine sorts.”  The mash of nine sorts is a Cornish recipe which uses nine ingredients, including turnip, potato, leek, parsnip, rutabaga, cream, salt, pepper, and carrot.  I have made it before, but this time, it did not turn out that great since it had a much stronger turnip flavor than usual.  In the past, I used a turnip from my garden, which was smaller and resulted in less dominant turnip flavor.  I like the recipe since it is associated with fall and Samhain.  My brother purchased a small turkey breast probably because of the symbolic attachment to meat at Thanksgiving.  Tiffany made mashed potatoes and green bean casserole.  As a whole, the meal was not dominated by meat, as 90% of the offerings were vegetarian.  I wanted to follow my theme of bird appreciation through a vegetarian thanksgiving, but oh well!


Before we began eating, we each put on a turkey hat (which my nephew Layton made in pre-school).  Whomever wore the hat had to say something they were thankful for.  We did two rounds of this, which made for a silly time (as a group of adults donned a paper turkey hat and gave thanks).  I also discussed a book I was reading about the history of Thanksgiving (including the social construction of the First Thanksgiving, Native American critique of the holiday, and the historical imagination regarding pilgrims).

The Journey to South Padre Island:

On Black Friday, our family set out for South Padre Island.  I was excited to see more of Texas, but I quickly learned that the route between San Antonio and South Padre Island was pretty empty.   San Antonio does not extend into endless suburbs.  It simply ends.  Once it ends, the landscape becomes expansive with farms.  There were few towns along the way.  There wasn’t much for trees or wildlife to look at.  Just cattle and farms.


Things became a little more interesting a few hours into the drive with the appearance of thicker patches of palm trees and the growing use of Spanish language.  It struck me that southern Texas reminded me a lot of southern Africa.  This is because there were various thorny acacia trees (though nowhere near the amount in southern Africa where it was the dominant type of tree).  This is also because there was a lot of impoverished people of color with speckles of nicer homes and farms owned by white people.  As we went further south, I also saw more birds.  I jotted them down in my notebook.


Cracker Barrel

My great grandparents spent their winters in Harlingen, Texas.  We aren’t sure where they lived, but we stopped there to get a late lunch.  My mom wanted to go to the Cracker Barrel, despite some protests.  I tried to be open minded about it as I don’t have much experience with the chain.  I thought it might be a fun southern experience.


I found that the menu wasn’t very vegetarian friendly, but that a person could patch together sides into a “Vegetable Combo Platter”.  Vegetable is used loosely, since most of the sides were not vegetables.  I settled on some southern sounding sides like grits, corn bread, and fried okra, with some actual vegetables to balance it off (steamed broccoli and another item that I forget).  I felt pleased with my patchwork of sides.  My mom seemed to like the place, but it was sensory overload for most of us.  The place was loud with music and a crowd of diners.  The entrance was a maze of Christmas trees, toys, and decorations.  To reach the reservation desk, a person has to thread their way through narrow passages, accosted by Christmas music and overpowering holiday scents.  Yep, that is Cracker Barrel.

Schlitterbahn:

We arrived on South Padre Island about an hour later.  By then, the air was muggy and the landscape appeared fully tropical (though it is subtropical).  South Padre had a ghost town feel.  It felt like a mall at closing time or a concert after clean up.  It was the off season after all.  There were no college students.  No flocks of families.  Just a few lonely souls shivering in the breezy 70-80 degree weather.  We stayed at Schlitterbahn, a German themed water park.  We had a massive room with three beds and two pull out couches, a kitchenette, and a view of the Gulf.  The park itself featured a water slide, some kiddie pools, a bar inside of a pool, and a tubing course.  I am not a water park person.  In fact, I have never been to a water park before.  But the room was nice!  While the rest of the family went to check out the waterpark, I went for a walk along the beach.  I ended up drenched by a sudden rain and then attacked by swarms of mosquitoes.  Throughout the weekend, I avoided the waterpark.  However, on the last day I did go down the water slide twice and spent some time on the tubing course.  That was an adequate amount of time for me.  A highlight of my stay at the waterpark was the long walks that I took along the beach at night.  On one of the nights, we found dozens of moon jellyfish and man-of-wars washed up on the beach.  That was interesting.

 

South Padre Birding and Nature Center: 

My favorite part of the weekend was visiting the birding center.  Of course, this was not quite as interesting to the three year old and five year old in tow.  The rest of my family returned to the waterpark, but I stayed behind at the birding center.  I circled the wooden walkway a few times, recording all of the birds that I saw.  I wrote about this experience in my year of birding blog post, so I won’t add too much detail.  Only, it was great!  It was also neat because many of the people there were from other countries.  It seems that they were there specifically for the opportunity to see the migratory birds!

Dolphin Watch and Shrimp Haus:

In the evening, we went on a dolphin watching tour.  There were dozens of dolphins, but it does not take many dolphins to become desensitized to their existence.  I suppose it is the law of diminishing returns.  The last bites of a cake are less wonderful than the first.  The first dolphin is more exciting than the last.  The first fifteen minutes of a boat tour is more fun than two hours in…   Oh well, we did see a lot of dolphins and it seems that it relaxed my nephews, who both took naps during the boat ride.


This was followed by a culinary adventure at Shrimp Haus, a German themed shrimp restaurant.  The entire menu was seafood!  Seafood is my very least favorite food.  Looking and thinking about it disgusts me.   I ordered the salad bar.  But, my salad tasted suspiciously like shrimp.  I thought that perhaps it was just my imagination.  I had a few more bites.  I poked around.  There was no sign of sea food.  Maybe the smell in the air was tricking my taste buds?  NO.  To my horror, there was shrimp in the salad dressing.  The humanity of it.  I was disgusted by this.  I felt angry.  I entirely lost my appetite.  This sounds over dramatic, but for some reason I just really really really hate seafood.  It isn’t a vegetarian thing, as I am not ideologically committed enough to vegetarianism to have such a visceral reaction.


Zoo Lights and the San Antonio Botanical Garden:

Our drive back towards San Antonio took us on a more interesting alternative route.  I was surprised to find a border crossing 100 miles from the Mexican border.  For a moment, I thought that we had accidentally crossed into Mexico.  Nope.  I guess that the U.S. has secondary border posts to snag undocumented people who might have gotten through the first border post.  That is pretty terrible!  It creates a corral for undocumented people living between border posts.


On Monday, we went to the Botanical Garden and Zoo Lights.  The San Antonio Botanical Garden is wonderful.   It is expansive and diverse.  There is a pond with ducks that is lined with Texan trees.  There are various areas that represent different ecological zones.  Near an area filled with cacti, acacias, and aloes, there is a birding station, where we watched various birds.  There is also a vegetable garden, Japanese garden, orangerie, buildings for ferns and palms, etc.  A person could spend an entire day wandering around the botanical garden.  We spent several hours.  Orrin, the 3 year old, seemed to enjoy it well enough, even if it is a pretty sedate place with not a whole lot to offer children.

In the evening, we all went to Zoo Lights, which is an event wherein the San Antonio Zoo is decorated with x-mas lights.  Layton and Orrin love the zoo, but it was past their bedtime, so both were a little cranky.  Zoo Lights was interesting, since it sought to create the illusion of winter.  There was a snow machine which produced a thin cloud of snowflakes.  There were “warming stations” with fires and s’mores, even though the temperature was in the 70s.  Workers dressed in fake velvet with fake fur trim, wearing mittens and hats.  Granted, it probably felt cooler to people who were not used to the “real” cold of winter.  There were looming inflatable Christmas characters, a boisterous light and sound show, and all sorts of things which probably tormented the animals to some degree.  The parents looked equally tortured, as they pushed and carried their tired children through the gauntlet of lights and “holiday fun.”  Still, the zoo created a fun atmosphere, even if unlike Bentleyville, the cocoa, cookies, and s’mores weren’t free.

 

One Last Day…

My last day involved returning to Cracker Barrel with my mother (since Tiffany had to return a defective Christmas decoration that she had purchased).   My mother had an earlier flight, so she headed off after our final farewell to the Cracker Barrel Colossus.


The departure of my mother left Tiffany, Orrin, and I to spend some time together.  We went to the Japanese Tea Garden.  Then, we went on the kiddie train near the zoo.  Orrin loves the kiddie train.  I am not sure if I have ever been on one.  It was fun to see Orrin enjoy himself so much, even though he admitted that the kiddie train made him feel sleepy.


My brother finished work in the early afternoon, so we went on a final hike together.  On the ride to the airport, we briefly debated workplace democracy, which he quickly dismissed as a stupid idea.  Then, it was time to leave!  So, my time was cut short from defending the idea that workers might be able to control their own work places.  There is never enough time…


In the end, the trip had a good mixture of many things.  I enjoyed some hikes, plants, and birds.  I tried out a water slide and the Cracker Barrel.  There were debates over Donald Trump and work place democracy.  There was a landscape of dead jelly fish.  There was a lot of culinary compromise (I’m looking at you Shrimp Haus…my haus of pain).   There was a surprise border crossing, palm trees, x-mas lights, a turkey hat, and a family Thanksgiving dinner.  I am thankful that I had the opportunity to see my family and that we had so much fun during my time off for Thanksgiving.

 

 

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