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Aitkin County Fair Review

Review of the Aitkin County Fair

Aitkin County Fair Review

H. Bradford

7/30/18

Aitkin County is Minnesota county with a population just over 16,000.  Despite the fact that is the neighboring county to Carlton County, where I grew up, I have never attended their county fair.  I usually attended the Carlton County Fair or a fair in St. Louis County.  This year, I attended the Aitkin County Fair with my family.   The fair was held early by fair standards (July 4-7th).  I attended on Saturday, which was the final day of the fair.  Here are my general impressions of the fair, though it may be an unfair assessment.


 

Pros:

 

Free Admission:

Most fairs charge a fee to enter.  This was always true of the Carlton County Fair.  The Aitkin County Fair costs nothing to attend!  There is a $5 parking fee, but this is easily avoided if a person parks further away.  This means that a person looking for free summer fun can wander around the fair at not cost.  Of course, rides and food are a bit spendy, but a person could choose to spend nothing! Image may contain: 1 person, standing and outdoor


Children Activities:

There were a variety of free activities for children.  There was an entire building dedicated to free crafts for kids, where children could make noodle necklaces and spinners.  My nephews did a few of the free crafts, but were less interested in other free activities such as viewing animals or learning more about farming in an interactive, children’s barn.

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Tractor Parade:

Another highlight of the fair was the tractor parade.  There is something really fun about watching a parade of tractors.  The drivers tended to be older men, but there were also some kids and women.  The tractors followed the perimeter of the fairgrounds for a 20 minute parade that showcased the mostly older model tractors. Image may contain: sky, tree, outdoor and nature


A Variety of Booths:

The Aitkin County Fair featured a two buildings of booths.  My favorite booth was for the Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge.  This booth was selling guidebooks on a variety of topics at half price.  I purchased a guide to ferns, a guide to moths, and a wildflower guide.  I also purchased two half priced children’s books for my nephews on the topic of bats.   I collected pamphlets from other booths on gardening in Minnesota, Minnesota trees, and pollinators- which may have come from booths for the DNR and University of Minnesota Extension.  The Aitkin County History Society also had a building at the fair.


 

Aitkin Gobblers:

This doesn’t have much to do with the fair, but the mascot for the Aitkin schools is a turkey, since the area was once known for turkey farming and processing.  Aitkin County once produced a half million turkeys each year and Land-o-Lakes operated a turkey processing plant in Aitkin until 1985.  The school adopted the turkey mascot because of the importance of turkeys to Aitkin.  Well, I think this is a great, unique mascot.  I made a point of trying to find an Aitkin Gobbler T-shirt while in Aitkin, but I could only find one at a local thrift store.  I purchased the shirt for $3, but was disappointed that it did not feature the image of a turkey.  At the fair, there were only a few turkeys.  One of them looked droopy and had an empty water dish, so I gave it some water (which it immediately stepped on and knocked over. Oh well, at least its foot was no longer dehydrated..)  There are not many turkeys in Aitkin any more, but at least a few could be found at the fair and I found a Gobbler shirt.     The range of wild turkeys is expanding, so it is more common to see wild turkeys in Aitkin and Carlton counties.  So, perhaps the turkey will return as a wild and free bird.  Fair organizers should really play up the importance of turkeys…

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Fire and Rescue Table:

Aitkin County Fire and Rescue had an awesome table tucked away in the far northeast corner of the fair.   The table gave away full sized bottles of water for free to combat heat exhaustion.  We were all given at least one bottle of ice cold water.  They also gave us vials of insect repellent and other free items related to staying safe.  We were encouraged to take us much as we wanted.  Maybe because of the isolated location of the table and the fact that it was the last day of the fair, we were given a large amount of free goodies.


 

Cons:

Banana Derby:

The Banana Derby should probably go into the “con” category.  It is one of those surprising things that seem out of place in this day and age.  The attraction was literally a race between two dogs with monkeys riding on their backs.  It was free to observe and money was made through promotional photographs with the monkeys.  This didn’t seem right.  Monkeys in sweaty, polyester jockey costumes holding on to dogs as they ran on a small track.  Even if the dogs and monkeys are treated well, that sort of performance is probably stressful and tiring for the animals.  Is this the worst offense of the fair?  After all, animals are put on display for several days or served as food.  This is a complicated issue, but there seemed like something distinctively exploitative about carting dogs and monkeys around the country and training them to race.  Perhaps it is simply the unusual nature of this particular entertainment that calls into question the issue of animal treatment.  I will say that whole thing was pretty surreal.

 

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Lack of Produce:

Because the fair is held in early July, most gardens have not produced many crops as it it too early in the season.  Tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, eggplants, peppers, and so on tend to arrive later in late July and August.  Thus, the fair did not have many vegetables on display.   What could be done?  Maybe people could be encouraged to enter peas, lettuce, or immature versions of the later season crops. Image result for shriveled vegetable

Not an actual photo from the fair…but my impression of the veggies…


Business Booths:

While there was a building full of booths for organizations, there was another that was focused on businesses.  These offered prizes to promote their business.   These prizes seem a little scammy.  For instance, I received a call that I was one of  the finalists for a prize at the “Atkin” county fair.  Considering that the caller did not know how to pronounce Aitkin, I felt that it was not a representative from a local business or a genuine prize.  My brother also received a call regarding another prize, and it was clear that everyone who entered likely got a call from the business.  The prize offerings seemed like a way to gather customer contact information to trick people into purchasing products and services.


Lack of Swag Bags:

While at the fair, I tend to collect various pamphlets and free things.  Soon, my arms were full of books, pamphlets, and booklets.   None of the booths offered any sort of bag to carry the items in…except…the Aitkin County Republican Party.  I grabbed several bags and gave them to my family members.  I didn’t mind carrying my stuff around in a bag that said “God Bless America- Aitkin County Republican Party” as I found it rather ironic.  I didn’t feel ashamed, as it felt more like a prank or that I was a troll.   Is this wrong?  Should have I cared more?  I would have felt more embarrassed with a Democrat bag, since at least that would seem halfway plausible to the rest of the world.  A long story short, I guess I should have come prepared with a purse or backpack large enough to carry my loot.

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Not an actual photo of the bag, but you get the idea…

 

Overall:

The Aitkin County Fair is definitely a small fair.  There aren’t huge crowds and it is easy to amble along, enjoying this slice of rural living.  Rural life has been in a long decline, so there is a sense of emptiness at the fair.  Still, there is a sample of what once was with barns of goats, rabbits, cows, turkeys, pigs, and chickens, even if there are only a few representatives of each.  The few withered vegetable entries were sad, but on the other hand, there seemed to be robust interest in creating art, as the art barn had many entries.   There are carnival rides, free activities for kids, organizations with booths,  and of course, the tractor parade.  There is also music, fireworks, tractor pulls, 4H demonstrations, and a magician.  I did not partake in those events, but I am sure that each would add to the experience.  As a whole, I think it was a charming fair and worth a visit precisely because it is a small town affair and because of the hard work the community puts into organizing it.

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A Review of Three Minnesota National Wildlife Refuges

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A Review of Three Minnesota National Wildlife Refuges

H. Bradford

7/29/18


This past weekend (+Monday and Tuesday), I visited three state parks as part of my goal to see all of the state parks in Minnesota.  As it happens, all three state parks were not terribly far from National Wildlife Refuges.  Thus, I also visited three National Wildlife Refuges during my mini-vacation.   National Wildlife Refuges (NWR) are administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service for the purpose of conserving…well, wildlife!  I will admit that I am not as familiar with NWRs as I am with state or national parks.  From my limited experience, it seems that NWRs that I have been to differ from state parks in that they typically do not charge a fee or requite a sticker.  At the same time, camping is not typically allowed and there are fewer amenities, programs, and regular staffing.  They also seem less busy or tourist oriented than state or national parks.  On the other hand, some allow hunting and trapping, which is not always allowed at state parks.  My general impression is that NWRs are less family and tourist friendly, but great for bird/wildlife watching and a variety of independent outdoor activities.  There are 13 NWRs in Minnesota, which are among the 550 spread across the United States.  This is a review of three of them.

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Sherburne NWR:


Sherburne NWR is located near Zimmerman, MN and about a half an hour south-east of St. Cloud, MN.  I visited the refuge with my brother as a Saturday excursion during my weekend visit.  The park contains oak savanna, wetlands, and prairie ecosystems and offers hiking, but also a wildlife drive and opportunities for fishing and hunting.   My brother and I mostly partook in the wildlife drive, which provides a few opportunities to stop for short hikes.  The primary purpose of the visit was birding.

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The wildlife drive took us through a variety of landscapes, including the three mentioned on the website: prairie, wetland, and oak savanna.  We took a short hike in the prairie area, which unlike the state parks I had visited over the weekend, was devoid of bothersome insects.   While it seems that woodland wildflowers peak in the early spring, the prairie wildflowers were in full bloom, creating colorful fields of orange and yellow.   As for birding, the park has several species of sparrows which are not regularly seen in Northern Minnesota, where I live.   For instance, during our short hike, I heard a Field sparrow.  The song is very distinct, even though I have never seen or heard one before.  I imagine that it is the sound of a Frisbee being thrown or a UFO taking off.   There were also many grasshopper sparrows, another sparrow that I hadn’t seen before.  They have an insect like song that sounds like a cross between a buzz and a hiss.  Over twenty species of sparrows can be found in the wildlife refuge, so it seems like a great place to visit to see sparrows (even if I only saw a few species).

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The wildlife drive follows along some lakes, where trumpeter swans, double-crested cormorants, great blue herons, and various ducks can be seen.  For me, a highlight of these area was seeing black terns, which are another new bird for me.  I was unable to photograph them, as they zip along pretty quickly.   They don’t range near Duluth, but are found in other parts of Minnesota in prairie or prairie transition areas.  Another highlight was hearing a Least bittern in a ditch by the lake, though I did not see the bird hidden in the thick vegetation.   I am not a great birder, so I would suggest that less skilled birders (like myself) review bird song/calls before heading to the park.  It definitely helps with sparrow identification (as they all look pretty plain and brown) and for hard to spot birds.  I listened to a bird CD in my car on the way to Lake Maria State Park from Duluth (a three hour drive) so a few vocalizations were fresh in my head.

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The only buggy area was on the north-west end of the lake, where there was a small oak forests and trail.  We were too mosquito bitten to venture far, but we did see a red bellied woodpecker.  This was a new woodpecker species for me and one that I later saw more of at Charles Lindbergh State Park and Crane Meadows NWR.  As a whole, I would say that the park offered great birding opportunities.  I would definitely return to see more sparrows and to view the Sandhill cranes which migrate through the refuge in large numbers each fall.    I like that the park offered a wide variety of ecosystems and a wildlife drive.  While we didn’t do much hiking, I would like to return to try out the trails.  The park was surprisingly busy, with several vehicles slowly moving along the wildlife drive, also trying to spy on birds.  There isn’t much room for passing, so, be prepared to take it slow and follow the caravan of wildlife enthusiasts!   The refuge is about 30 minutes drive away from Lake Maria State Park, so both could be visited in the same day (though I visited them over the course of two days).

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Crane Meadows NWR:


Crane Meadows NWR is only fifteen minutes away from Charles Lindbergh State Park and only about ten minutes away from Little Falls.  This makes it very accessible and very easy to take in along with Charles Lindbergh State Park.  The NWR was a welcome reprieve from the mosquito swarms that characterized Charles Lindbergh State Park.  Crane Meadows NWR was bright and sunny, and although the trails followed along the Platte River, the wildlife area lacked the deer flies and mosquitoes that plagued my other outdoor adventures over the weekend.  Crane Meadows is only 2000 acres (compared to over 30,000 for Sherburne NWR) and does not have a wildlife drive.  Instead, it offers a few looped trails along the Platte River to Rice Lake.  The longest loop is just under four miles.  I hiked this loop, which was the best hike of the weekend because 1.) it wasn’t buggy.  2.) There was an abundance of birds.  3.) The trail passes a variety of ecosystems, such as oak savanna, tall grass prairie, sedge meadow wetland, and more!  The trail can only be used for hiking, so horses and bicycles are not allowed.  Perhaps owing to the length and limited use, I did not see any other people on the trail.

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As I already mentioned, the hike was very enjoyable, with easy terrain and a variety of habitats in one relatively small area.  I did not see as many birds as I did at Sherburne, but I also covered a smaller area.  There were some noteworthy birds on the hike, including a great crested flycatcher, another new bird for my list.  The yellow, gray, and rusty orange bird is easy to identify (which is not true of most flycatchers, which look pretty similar in their variations of pale yellow, olive, and gray plumage.)  Another highlight was a few red headed woodpeckers, which I have not seen in Minnesota before.  I also saw red breasted woodpeckers and a swamp sparrow.  Other sparrows included song sparrows and chipping sparrows, both of which are pretty common in Duluth.  The martin house was busy and there were also many barn swallows.

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Like Sherburne NWR, I would definitely visit Crane Meadows again.  The leisurely hike and variety of birds made for a great way to spend an afternoon.  I would say that the main downside of the NWR is a lack of amenities.  There are no toilets on the trails, but there is a port-a-potty at the parking area.  On the other hand, there was hardly anyone at the NWR, so that was a plus.  As a whole, it is a nice, compact wildlife area with easy access to Little Falls.

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Rice Lake NWR:

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The final NWR that I visited was Rice Lake NWR, near McGregor, MN.  I have visited this area many times, but couldn’t resist making a pit stop on my way home to Duluth.   Of the three, this NWR has the widest variety of things to do.  There is a wildlife drive, which I have done many times.  There is an observation deck and several hiking trails.  The NWR also features Native American and Civilian Conservation Corps history.  Native Americans continue to use the wildlife area for harvesting wild rice and maple syrup.  In fact, Native Americans have used the park since at least 1000 BC and there are burial mounds within the refuge.  Each time I visit, there are usually at least a few people fishing, which seems to be the most popular activity.  Rice Lake NWR is rich in waterfowl and each spring and fall during migrations.  In fact, the area holds the state record for the most waterfowl seen in one place at one time, when a million ring necked ducks were observed in 1994.   Like the other two parks, there is a wide variety of sparrows that can also be seen, including the rare LaConte’s Sparrow (which I have not seen).

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Where the wild rice grows…


In addition to the hiking trails, wildlife drive, fishing, birding, and Native American history/use, this NWR generally has pretty good amenities (at least compared to the other two refuges).  There are several toilets or port-a-poties spread throughout the refuge as well as two picnic areas.  There is no running water, however.  The refuge itself features mixed forests, lakes, and bogs.  Because it is a very wet environment, there are always lots of insects!  Of the three refuges, this was the worst, with swarms of deer flies AND mosquitoes.    I have never successfully hiked in this refuge since these attempts are almost always thwarted by voracious insects.  Even an open window during the wildlife drive attracted unwanted deer flies into my vehicle.

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National Wildlife Refuges are a different experience than state and national parks.  While they may not be as full of tourists, activities, and amenities, they are great places to spend a day taking in nature.  All three of these locations are relaxing, tranquil, and great for birding.  All three are places that I would visit again.   There are only 13 of these gems in Minnesota, and only 12 can be visited!  I will definitely be visiting other NWRs in the future and hopefully you will be inspired to visit them as well!

 

A Review of Three Minnesota State Parks

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A Review of Three Minnesota State Parks

H. Bradford

7/27/18

This past week I visited three Minnesota State Parks.  My goal is to one day visit all 66 state parks.  Usually, I try to visit a few new ones each year, so it is a long term goal.  The three parks that I visited are each located in central Minnesota and are each within one hour driving distance from St. Cloud.  I chose the parks since I visited my brother this past weekend (who lives in the St. Cloud area) and it was a way to kill two birds with one stone.  Well, really, I don’t want to kill birds at all.  Typically, I prefer to watch them.  Violent idioms aside, here is my review of the three state parks that I visited.


Lake Maria State Park:

Lake Maria State Park is located near Monticello, Minnesota, about three hours south-west of Duluth.  There was some road construction along the way and when I stopped at a gas station about 10 miles away from the park, the staff and a customer had no idea where Lake Maria State Park was.  The customer reckoned that he had heard of it before.  This did not bode well for the state park.  When I arrived not long after the stop, I found that the park office was closed.  It was a Friday, which I assumed might be a busier day of the week for a state park.  With the park office closed, I decided to do some hiking, then check back later (since I like to collect state park patches).   My first hike was to Little Mary Lake.

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(Sorry to disappoint anyone but Lake Maria’s sign is not this sparkly in real life.  I just had a sparkle setting on my camera by accident.)


Almost immediately, I was attacked by deer flies.  I did not think to wear my hat, so during the course of my hike, I picked dead deer flies from my hair in a demoralizing journey to the lake.  Had I counted the number of dead deer flies, I would not be surprised if at least 50 found their death in my hair.  The hike itself was hard to enjoy, as my constant battle with the flies made it impossible to stop for photos or bird watching.  The trail was dotted with many swampy pools, which seemed like the perfect environment for breeding insects.  The forest itself was unique, as it is a remnant of the “Big Woods” that once covered that part of the state.  The surrounding area near the park is either farm fields with corn or big box stores along I-94, so the park is a piece of what once was.   The forest also seemed unique to me because of the large number of basswood trees.  I might have appreciated the park more had my hike not been marked by the incessant attack of deer flies.

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One of Lake Maria’s swampy pools.


Little Mary Lake features a wildlife lookout, wherein visitors can take a moment to enjoy the swans and other waterfowl on the lake.   Further ahead, there is a boat landing and interpretive trail.  I enjoy interpretive trails, though the Zumbrunnen Interpretive Trail was overgrown with sedges and other vegetation.   Upon finishing this trail, I headed back to my car to eat a snack, put on a hat (to guard against flies), and wait for the visitor center to open.

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The wildlife lookout area


My second hike of the day was to Lake Maria.  I took a meandering path instead of a direct route, which took me to a bluebird restoration area, then back to the lake.  The lake itself was actually much smaller than Little Lake Mary, despite the fact the larger lake is called “Little.”  Once again, I was pestered by flies. Despite wearing hat (which I retrieved after the first hike), they flew at my face and under the brim.  This made for an exhausting day, as my hike seemed like an endless battle with flies.   However, I think that the park would be more enjoyable in the autumn or spring when the flies are not as thick.  Since the park is almost entirely forests and lakes, I am sure that it would be particularly nice in the fall.

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Pros:

The park was almost entirely empty.  I hiked from 11:30 am to about 3:30 pm and only encountered one other hiker.  There were several other people in the park, but I can count on one hand the number that I saw at various points during the day.  The park also features backpacking campsites.  It seems that it is a great park to visit if someone wants solitude.  I assumed that since the park is only 22 miles from St. Cloud and 45 miles from Minneapolis that it would be much busier.  This was not the case at all.  Lake Maria features lakes, forests, and plenty of birds.


Cons:

The flies were insufferable.  The natural ponds and lakes and surrounding farmland seem to be the ingredients for a lot of flies.  I would definitely have arrived more prepared for flies had I been thinking about it.  They bite any exposed skin, making taking photos difficult as they would land on my hands.   Another con was that the park office did not open until 2pm.  I wanted to purchase a year long park sticker and an embroidered patch, but had to wait until the park office opened.  Stickers can be ordered online, but I wanted the sticker right away as I had planned on visiting two other state parks that weekend.


Charles Lindbergh State Park:

Do you like aviation history and relentless swarms of mosquitoes?  I sure don’t.  This made Charles Lindbergh State Park a bit of a disappointment for me (heavy emphasis on the mosquito swarms).   Charles Lindbergh State Park is located about an hour north west of Lake Maria State Park, or about 30 minutes south of St. Cloud Minnesota.  The park was established with donated land from Charles Lindbergh Sr., the father of the famous aviator and a state congressperson.  Upon arriving at the park at about 9am on Monday, I found that the office was closed.  Bugs and closed park offices were a theme over the weekend.  I had intended to camp there, so I dropped off some money for firewood and set off to explore some of the historic buildings around the park.

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Because the park was created through a land donation of Charles Lindbergh Sr., visitors can walk around the family farm house.  The farm house was not open during my visit, but the grounds were open.  Visitors can also view a dilapidated house which was used by tenant farmers on the Lindbergh property.  There are some signs which tell the story of the farm, which seems oddly situated in a wooded strip of land between the Mississippi River and Pike Creek.  Near the farm, there is a museum dedicated to Charles Lindbergh Jr., the famous aviator.  The museum, like the farm house, was not open.  In the opposite direction, there is Weyerhauser Museum, but once again, this museum was not open.   Although the museums were closed, there are a few interpretive signs and a pleasant trail along the Mississippi River, which connects these sites.

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Tenant farmer house

 


After viewing these historical sites, I decided to do some hiking within the woods.  This was where I was bombarded by mosquitoes.  It is little wonder, since the trail followed Pine Creek, a wonderful breeding place for the blood thirsty plague.  I sprayed myself with DEET, but this would not defeat the relentless mosquitoes, which prodded my skin and clothes for any DEET free areas.  On the bright side, it caused me to hike very quickly as the mosquitoes pushed me forward.  I hiked a 1.5 mile loop which took me through the forest, along the creek, and to the landing site of Lindbergh’s “Jenny” airplane.  I am not really interested in aviation history, but the clearing was the only mosquito free area of the hike.

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I would have hiked longer, but the mosquitoes were making me miserable.  Instead, I headed to the park office, which was again closed.  I decided that I would leave the park, head to Little Falls, find some lunch, then go hiking elsewhere (at Crane Meadows National Wildlife Reserve).  This 3.5 mile hike proved to be bug free and greatly improved my bug bitten morale.

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A mosquito breeding area


When I returned to the park in the early evening, the park office was still closed.  I set up my tent at the campsite, took a short jaunt into the mosquito infested woods, then settled down at my campsite with a fire and some reading.  A wasp flew into my tent and I could not find it.  This caused me some concern.  Another source of concern was the nearby campers, who seemed to be very rowdy and loud.  Because of the loud neighbor campers and the mysterious disappearance of the wasp in my tent, I decided to sleep in my car.


Sometime after midnight, a police officer woke me up.  He questioned me about the behaviors of the nearby campers and if I had witnessed anything unusual or anyone in distress.  There were several squad cars parked near my campsite.  I only said that they had been loud earlier, but I didn’t hear any fighting or anything more concerning than the ruckus of loud conversation.  The officer left, but sometime later I was roused again, this time by a sergeant who wanted me to make an official witness statement.  I really hadn’t been paying attention to the other campers, their conversations, or what they were up to.  I have no idea what sort of crime happened on the other campsite.  I never heard anyone in need of help or anything that sounded like an argument or fight.  So…I don’t know.  But, it made me feel uneasy for the rest of the night.  The officers also seemed surprised that I was camping alone and in my car, rather than my tent.  I explained that a wasp had entered my tent and I could not locate it.   The rest of the night was a fitful sleep of wondering if someone had been hurt or if I failed to help someone.  I had a dream that a woman came knocking on my car door asking for help.  In the morning, the park office was still closed as I left…

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My shirt says…camping is in-tents.   Owing to a wayward wasp and concerning crime, it was a little too intense, even if it was not in-tent.


Pros:

Charles Lindbergh State Park features museums and historical buildings, melding history and nature into a unique state park.  The park is located along the Mississippi River, so it is also a good place to visit if a person wants to take in a section of the second longest U.S. river.   However, most of the trails are not along the Mississippi.   The park is conveniently located near Little Falls, MN which has a historic downtown and several local attractions, including the Minnesota Fishing Museum (inconveniently closed on Mondays as well).  The town has a variety of restaurants and stores, making it easy to restock or recharge while camping.  The park is also less than 10 miles from Crane Meadows National Wildlife Preserve.  Location and history seem to be the best features of the park.  Like Lake Maria, the park was fairly empty.  While the campground was active, I didn’t see any other hikers on the trails.


Cons:

The park was not staffed between 9 am Monday and 9am Tuesday when I left.  I checked the office numerous times, but I saw no one there.  This meant that I could not collect an embroidered patch from the park.  It also meant that no one was around to attend to the campground, which in the case of my stay, was the site of some kind of crime.  Obviously, visiting the park on a Monday was not a perfect idea, since the museums were closed.  There were also a lot of hungry mosquitoes.

Crow Wing State Park:


The final park that I visited was Crow Wing State Park, which is less than 30 minutes north of Little Falls near Brainerd, Minnesota.   Of the three, I spent the least amount of time here, since I was simply stopping by on my way home.   Crow Wing State Park is the park that I would most likely revisit and was my favorite of the three.   I spent under three hours at the park, hiking around on Tuesday morning after leaving Lindbergh State Park.  Once again, the park office was closed.  It was closed throughout my visit (though I saw staff poking around the park- just not attending to the office).  Thus, I was unable to obtain a collectable embroidered patch once again…since….once again, the park office was closed.

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Much like Charles Lindbergh State Park, Crow Wing State Park was a breeding ground for aggressive swarms of mosquitoes.  The mosquitoes were actually far worse in some areas of this park.  Once again, DEET didn’t do much to deter the menacing cloud that followed me around the park.  My 100% DEET spray, which is potent enough to remove my nail polish and destroyed the fabric of my leggings, didn’t bother them that much.  The mosquitoes mostly bounced off my skin, looking for a clear spot to feast.  I can only be thankful that the mosquitoes here do not carry tropical diseases as we would all be doomed.  At some points, I actually jogged down the trail, hoping to out run them.  I didn’t.  There were just too many.   Oh well.

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More mosquitoes…

 


Insects aside, there was a lot to like about the park.  For one, the trails were accessible and could easily be visited by families.  The trail that I visited passed through the remnants of the former town of Crow Wing, which was established at the confluence of the Mississippi and Crow Wing rivers.  There is nothing left of the town but sign posts where businesses and town amenities once stood.  However, this was interesting and there were a few interpretive signs which told the story of the long lost 1800s trading town.  Another bonus of this area was that it was situated in a sunny clearing that was devoid of mosquitoes.  Because of this, I took my time, taking in the signs and the history.  Highlights of the remnants of Crow Wing include a reconstructed wooden boardwalk and the restored home of Clement Beaulieu the head of the American Fur Company trading post in Crow Wing.  It is one of the oldest wooden houses in Minnesota.  The town of Crow Wing had a population of 600 people at its peak, most of whom were of Native American descent.  The interpretive signs did not mention (at least the ones that I read) that the town collapsed because of the relocation of local Native Americans to White Earth Reservation in 1868 and the subsequent railroad construction in Brainerd.

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Aside from the town of Crow Wing, visitors can hike along the Red River Oxcart Trail to where oxcarts forded across the Mississippi River.   The Red River Trail was established as a trade route to Winnipeg, Manitoba.  The section near Crow Wing was constructed through Ojibwe territory, as it was viewed safer at the time than passing through Dakota territory.   In addition to this trail (which was very buggy) visitors can also view a battle site where Ojibwe and Dakota people fought in 1768.  There is also a reconstructed chapel of Father Pierz, who built a mission near Crow Wing and promoted white settlement and the acculturation of Native Americans (through conversion to Catholicism and adopting European farming practices).  I did not visit the chapel as I was not as interested in Catholic history and the mosquitoes were too intense.

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Pros:

This state park was my favorite of the three.  There is a lot to like!  Native American history, a ghost town, ox cart trail, and battle site (though there was not a lot of information about the 1768 battle).   It also seemed to be the most accessible of the three parks, as the trails were flatter and the distance to the ghost town was not far.  With that said, those with walkers or wheelchairs would still find it difficult to navigate.  However, families or those with less restrictive mobility issues might be able to enjoy the ghost town.  The reconstructed boardwalk is rustic looking, but this also makes it uneven.  That could be a challenge.  As a whole, state park hiking trails do not seem that accessible, but this one might be slightly less daunting.  The history is the main attraction of this park.  The nature is also nice as well.  Although it is only 30 minutes north of Little Falls, the landscape features conifers, wetlands, and wet prairie.  It is also a location to enjoy the Mississippi River (as it meets the Crow Wing river).


Cons:

There really weren’t any cons to this park, other than the mosquitoes.  I suppose that a con could be that the ghost town of Crow Wing seems to be excellent habitat for snakes- as I saw at least three by the boardwalk.  I am not bothered by snakes, but this might frighten some people.  Interestingly, I also saw a small lizard.  There are only three lizards that are found in Minnesota.  I have never seen one.  I believe that the one that I saw was a prairie skink, as that is the most common and is found in that part of the state.  Again, this should go in the pros, as who isn’t pro skink?  So scratch that, there is nothing wrong with this park except for the millions of mosquitoes and fact that the office was closed AGAIN!  I missed out on another collectable patch.


Conclusion:

If there are two lessons to draw from these state park visits it is 1.) be prepared for bugs.  2.) state parks need more funding and staffing.  To address the first issue, yes, I have complained a LOT about insects.  I could certainly dress differently or prepare myself in other ways for the massive amount of insects.  Another idea is to visit these parks in times of the year where the insects are less active.  Daily weather variations can also make a difference.  Had there been heavy wind or rain, the insects would not have been as active.  I think that next year, if I visit any state parks in the month of July I will choose places that are not as wet, as each of these parks is either located on rivers or lakes.  Southern or Western Minnesota might be better options for July.  To address the staffing issue, I was shocked that the parks seemed like ghost towns…(aside from the actual ghost town of Crow Wing).  The parks seemed very understaffed.  What has happened?  We really need to do more to staff the parks!  Of course, there were few visitors at the parks as well.  These parks may not be as well-visited as other parks in Minnesota.  Nevertheless, it is summer, so I expect that there would be SOME tourism to these parks.  I guess we really need to promote state park visits and funding for staff.   Otherwise, hopefully this inspires someone to visit a state park this summer and now you know what to expect!

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Ten Reasons Why Travel Won’t Make You Better

Top 10 Reasons

Ten Reasons Why Travel Won’t Make You Better

H. Bradford

6/18/18

With the death of Anthony Bourdain, there have been many well meaning articles which encourage people to travel so that they can become better people.  This is a common theme in travel writing- the transformative power of travel. However, I am uncomfortable with this framing- especially the claim that travel makes you better.  Sometimes this claim is qualified by saying that it will make a person more adventurous, more comfortable with strangers, smarter, more flexible, more self aware, etc. I think this is a dangerous narrative, and that believing that travel makes a person better can actually make a person worse.  At the very least, it is a hollow, self-congratulatory platitude for those who have had the privilege of traveling. So, to buck the trend of “travel makes you better” here is a top ten list of how travel doesn’t make you better.


1.Better is Comparative

What is better?  Better is a comparative adjective.  Thus, to argue that travel makes someone “better” means that there is an unnamed subject that the traveler is better than.   Perhaps travel makes a person better than the person they were before they traveled. The comparison is between the past and present self.  More darkly, the comparison could be between the traveler and those who have not traveled. This is problematic because travel is a privilege, which will be addressed later.  While it may seem benign to suppose that travel makes an individual better than they were before they traveled, this argument concedes that the worth of a human being has something to do with how much they have traveled.  Am I a better person because I have traveled? No, the quality of my humanity is no better. I may be more knowledgeable about certain subjects, have some fond memories, or feel proud of confronting my fears but my overall “betterness” is non-existent.  I am no better than the human I was before I traveled and no better than any human who has not traveled.  Really, this vague notion of “better” is inherently hierarchical, as it divides humans (even as individuals) into better and lesser. The danger of this is that, once again, travel is a privilege that not everyone has access to.  It also assumes that travel is intrinsically good.

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Bulawayo, Zimbabwe


 

2. Better is Subjective

Most people who argue that travel makes you better are probably not intending to divide the world between better and lesser people.  The sloppy comparison is not meant to be harmful. It is just an example of the taken for granted expressions of common speech. When travel blogs argue that travel makes you “better” it is meant to express that travel improves a set of specific characteristics of an individual traveler.  For instance, a travel blog might argue that travel makes a person better at problem solving or better at talking to strangers. Arguably, travel can make someone better at some things. For example, a person who travels frequently may be better at navigating public transportation systems or packing a suitcase (of course, these very specific applications of “better” are not typical of the “travel makes you better arguments” ).  It seems reasonable that a person who packs suitcases often may gain skills in fitting objects into a small space and deciding what not to pack as a matter of experience. Compared to someone who does not pack suitcases, this seems true. However, “better” must still be operationalized. How does one measure the quality of betterness at packing suitcases? The volume of objects that are fit inside? The amount of time it takes to pack said objects?  If these were deemed the measures of “betterness,” travel is not the only act that creates the improvement of these skills, but rather the act of frequent packing that is associated with travel. A person could develop this skill as a hobby, as a competitive sport (the made up sport of timed packing contests), frequent moving, because of work travel, or maybe even playing Tetris. The big idea is that most uses of the word “better” are subjective. “Better” is not an objective measure (as in the packing example, where it is based upon time and volume) but rather personal opinions, emotions, norms, or less measurable qualities.  A person who travels may indeed be “better” at talking to strangers by some objective measures, but this is unlikely to be universally true or true only on account of the travel experience. Finally, the improvement of this skill is only subjectively important. Image may contain: sky, tree, mountain, nature and outdoor

Travel probably has made me “better” at packing and camping… but only marginally.


3.Better is Fleeting

Years ago, I spent a semester in South Korea, I studied Korean history and language.  When I returned to the United States, I maintained my interest in the country for a short time by taking a another Korean history class and reading books.  For a time, it could be said that I was “better” at Korean language and “better” at history (as compared to my pre-travel self and the average American who had not studied these things).  But with time, this knowledge has faded. While I am still more knowledgeable about topics related to Korea than I would have been had I never studied or traveled there, there are still plenty of things I never learned, will never know, and have long forgotten.  The disciplined study of of another language or a country’s history, art, popular culture, music, etc. is a lifelong pursuit that cannot be accomplished simply with a visit, no matter the length. Even becoming an expert in a subject area related to a specific country or area is an ongoing struggle to stay abreast of the latest research.  Without ongoing effort to learn more, question what is known, build upon existing knowledge, and make connections to other areas of knowledge…”better” is subject to entropy. Thus, while travel may make someone “better” in the sense they are more knowledgeable, this kind of better declines with time unless effort is made to maintain or improve upon the original set of knowledge.

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So many forgotten experiences…so much lost knowledge…


Some travel blogs argue that travel makes someone better, not in the area of knowledge, but in personality traits such as flexibility, problem solving, interpersonal skills, etc.  I imagine that these areas are more variable in their decline. A person who learned to problem solve while traveling may have gained a lifelong skill, or, perhaps in other contexts, that same person could become rigid.  On the other hand, some of these traits might grow better with time, irrespective of travel. I imagine that the average person who must work and interact with people would over time improve their interpersonal skills simply as a matter of surviving in a society wherein some level of interpersonal skills are required for maintaining a job, maintaining friendships, and navigating social interactions to meet basic needs like food and shelter.  In any event, whatever “better” is, ultimately it is illusive, temporary, and contextual.


 

4. Better Rarely Matters

Suppose travel does make a person better in some ways.  I think that my geography skills are probably better than they might be had I never traveled (though my studious roommates who do not internationally travel are much better at geography than I am AND my comrade who has a P.h.d in GIS is infinitely better at geography than I am).  So what? Why does it matter? Why does it matter that I might be better than average at geography or alternatively worse than others at it? My worth as a human being is not dependent upon my geography skills. Knowing geography is useful in some contexts (such as teaching geography, current event literacy, or trivia), but the masses of the world do not live or die by my knowledge of geography.  The masses of the world live and die in poverty, by preventable disease, by the wars inflicted by my own country, and the legacies of colonization exasperated by the inequalities of global capitalism. My knowledge of geography is important only inasmuch as it can be used to understand and dismantle systems of power. Can travel offer insights that can work towards this end? Of course. It can connect people to others, be a tool of solidarity and collaboration, can mobilize others towards common causes, or be a source of education on injustices.  This matters, but only because I value the advancement of social struggle. Travel that makes a person a “better” activist in terms of their effectiveness in advancing struggle certainly has value. Travel that connects and fuels social movements has value. But, almost all of my travel is for pleasure, education, and self-fulfillment. Whatever I gain in the interest of these things, even if I personally become “better”- means little to the rest of the world…which traveling should teach is often entrenched in poverty. What does it matter if I become better at talking to strangers, packing a suitcase, navigating public transportation, or gain the sense I am a more whole person?  What does it matter if I become more knowledgeable about a country’s history or culture? What does better matter unless it is a means to an end? The end of self betterment is not globally liberating. The end of fond memories or confronting fear will not ensure a more just world. Becoming a “better” person simply doesn’t matter. We all die. So the goal of becoming a better person for its own sake is a dead end. Becoming a “better” person…in the interest of becoming a more useful and effective member of movements for social change expands the self beyond an individual life or needs. Of course, this is also draining, disappointing, and doesn’t make for great Instagram photos.  I am not selfless and tireless enough to only travel in the interest of building social change. So, what does my “better” matter, if not for those things? What does anyone’s “better” matter, if not for those things? And, since travel is not required to become better at the things that truly matter (as much as anything matters in the indifferent universe), does travel matter?

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Some of my knowledge from travel is useful when I play trivia with friends


5.Travel is a Privilege:

 

A major problem with the notion that travel makes you better is that not everyone can travel.   80% of the world lives on less than $10 a day. For most of the world, international travel is not an option because it is simply too expensive.  This means that travel is mostly a source of “betterment” to people from wealthier countries (i.e. often those with colonial histories which enabled earlier economic development at the expense of exploited colonies).  Within wealthier countries where more people may have the leisure time and resources to travel, race, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability, and other sources of social inequality limits who is able to travel and who is not.  I have certainly seen many Australians traveling in Europe, but I would be hard pressed to find an aboriginal Australian among them. This isn’t to argue that aboriginal Australians never travel, but since 19% of the population lived in poverty (in 2014), it would be harder for many of them to afford travel.  16% of Americans live in poverty, but 27% of African Americans live in poverty and 26% of Hispanics. Larger segments of racial minority populations simply cannot to travel on account of poverty, not to mention other barriers such as incarceration or safety issues. 12% of Americans have disabilities. While having a disability does not mean that a person cannot travel, depending on the disability, it could create barriers or restrictions to travel.  Travel safety is also an issue. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer, etc. travelers may be restricted in where they can visit to do fear of repression, hate crimes, incarceration, etc. Travel is far easier if you have money, are cisgender male, straight, white, healthy, young, and child free. Of course, there are plenty of people who are not these things and who travel. Still, 63% of Americans have never been outside the country. It is easy to think that Americans are ignorant, xenophobic bumpkins.  In a survey (conducted by a luggage company), 76% of respondents said they wanted to travel but it wasn’t financially possible and 25% said they lacked the time. Only 10% responded that they had no interest. The bottom line is that most people in the world cannot afford to travel or have social barriers to travel. It seems unfair to rate some people as “better” for doing something that is out of the reach of so many more.

https://nypost.com/2018/01/11/a-shocking-number-of-americans-never-leave-home/

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A street in Bridgetown, Barbados

 


 

 6.  Not Wanting to Travel is Okay

One of the myths behind travel is that it will open up the world, transforming the traveler into someone who is no longer closed minded, ignorant, prejudiced, provincial, etc.  This implies that people who do not travel are closed minded, ignorant, prejudiced, and so on. Now, I certainly want people to look at the world beyond borders. I want people to think against our foreign policy and national interests.  I agree that society would be better if there was less racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, ableism, and all the other “isms.” But, a person does not have to travel to be an open minded internationalist who wants to end social inequalities.  Travel is not the only means nor the best means to become open minded and globally aware. There are plenty of travelers who travel with their prejudices and ignorance. There are plenty of travelers who change very little after their experience. Travel is not the magic key to betterment.


Most of my friends do not travel.  Yet, all of my friends are aware of the world and committed to social justice.  Some of my friends do not travel due to income, lack of vacation time, health, criminal background, and other barriers.  I have one friend who adamantly says he does not want to travel. Is there anything wrong with this? Why would there be?  Not everyone wants to travel, just as not everyone wants to plant a garden, watch birds, go for long hikes, collect stamps, go to sporting events, attend concerts, scuba dive, or any number of other activities.  Not wanting to travel doesn’t make someone “bad” or stupid, or closed minded, or inferior. It is simply a matter of preference. A person can prefer not to travel, but still have a deep interest in learning about the world and still have a strong commitment to changing social injustices.  Just as a person can travel and be entirely indifferent to social injustice and blind to privilege. There are many ways to learn about the world. Formal education, self-education, employment, community engagement, volunteering, activism, hobbies, etc. can connect individuals to people who are different from themselves and broaden the mind to social justice issues.


7. Travel Can Be Unethical

There are many unethical aspects to travel.  Firstly, travel requires transportation- which generally means using more fossil fuels than one would use if they just stayed home.  Travel can also be a source of waste. For instance, the airline industry produces 5.2 million tons of waste each year in the form of such things as empty bottles, uneaten meals, packaging, etc.  https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/airlines-cabin-waste/index.html


Many countries lack waste management systems, so even if a person wants to recycle or compost, there is a lack of infrastructure to support this, much less the more basic service of garbage collection.  I have certainly littered when in other countries simply because proper trash disposal was nowhere to be found. Increased travel to natural areas can impact plant and animal populations and increased travel anywhere creates more demand for tourist supporting infrastructure such as roads, hotels, stores, and restaurants (which can result in loss of human neighborhoods or natural habitats depending upon where these are built). Travel does not make a person “better” in terms of their environmental impact. Image may contain: mountain, sky, outdoor, water and nature

An underground landfill fire in Grenada- indicating a waste management problem


Travel changes economies.  With the decline of industry in my own region, the economy has shifted more towards tourism.  The impact of this has been the expansion of lower paying, non-union, service industry jobs with higher turnover and greater sensitivity to economic downturn.  Of course, workers can always fight back for higher wages, better conditions, and unions- which has been happening in the service economy, but this takes time and organization.  On a global scale, catering to the tastes of tourists can mean a homogenization or Disneyfication of culture, shift in labor from subsistence to tourist economies or from production to service economies, marketization of culture and environments, privatization of resources, and dependency on tourism (which is a variable source of income), increased reliance on imports (as the economy shifts from producing things to services or to meet the needs of tourists) etc.


At the same time, economies change and tourism fills the gap of industries which once were (but are no longer profitable).  It is very hard for island countries to maintain a global, “competitive advantage” due to trade laws, transportation costs, lack of land, lack of money for capital investment, etc.  For instance, it would be very hard for many Pacific Island countries to be major exporters of produce, since the islands are far from each other, often small, and far away from global markets.  Because of colonization and globalization, subsistence ways of life have been disrupted. Tourism is a way to generate some income and create some jobs. Tourism isn’t necessarily evil and may have the positive impact of injecting money into these economies.  However, the plight of these countries is a complicated mix of colonization, current trade practices, climate change, and tourism. A well meaning tourist can attempt to patronize local businesses or engage in ecotourism, but the global economy is set-up to prohibit the development of some countries and continue the dependency of poorer countries on wealthier ones.  Travel is an aspect of this dependency and the consumption practices of a single traveler, no matter how well meaning, cannot alter the nature of global capitalism. Thus, travel does not make a person “better” in terms of their role in the global economy.


8. Travel is Made Possible by Imperialism

From a socialist perspective, imperialism is a stage of capitalism wherein due to declining profits, developed economies look to perpetuate capitalism and avoid crisis by expanding trade into global markets, integrating more workers into their economies, and by destroying economic competitors.  This is the motor behind globalization. As a U.S. citizen, I have found that ease of travel often correlates with degree of integration within the global economy and acceptance of the United States foreign policy. For instance, travel to North Korea is currently banned for most Americans (by our own government), Cuba was historically a place U.S. citizens were banned from traveling to due to our trade embargo, and American travel to Iran was briefly banned last year after the U.S. travel ban.  Ease of travel is a function of U.S. imperialism (but also imperialism in general). For instance, in countries like Belarus and Turkmenistan, I was unable to use my ATM card. This seems like a minor inconvenience, but generally, this also means that these countries are not well integrated into the global banking system. On the other hand, some countries literally use U.S. dollars. All U.S. “territories” (i.e. modern colonies) use US dollars, including Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.  Zimbabwe also uses U.S. dollars. For countries which don’t, I never have any issue converting my money, since it is widely accepted as a matter of our position in the global economy. The same cannot be said for someone carrying Albanian lek, who would be hard pressed to convert their money due to its obscurity and relative lack of value. In most countries I have traveled to, I have been able to find English speakers. Again, this is a matter of both American and British imperialism- which has spread the English language around the world and made it a language of economic and political importance.  Likewise, Spanish and French are also used due to the history of colonialism and imperialism. Infrastructure which today supports tourists, such as ports, airports, and roads, were often built by colonial powers in the interest of extracting resources from these countries or to support military interests (an extension of imperialism). For example, Kinshasa airport was first built by the Belgians, Cairo International airport was first used as an airfield by the U.S. during World War II, Ahmed Ben Bella airport in Algeria was first used by the French in WWII as an airfield, etc. This isn’t to argue that countries do not build their infrastructure on their own, independent of imperialism, but that imperialism has shaped the globe, making it far easier for me to travel than someone from a country that was never a world power.  Can I really argue that travel makes me “better” when my ability to travel has been lubricated by imperialism?

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(In North Korea in 2010)


9. Travel Has No Intrinsic Value

The nature of value is complicated, since the word value is used in a variety of ways.  In a Marxist sense, something has use value if it has “usefulness” or utility and exchange value if it can be expressed in price or traded as a commodity.  Travel is a set of experiences, but not a singular entity or commodity. It may be many commodities which are consumed in the process of travel. In this sense, to my best understanding, travel does not have use value or exchange value, though aspects of travel may possess these things.  Travel can be broken down into meals, hotel stays, flights, bus tickets, tours, and so on, which have exchange value. But, this is a very mechanistic view of what value means.


When most people talk about the value of travel, they are referring not to the economic value, but the value of memories and experiences.   Of course, on an individual level, these things have value. The problem is that some people idealize this value above other experiences. Is the value of travel greater than the value of other things?  It is tempting for some travelers to revel in the freedom of travel and to frame it as superior to such things as working 9-5, having children, settling down, staying in one place, forming routines, being tied down by responsibilities, and so on.  Does travel have more value than working? Well, travel is often a lot more fun than working. But, is the value of fun greater than the value of work? What is the value of work (not in the Marxist sense) but the everyday, more generic sense? I work at a domestic violence shelter, as a substitute teacher, and at a women’s health clinic.  Reproductive health is a heck of a lot more important than having fun! Access to abortion and other reproductive health care is fundamental to the equality of women (or anyone with the capacity of becoming pregnant). If everyone who worked in this field suddenly decided to take prolonged vacations, resulting in the shutdown of reproductive health services (this is an unrealistic scenario)  society would be worse off. My own work in this area is minimal and part time, so it is important not to overstate my own contribution to this area. The main point is that travel is often framed as better than work, but work has a lot of value. My full time job is at a domestic violence shelter- it is hard to imagine that travel, which is done for fun and selfish reasons, is of a higher importance or value.  Travel is important to me, but the social value of sheltering survivors/victims of domestic violence is greater than the value of travel. Leisure travel does not address a social problem or meet a social need. Image may contain: text


I don’t wish to overstate the importance of work, since work can be draining, stressful, exploitative, a source of struggle, and necessity for survival.  Because work is alienating and exploitative, escape from work through travel is idealized. But, escape from work does not improve labor conditions or improve the lot of working people.  It does not alter the conditions of work. Still, people SHOULD work less. There should be more vacation time and more time to pursue anything which broadens the human experience, including travel, hobbies, community engagement, relationship building, education, etc.  Yes, travel is one of the things that can enrich the human experience. But, so can having children, building meaningful relationships, connecting with a community, planting gardens, going for hikes, or any number of experiences. Work also has the potential to enrich the human experience, but to do so, it must be liberated from capitalist exploitation.


 

10. Travel Can Make You Worse

Finally, there is no rule that travel will make you better (whatever that is).  Travel can make a person worse. By worse, I mean, it can give a person a sense of inflated importance.  It can make someone believe that they are more knowledgeable or have lived a superior lifestyle. Like the character in Rocky and Bullwinkle, who prattled on about his marvelous adventurous, it can make a person a egotistical, elitist, and out of touch.  Look at me! I’ve been there! I’ve done that! I know all about that! I know the best place to stay! I know the best deals! Of course, I fall victim to this as well, since I often write about travel- pretending that I have some important knowledge or insight to pass on.  Well, I am doing that right now- passing on the insight that travel does not make you better! Image result for commander mcbragg


Travel can make you “worse” in other ways.  Travel can be tiring, stressful, socially exhausting, confusing, make people sick, costly, dangerous, frustrating, disappointing, etc.  The toll of the challenges of travel can bring out the worst characteristics in some travelers. I myself have become withdrawn, anxious, depressed, fatigued, frustrated, judgemental, etc. while traveling.  I can hardly say I am my best self when faced with challenges and new situations. I have certainly observed other travelers melt down or engage in maladaptive behaviors to combat or mute the stress of travel.  Excessive eating, drinking, and spending are some ways that others might cope with the hardships of travel. Drinking too much is especially common. While there might be some awesome, cool, well-adapted, roll-with-the punches travelers out there, there are probably many more than have yelled at hotel staff or looked at difference with disgust.


In a material sense, travel can make you worse.  When I spend money on travel, it means that I am not spending money on other things.  I am going to be far worse off in my retirement years because I spent money on travel rather than saving for old age.  I am not building my savings for a rainy day or unforeseen catastrophe. Travel is not the most prudent thing to spend money on.  However, I value the experiences so I continue to spend money on them.


Travel can make a person’s health worse.  I have been fortunate that I have never become majorly ill from travel, but travel does expose people to diseases that they might not otherwise encounter.  I have almost zero risk of contracting malaria or yellow fever if I just stay home…


 

Conclusion:

 

This may seem rather negative, but I really feel that travel does not make you “better” just as formal education does not make you “better”, having a professional career does not make you “better,” or any number of other things makes a person better.  I enjoy travel, but it does not make me better. In some ways, it makes me worse than others. I would love to travel more than I do. I encourage others to travel. I admire those who travel. However, I don’t know that it is the path to betterment or that such a pursuit is even a worthy goal.  What is betterment outside of comparison, hierarchy, or elitism? In what ways does “better” concede to an economy that makes money by making us believe that we need to be more than what we are? Of course, at some basic level I want to improve upon myself, grow, change, and experience new things.  But does accomplishing this make me better than others or better than my past self? At the core of these sorts of questions is the bigger question of what is meaningful in a world where everything dies or changes, where life is short and harsh for many, and never fully realized by the vast majority of us.  Through the prism of pain and dying, the “best” among us are those who work the hardest to make the suffering in the world less and work to build a world wherein more people can explore their full humanity. Travel can sometimes support this goal, but for me, it tends to be a diversion.

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The Road NOT Traveled: Seven Things We Didn’t See

The Road NOT Traveled: Seven Things We Didn’t See

H. Bradford

5/31/18

As much as we packed into each day, there was quite a lot that my brother and I did not see on our road trip.  I think that no matter how long or short a trip is, there are always things that a person misses out on. In life in general, there isn’t time for everything!  So, here are some highlights of the Road NOT Traveled, should anyone undertake a road trip between Texas and Minnesota and need some additional ideas of places to stop.


 

1. Mammoth National Monument- Waco, Texas

Originally, we had planned on traveling along Interstate 35 to Waco, Texas.  The goal was to see Mammoth National Monument, a park operated by the US National Park Service wherein visitors can see two dozen mammoth fossils.  I think it would have been pretty interesting to visit the site and learn more about Colombian mammoths and other Pleistocene animals. However, this would have taken us through thick traffic.  We instead made the choice to visit Balcones Canyon Lands. We ended up seeing an endangered golden cheeked warbler. I think seeing the warbler was probably more special than seeing the mammoths.  After all, the mammoth fossils aren’t going anywhere… Image result for mammoth national monument

image from National Parks Conservation Association


2. Dr. Pepper Museum- Waco, Texas

I don’t even like Dr. Pepper.  Yet, for some reason I wanted to make a stop at the Dr. Pepper Museum in Waco, Texas.  I guess it was just another thing to do in Waco. Well, we skipped Waco and missed out on the museum.  Twenty four mammoths and twenty three flavors were not enough to draw us to Waco…

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image from Dr.pepper museum website


3. Frida Kahlo Mexican Restaurant and Billy the Kid’s Grave-Hamilton, Texas:

I missed out on the Frida Kahlo Mexican restaurant and the so-called grave of Billy the Kid in Hamilton, Texas.  The grave actually belongs to Brushy Bill Roberts, who claimed to be Billy the Kid.   I suppose visiting the site would be akin to visiting the the grave of someone who claimed to be Anastasia Romanov.  I was not aware of these sites until we passed through.  Since we were on our way to Dinosaur Valley State Park and had not planned a stop, we passed along without stopping.

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image from Tripadvisor


4. Giant Czech Egg- Wilson, Kansas:

“Awe, look…they’re even wearing their cute little outfits,” my brother said regarding Wilson, Kansas’ Czech Egg and the accompanying Czech denizens of the small town.  The community features a 20 foot tall painted Czech Egg. Unfortunately, it was impossible to include the giant painted egg in our adventure, since it is located four hours away from the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.  The “Czech Capital” of Kansas was too westerly to fit into our road trip. I am sure it would have been fantastic to see the giant egg, but not enough to add several more hours of driving in the opposite direction.

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image from Atlas Obscura


 

5. TruckHenge-Topeka, Kansas:

I really wanted to see TruckHenge, a work of art from an anti-social anti-government sort who was told to remove the junk from his property but instead turned it into a tourist attraction.   Located outside of Topeka, Kansas, a visit to the site would not have added THAT much time to our trip. However, my brother had misgivings about visiting the property of a seemingly hostile anti-government individual whose odd, scrawled messages on the cars indicated that a social visit to his private property would amount to an awkward interaction.  A visit to the farm would necessarily mean interacting with this person as he gave us a tour of the property.   It is hard to know what to expect from this person. Would he engage us in political conversation? What would we say?  How long would the tour last?  Would we offend him?  There were too many social unknowns about such a visit.  I, on the other hand, had initially mistaken Truckhenge for Carhenge, which is an ACTUAL replica of Stonehenge with cars.  Carhenge is located on western end of Nebraska and therefore too far out of the way to make it worth our while. So, there was no Truckhenge or Carhenge for us! Image result for truck henge He might have been a polite and reserved tour guide.  I guess we will never know…


6.  Subterra Castle-Topeka Kansas area:

Just west of Topeka, tourists can visit (and stay at!) a missile silo turned unique home!  The missile silo was decommissioned in 1965 and purchased for $40,000 in 1983 by Ed Peren and his wife.  Ed turned the missile silo into a livable space (pumping out water and testing for radiation). They have decorated the space with New Age decor and offer private tours of their home.  I think it would have been interesting to visit, but tours must be arranged in advance. Lack of time and planning prevented a visit.

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image from Subterracastle.com


 

7. Kregel Windmill Museum-Nebraska City, Nebraska:

I wrongly assumed that the Kregel Windmill Museum in Nebraska City is the only museum of its kind.  Oddly enough, there are a sprinkling of other windmill museums across the US and even in South Africa!  The Kregel Windmill Museum was on our road trip agenda but was cut because we ended up taking a different route to Sioux City, Iowa when we visited the Indian Cave State Park.  Given the choice between seeing a museum devoted to a windmill manufacturer or Native American petroglyphs, I chose the petroglyphs. While I may have missed out on the Kregal Windmill Museum, perhaps I can chase windmills another day (as Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Indiana also have windmill museums.) Image result for kregel windmill factory museum

image from wikipedia


There are only so many hours in a day.  A person has to choose if they are going to see endangered warblers or a mammoth graveyard.  Choices must be made between Native American petroglyphs and windmill museums.  The worth of visiting a slice of prairie must be weighed against the value of giant painted eggs.  Life (for some people) is full of choices.  I like to think that life is long.  Perhaps, one day, I will visit some of these sites.  Perhaps not!  Of course, there are others that were not mentioned, as we passed by numerous interesting places along the way.   There are always roads not taken and all of the fascinating things that will only be experienced in the imagination.   I am happy for the privilege of experiencing those things that I can.

Fantastic Birds and Where We Found Them

Fantastic Birds and Where We Found Them

H. Bradford

5/29/18

A highlight of visiting new areas is the possibility of seeing new birds.  I feel that I have been growing a lot as a birder, but it is both a body of knowledge, practice/training, and a skill set (attention to detail, spotting things quickly, memory).  Thankfully, my brother was a good sport and helped me spot birds.  Having a second set of eyes was helpful in uncovering some of the bird life hidden in the world around me.  With that said, here are some of the top birds that we spotted between Texas and Minnesota on our road trip!  (Note that many of the photos are poor quality since the birds are distant, moving, or just hard to easily capture for me).


    1. Golden Cheeked Warbler:

       

The Golden cheeked warbler only nests in Central Texas and nowhere else in the world.  According to Audubon’s guide to North American birds, it prefers mature woods of ashe juniper and has been threatened by loss of habitat and nest parasitism from cowbirds.  My brother and I set out for the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge in search of the bird.  I didn’t have high hopes of finding it, since it is rare and warblers can be difficult to spot.  We hiked along a juniper covered hill in search of the endangered bird and only found it at the end of the hike.  The warbler actually perched a few feet away from my brother.  It wasn’t too difficult to identify, since we had passed sixteen trail markers along the way which featured a painted image of the bird.  The bird’s population is about 21,000, so it is rarest bird I have seen.  Texas land developers want to de-list the bird as an endangered species.  1/3 of the bird’s habitat was destroyed between 1999 – 2011.   It would be a terrible loss if this bird went extinct due to the profit driven shortsightedness of land developers.  Plus, the mature juniper forests we hiked through are a really unique and pretty habitat. https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/golden-cheeked-warbler https://www.audubon.org/news/yet-again-texas-developers-try-delist-endangered-golden-cheeked-warbler

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2. Scissor Tailed Flycatcher

I really wanted to see a Scissor Tailed Flycatcher because they are unique looking birds.  I had never seen one before until visiting the Botanical Gardens in San Antonio.  Of course, once I saw one…I saw them all over!  The birds were perched on wires along the roads between Texas and southern Kansas.  They range across the southern great plains and seemed especially common in Oklahoma.  Since they range so far south, I certainly have never encountered one in Minnesota.  They are related to kingbirds and I watched one of them swoop to eat insects at Dinosaur Valley State Park in Texas.

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3. Painted Bunting

My brother spotted an unfamiliar bird at Government Canyon.  The brilliantly bright bird was about the size of a sparrow.  When I caught it in my binoculars, I saw that it was a painted bunting…one of those birds that is immediately recognizable to anyone who has browsed bird guides.  The colorful, green, red, and blue bird can be found in the South eastern United States, including Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana as well as some parts of the Carolinas and Florida.  Like the Scissor Tailed Flycatcher, once we spotted one we were seeing them all over- with sightings at Balcones Canyonlands and Dinosaur Valley State Park.  That is one of the interesting things about birding.  You can be “bird blind” to a species or all birds, until you take time to notice/identify them- then suddenly- they are everywhere!

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4. Indigo Bunting:

Further north in Nebraska, my brother spotted a small blue bird, which I recognized as an Indigo Bunting.  Although Indigo Buntings can be found in Minnesota, I have never seen one.  There were dozens of the blue colored birds near the wetland trail at Indian Cave State Park.  The bird ranges throughout the Eastern half of the United States, from Texas to Minnesota, eastward to the Atlantic coast.

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5. Lark Sparrow:

Sparrows aren’t always the easiest to identify, since they are generally some variation of brown.  Still, as I identify more birds, I know that sparrows are in the frontier of new species that I can add to my life list.  Thankfully, the Lark Sparrow was easy to identify.  I spotted one at Dinosaur Valley State Park, but also saw a few in Kansas.  I didn’t immediately know that I had observed a new sparrow, but I did note that its facial pattern stood out compared to other sparrows I have seen.  Lark Sparrows are not found in Minnesota as they tend to range further west and south.

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6. Black chinned hummingbird

The only hummingbird regularly found in Minnesota is the Ruby throated hummingbird.  I was definitely hoping to see another species of hummingbird on my trip.  To this end, I spent some time in the butterfly garden of the San Antonio Botanical gardens, where I believe I saw a female black chinned hummingbird.
The black throated hummingbird is most commonly found in the southwestern United States.  I got a better view of this hummingbird at Dinosaur Valley State Park, where I saw several easier to identify males.   Black chinned hummingbirds are common in the Western united states and closely related to Ruby throated hummingbirds.

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7. Golden- Fronted Woodpecker

In addition to seeing another species hummingbird, I really wanted to see more woodpeckers.  I was treated to a sighting of a Golden fronted woodpecker at the San Antonio Botanical gardens.  I happened to make a second, last minute visit to the bird observatory, where the woodpecker was perched by a dried up orange.  According to Allaboutbirds, Golden Fronted woodpeckers enjoy eating grass hoppers and sometimes stain their beaks purple from eating prickly pears.  The woodpecker is found in Oklahoma and Texas. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Golden-fronted_Woodpecker/overview?gclid=EAIaIQobChMI6O_o9bKW2wIVEtbACh26xgVwEAAYASAAEgIUo_D_BwE


8. Red-Headed Woodpecker:

Red-headed woodpeckers can be found in Minnesota, but I have never seen one.  It seems that they range across much of the Eastern United States.  My first sighting of a red-headed woodpecker was at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.  My brother and I spotted one in the forest along the river.  It was a quick sighting, but the bird is pretty unmistakable with its entirely red head.  According to Allaboutbirds, the Red-headed woodpecker has many nicknames, the best of which is probably Jellycoat.  Fossils of red-headed woodpeckers have been found in Florida, dating back as much as 2 million years.


 

9. Meadowlark:

Another bird that I wanted to see was a meadowlark.  Meadowlarks can be found in Minnesota, but once again, I have not seen one.  Once we entered Kansas, I started to see meadowlarks everywhere!  They were on fence posts and power lines.  One flew over my brother’s van.  Of course, there are Western and Eastern Meadowlarks- which look extremely similar.  The state bird of Kansas is the Western Meadowlark.  I want to assume that is what I saw, but both birds can be found in Kansas as their ranges overlap.  I took a photo of one of them at Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve.  Upon looking at the photo, I believe it was an Eastern Meadowlark…as it had a whiter mustache and bolder colors.  Maybe among all of the Meadowlarks I saw, I saw a few of each.  I didn’t hear the song, which is an easier way of telling the two apart.

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10. Swallows:

I saw several species of swallows on my trip.  Swallows have been difficult for me to identify because they look similar, move quickly, and often don’t pause long enough for a good look.  However, I am slowly starting to sort out the swallows one by one.  For instance, if it is solidly dark, it is a purple martin.  If it is purple/blue on top but white on the underside, it is a tree swallow.  A blue and brown head with a forked tail is a barn swallow and a blue and brown head (+ white spot) without a forked tail is a cliff swallow.   A swallow that is brown with a brown chest, is a bank swallow.  This is a fairly rough guide to the differences, but has helped me sort out the swallows.  I saw cliff swallows in Oklahoma City and bank swallows at Indian Cave State Park.  The San Antonio Botanical Gardens had tree swallows and purple martins.  I also saw Barn swallows along the way.

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Conclusion:

During the road trip, I saw over 25 new species of birds.  I am sure if I was a better birder, there were probably at least 40 new species of birds.   Kansas and Nebraska were great for viewing raptors, but it was hard to identify them while driving.  There were other birds that I saw, such as a curved billed thrasher, tufted titmouse, sedge wren, lesser yellowlegs, orchard oriole, Loggerhead shrike, etc. which added to my list.   My brother saw a bobwhite, but I only caught it making noise and flying away.  Thus, some sightings were better than others.

Other birds: a loggerhead shrike at the Tall Grass National Preserve, a night hawk also at the Tall Grass National Preserve, a blue gray gnatcatcher at Dinosaur Valley, Scrub Jay at Balcones Canyonlands,  Curve billed thrasher at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens, and many more which were too fast to photograph…

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Road Trip: Texas to Minnesota!

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Road Trip:  Texas to Minnesota!

H. Bradford

5/20/18

This year, my brother accepted a new job in Minnesota.  This meant that he had to move his family and belongings from San Antonio to Minnesota.  The move presented a logistical problem, as he has two vehicles but would have had to pay someone to move one of the vehicles north.  So, rather than have him pay someone to move his vehicle- I volunteered to drive it for him!  I thought it might be fun to travel from Texas to Minnesota on an epic sibling road trip.  I planned out some stops and a route for us.  Because of my work schedule (eight days on/six days off) I was able to fly to San Antonio and embark on this road trip without having to miss work.  Of course, the only problem was that 1.) I hate driving.  2.) I have never driven that far before.  3.) I have never really driven in major cities.  But…the lure of adventure outstripped my anxieties and the cross country odyssey began.  Here are some highlights from the cross country journey!


 

Day One/Two: San Antonio

 

Riverwalk:

I arrived in San Antonio in the late afternoon after working a night shift the day before (and a stretch of nine shifts in a row prior to the trip).  Although I was sleep deprived, I had just enough energy to explore the River Walk for a few hours. The River Walk is a well touristed area, but an easy place for a leisurely stroll and overpriced food.  I enjoyed eating Mexican food, observing ducks, and posing by The Alamo. In the past, I have had some misgivings visiting and posing by The Alamo, which is a symbol of Texan independence/statehood. On the other hand, it could also be viewed as a place where Mexico squarely defeated insurgent U.S.settlers.  Or, it could be viewed as a Spanish mission to educate or covert (i.e. acculturate/destroy) Native Americans into the Catholic faith. However one wants to remember The Alamo, a highlight was watching my brother convince one of the park rangers to take a photo with me by pretending to be a guileless tourist, rather than San Antonio resident for the past several years. Image may contain: 2 people, including Heather Bradford, people standing and outdoor


San Antonio Botanical Gardens:

It is hard to rank something like botanical gardens, since each is unique in their own way.  However, I will say that San Antonio probably has one of the best botanical gardens that I have been to.  A person can spend hours in the massive gardens, which features plants from several Texan regions, a pond, a bird observatory, children’s gardens, herb gardens, butterfly gardens, a Japanese garden, collections of ferns and citrus fruit, and much more.  The garden also offers a great view of San Antonio. I visited the garden while my brother was finishing his exit paperwork for the army. I focused on birdwatching, which is also great at the botanical gardens!

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The Missions:

After visiting the botanical garden, my brother and I headed off to see some of the San Antonio missions. Although I have visited San Antonio twice before, I had not visited the missions on my prior trips.  I was not entirely interested in them, since well, they are monuments to the conversion of Native Americans to Catholicism. However, since it was my last visit, I had not previously seen them, and they are World Heritage Sites, I thought there might be some value in paying a brief visit.  As such, we checked out two of the four missions. We visited Mission San Jose and Mission Concepcion. I would say that a highlight of visiting Mission San Jose was walking along the defensive walls of the grounds and imagining what life must have been like for the people who lived within the walls.  We paused to take a photo of the ornate, Rose Window, which was very popular with tourists. Otherwise, after walking the grounds, we headed over to Mission Conception, which was much smaller. The most notable thing about this mission site was the Native American murals. The ceiling of one part of the mission featured a sun with a mustache.  I like to think that the artist wanted to slip in some sort of subtle cultural resistance against Catholicism. No automatic alt text available.


Government Canyon State Natural Area

One of my favorite places to visit in the San Antonio area is Government Canyon.  In the past, I have spent many hours hiking the canyon area. A must see highlight of the hike is the dinosaur footprints, which are located about two and a half miles from the visitor center.  Unfortunately, each time I have visited the tracks have been submerged in water. Despite the algae, mud, and water, the shape of the tracks is generally visible without much imagination. From the dinosaur footprints, hikers can choose several other trails.  This time, my brother and I chose to take the overlook trail.

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Day Three:  San Antonio to Gainesville, Texas

On day three of the trip, we finally left San Antonio via HWY 281 towards Marble Falls.  This route was preferable to the congested and speedy I-35, which would have taken us through Waco Texas (and to Mammoth National Monument).  The easy drive took us through Texas’ Hill Country, past many things named after Lyndon B. Johnson. Our first stop was in Marble Falls for breakfast…


Blue Bonnet Cafe:

We stopped for breakfast at the Blue Bonnet Cafe in Marble Falls, Texas.  I am not a huge fan of pancakes, but I will say that I had the best pancake I’ve eaten at this cafe.  It was fluffy, filling, and thick. I also appreciate that everywhere I ate in Texas had iced tea (at all hours) and that I was often offered a “to go” cup for my refill.  This is not the norm in Minnesota. In any event, the breakfast was a great start to the day, which says a lot since breakfast is my least favorite meal.

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Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge:

Following breakfast, we detoured away from 281 to Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge.  The visitors center was closed, but we went on to hike at the Warbler Vista.  Our goal was to see the elusive and endangered Golden Cheeked Warbler, which is endemic to Texas and only breeds in mature juniper forests.  We wandered along a jagged juniper lined hill trail. While we heard birds, we saw nothing for most of the hike. Then, towards the end of the hike, we decided to take a moment to investigate the source of a birdsong.  Sure enough, it was the Golden Cheeked Warbler!  I struggled to photograph the quick bird as evidence that I had seen the endangered warbler. The bird actually landed a few feet away from my brother, then zipped off to some nearby evergreens.   I was able to snap a photo. We saw and heard the bird a few more times before finishing the trail.  At the end of the trail, I saw two scrub jays, which were also a first time sighting for me. The Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge is also home to the Black capped vireo, another endangered bird. We set off to the Shin Oak overlook, where the bird is sometimes found. However, we did not have any luck seeing this bird.   We saw an Indigo Bunting and many cardinals, which seem pretty abundant in the Texas Hill Country. Image may contain: plant, tree, sky, grass, outdoor and nature Image may contain: bird and outdoor


Dinosaur Valley State Park:

 

Our journey continued towards Dinosaur Valley State Park.  This brought us back along HWY 281 to enjoy more Hill Country scenery and small, Texan towns.  One of the more unique towns that we passed through was Hamilton, Texas. Hamilton features a Frida Kahlo themed Mexican restaurant and the grave of a man who claimed to be Billy the Kid.  Further along 281, Hico Texas hosts a Billy the Kid museum. We did not stop at these places as we lacked the time, but I think that they would have been interesting stops.


We drove on to Dinosaur Valley State Park, which is known for several sets of dinosaur foot prints.  When we arrived, the day was very hot. We were initially very excited to pose by the giant dinosaur statues and find the prints.  The excitement gave way to frustration. The park was very busy and the tracks were located in the water. We slipped out of our shoes, waded into the water, and crossed slippery rocks to view one set of tracks.  This was a lot of effort. I had imagined that the tracks would be permanently etched in mud turned to stone along a dry path. Nope. It is my understanding that all of the tracks are located in the Puluxy River.  There are times of the year when the river is drier and access to the tracks is easier.   Based on my experience, I would recommend bringing water shoes and preparing for some wading to access them.  I would also recommend a water proof camera or not bringing along anything that should not get wet.  On the other hand, the park is an ideal place to bring kids, since children can literally swim around with dinosaur foot prints. Image may contain: cloud, sky, shoes, outdoor and nature Image may contain: outdoor and water


After viewing one set of footprints, we decided to go for a hike.  Hiking on any of the trails involved crossing over the river (which is another good reason to bring water shoes or waterproof hiking boots).  My feet got wet in the crossing. The heat and wet feet added to my waning morale.   I was encouraged by the idea that we might see a rare Black capped vireo on one of the trails.  However, we didn’t see many birds and after driving all day, we didn’t have much energy for a long hike. Our final destination was still over two hours ahead of us, so we eventually turned around to plot the final leg of our day’s journey.

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Gainesville, Texas:

We spent the night on Day Three in Gainesville, Texas, which is located very close to Oklahoma.  The drive there was pleasant enough as we skirted around major cities and the associated traffic.  By the time we arrived, it was late in the evening and we were both tired. We didn’t do much sightseeing in Gainesville, but managed to drag ourselves to a Mexican restaurant not far from our hotel.  I ordered a vegetarian taco, which was stuffed with “mixed vegetables.” As it turned out, the mixed vegetables were literally the sort of mixed vegetables a person gets from a can or in a school lunch (carrots, corn, green beans, lima beans).  It was odd and disappointing.  Otherwise, we strolled around the historic downtown area and called it a day!


Day Four:  Gainesville, Texas to Wichita, Kansas

Day four took us from Gainesville, Texas to Wichita, Kansas.  We set out early, followed Interstate 35, and made our first stop in Oklahoma City to visit a few tourist sites.  Oklahoma has some lovely landscapes and I regret that we did not stop to take some photos as we pressed towards Oklahoma City.

Myriad Gardens and Bricktown:


This botanical garden was smaller than I thought it would be, but it was still a relaxing place to visit.  I enjoyed the small collection of unique fruit plants such as the blackberry jam plant (Randia Formosa) and fruit salad tree (Monstera Deliciosa).  Outside of the greenhouse, there was a park/amphitheater with ducks, irises, and a sunken lake. Myriad Gardens is located by the Bricktown Entertainment District.  My brother and I strolled around the area, enjoying the river walk along the Oklahoma River. I regret that I did not take more photos of Bricktown itself, which seemed like a pretty typical center of urban tourism.  Originally, Bricktown was an industrial area centered around the Santa Fe Railroad. Bricktown and neighboring Deep Deuce were once centers for Oklahoma City’s African American population, but this shifted with the decline of industries, construction of major highways, and desegregation of the city.  In the 1980s the area was purchased by a private developer and further gentrification was promoted by the city’s Metropolitan Area Projects (MAP) program. http://www.blackpast.org/aaw/bricktown-and-deep-deuce-oklahoma-city-1889 Image may contain: sky and outdoor


Museum of Osteology:

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the museum located miles away from Oklahoma City’s center in what appeared to be a neighborhood of warehouses, fields, and road construction.  It was also strange that the remote building was a private museum of skeletons collected by an individual.   It seemed rather eccentric that a person would collect over 300 skeletons, which he personally cleaned, and displayed for the public.  Despite the weird location and fact it was someone’s menagerie of the dead, the museum was actually one of the most memorable that I have visited. The displays were professional and scientific. The skeletons were generally organized by taxonomic families and featured interesting facts.  For instance, I learned that hedgehogs were no longer grouped in the order Insectivora (as it no longer exists).  All of the skeletons were real, with the exception of a collection of early human remains replicas. The center of the museum featured giraffe, whale, hippo, and elephant skeletons.  The gift shop was full of unique souvenirs, including unicorn skeleton bumper stickers, glow in the dark animal skeleton t-shirts, and toad skeletons encased in plastic.

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Chisholm Creek Park/Great Plains Nature Center:

Upon arriving in Wichita, we felt like taking a walk.  We had heard of the Great Plains Nature Center, but read that it was closed on a Sunday.  My brother searched for another nearby park and found the Chisholm Creek Park. As it turned out, the park WAS actually part of the Great Plains Nature Center and OPEN.  This was great luck! We hiked along the trails, which meandered through wetlands, forests, and prairie areas. I saw many birds, including two black crowned night herons, many tree sparrows, and great blue herons.  The park was surprisingly busy for a Sunday evening, with people of all ages enjoying nature. While we didn’t stay long in Wichita, Chisholm Creek Park was definitely worth a visit (and probably even better when the visitor center is open!) Image may contain: outdoor


Day Five:  Wichita to Sioux City, Iowa

Day five of our journey was packed full of driving, outdoors, and adventure.

Tallgrass Prairie Reserve:

Just over an hour away from Wichita on a farmland and meadowlark lined highway is the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve.  This park is a small piece of the ecosystem that once spread across the midsection of country.  Only 4% of the US’ tall grass prairie remains. We arrived early and were immediately charmed by the hilly, grass carpeted landscape and socially awkward park ranger at the visitor center.  Best of all, the park is FREE to visit!  We set off on a trail that began near the visitor center, which took us through pasture and along a wooded river trail.  The small patch of woods hosted a large variety of birds, making for some of the best birding on the trip.  It also shaded us from the sun and provided a nice vantage point for viewing the prairie. We hiked for over two hours, ending just as the sun was gaining strength. If we would have had more time to explore, we could have taken a bus tour to visit other parts of the park and view the bison herd.  Instead, we had a long day of driving ahead of us, so we set off on back roads towards Topeka. I wanted to avoid toll roads, so we took a slightly longer route. The longer route gave us a nice view of the Flint Hills and smaller Kansas communities.

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Westboro Baptist Church:

I was not aware that the Westboro Baptist Church was located in Topeka, Kansas.  The hateful church is located in a quiet residential neighborhood. We stopped for the spectacle of seeing the infamous church and also for the opportunity to give them the finger.  We made the quick stop before taking a fast food lunch break in Topeka. Across the street from the church are two colorful houses. One is decorated in the colors of the Trans flag and the other is clad in rainbow siding.  The house with the pride flag colors is the Equality House, which has hosted weddings, drag shows, and fundraisers. The Trans flag house was purchased by an eight year old transgender child through crowdfunding.  There are many fast food restaurants located near the church, so we stopped for a quick bite to eat before continuing our journey. Image may contain: tree, sky, house, plant, outdoor and nature   Image may contain: Heather Bradford, standing, tree and outdoor


Indian Cave State Park:

From Topeka, we headed to Indian Cave State Park in Nebraska.  We arrived in the late afternoon, once again following rural roads.  I wanted to visit the park, since I thought it would be interesting to see petroglyphs left behind by Native Americans thousands of years ago.  There is also a ghost town nestled within the state park.


We found that the park was very expansive if not a little confusing.   The petroglyphs were located at the furthest end of the park, along a cliff face facing the Missouri River.  The rock wall is more of a cliff than a cave.  Still, the site is easily accessed from the road.  Unfortunately, many people have carved messages into the rock face over the years.  The petroglyphs are hidden within a mess of graffiti.  There seems to be little to prevent further desecration of the monument, so I would recommend visiting the park for the opportunity to see it while you can! Image may contain: outdoor, water and nature


After visiting the petroglyphs, we followed the road back to the ghost town of St. Deroin.  The city was abandoned after the Missouri River shifted and the town lost ferry service. Interestingly, the community was part of the Nemaha Half-breed reservation, who were a group of mixed ancestry Native American/European people.  The reservation ceased to exist in 1861 but some of the descendants continue to live in the area to this day.  It seems like a fascinating history, since they would have been outsiders to both societies and I wonder how modern descendants fare today.  For instance, do they identify with their Native American roots or do they want some kind of federal recognition?

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Finally, we explored a wetland trail near the remnants of St. Deroin, where we saw over a dozen Indigo buntings and my brother saw a bobwhite.  The trail offered a few of the Missouri River, as well its previous path by St. Deroin.


Sioux City, Iowa:

After a long day of driving and exploring, our final stop was Sioux City.  We didn’t arrive until after 9pm, so we really didn’t have time to explore.  My impression was that Sioux City seems to be a hub for semi trucks.  The only thing we did in Sioux City was share an appetizer sampler at Perkins, almost collapse from exhaustion when we arrived at our hotel, and complain about the news coverage of the royal wedding.


 

Day Six:  HOME!


Lake Crystal:

On our final day, we drove from Sioux City to our respective homes.  The final journey took us through Lake Crystal, Mn, where my brother picked up the rest of his family.  I stopped by the nearby Welsh Park, which is named after the second longest city name in the world. Apparently, many Welsh people settled in the area.  There was once a Welsh Methodist church and there is also a Welsh Heritage Orchard.  There is also a Welsh farmstead on the national register of historic places (Jones-Roberts Farmstead).  I don’t know the specifics of Welsh settlement in Lake Crystal, but Blue Earth and LeSueur Countries attracted a few thousand Welsh settlers who farmed in those counties.

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Pigeon Lake Rookery:

Continuing north, we stopped at Pigeon Lake.  Pigeon Lake is a wildlife viewing area, where a person can stop alongside the road and view several islands which serve as rookeries for pelicans, cormorants, and herons.  Without a spotting scope, it is hard to see the scope of the species breeding on the islands. However, even without a spotting scope, hundreds of birds can be seen dotting the islands. Image may contain: sky, tree, outdoor, nature and water


Sartell to Duluth:  The End…

My brother’s final destination was his new home in Sartell.  We spent some time viewing the new house, which was still devoid of his belongings.  From there, my mother drove me back home to Duluth. Thus my road trip ended! I was exhausted, as I had driven over 1,400 miles and seen many things.  The next morning it was back to work for me.


It was nice to have the opportunity to go on a road trip with my brother.  I felt as though I had lived several weeks over the course of several days.  We were busy from the early morning to late night each day.  Even with a busy schedule, we didn’t scratch the surface of everything we could have seen!  There were bones, birds, dinosaur foot prints, petroglyphs, and hikes.  The “flyover” states have plenty to offer and I think that for as much as I dislike the US for its politics, racism, sexism, other isms, history, and place in the world- I can appreciate the US for our natural landscapes.

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Fall Camping! Camping Fail.

Fall Camping! Camping Fail.

H. Bradford

10/15/17

I like camping since it offers me a mini- adventure and time alone.   I like this new ritual of leaving for a day or two and unplugging from Facebook, activism, my phone, and people in general.  So, I was looking forward to camping at Savannah Portage State Park.   I visited the park back in August and March, but had not camped there.  It has become one of my favorite state parks due to the fact that it is not very busy, has great bog walk, and some nice trails.   Thus, I made it a goal that I would camp there this fall.   Here is how it went:

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Firstly, the forecast called for clear, sunny weather when I made my reservation at the campsite.   However, as it grew closer to the date, the weather looked like rain, more rain, light rain, clouds, and thunderstorms.  I am not a huge fan of being wet, but the days are getting shorter and my opportunities for camping will come to an end by the end of this month.   So…I looked up tips of how to comfortably camp in the rain.   I decided that it would not be a big deal and made plans to go birding and hiking- rain or no rain.


Like always, I stopped at Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge on the way to Savannah Portage.  I immediately felt chilled by the rain and wind.   Nevertheless, I spent almost the entire day birding and hiking.  I was wet, but not not drenched.   Despite the inclement weather, I saw many birds.   One highlight was a flock of Pied billed grebes.  These grebes are adorable.  They have cute little fluffy white bird butts, big eyes, and a compact shape.  Another highlight was dozens of Trumpeter swans, even though they were pretty far away- near an island on Rice Lake.   I took a stroll down a service road and came upon two Sandhill cranes.  At first, I thought they were gray stumps or poles.  I guess I wasn’t expecting to see the cranes.   There were many other birds as well, including more ducks than I could hope to count- or identify.  The ducks were some distance away and I am not knowledgeable enough about birding to identify ducks by their flight pattern or shape.   While walking along the service road, I spotted a Lapland longspur.  This isn’t an uncommon bird, but the first time I have identified one.   I thought it was a fun and productive day of birding, but traipsing through wet grass, soggy trails, and drizzling rain left me feeling chilled.

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After leaving the refuge, I headed towards Savannah Portage State Park, picking up some campfire wood along the way.   I spent most of my day birding and I arrived a bit later than I had planned.  The park is remote enough that it is not well staffed and the park office closed at 2pm.  However, there was a notice on the door of what to do if I needed anything.  There are over 50 campsites, but only two were in use that night.  So…I pretty much had the whole state park  AND campground to myself!  There wasn’t even any staff.  Since it was drizzling rain when I arrived, I decided not to set up my tent.  The wind was also picking up.  I concluded that I was already soggy and wasn’t going to enjoy setting up and taking down a wet tent.   Instead, I would save time and effort and sleep in my car.   With nothing to set up, I set off for another hike (as I wanted to make sure that I visited the Bog Walk and did the loop trail around Lake Shumway).   I quickly did both short hikes, beating sunset.   After sunset, I decided to take advantage of my solitude and hike in the dark.   I haunted part of the Continental Divide Trail before the wind picked up again and I decided that hiking in the dark…alone….makes me feel a little uneasy.

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Back at my campsite, I pulled out my firewood and did my best to make a fire.  For whatever reason, this didn’t work out.  The wood that I had purchased was a little damp from being outside.  But, I had purchased some eco-friendly firestarting chips.  These did little to help the flame sustain itself on the wet wood.  I tried burning notebook paper and furiously fanned the flames.  Sometimes the fire lasted as long as five minutes, but after an hour of trying, it never really took off.   This was disappointing because I was going to make myself some hot tea, s’mores, and instant soup.  Instead, I ate cold snacks and drank cold water- which didn’t really do much to dispel the chilled feeling from being outside in the rain all day.   It hadn’t been a particularly cold day and I didn’t get drenched- but there is a certain, demoralizing chilled feeling that rain can bring.


Since the fire wasn’t going to work out, I decided to change clothes, read a book, do some journaling- and snuggle into my sleeping bag- in the backseat of my car.   It wasn’t exactly comfortable- but it was warm and dry.  Also, it was nice to be out of the wind.  Even though it wasn’t that late, I started to feel drowsy.  The wind rustled the leaves outside and droplets of water fell from the foliage onto the roof of my car.  I decided that I would head to bed early- feeling like my camping adventure was a bit of a fail (in terms of setting up the tent or making a fire anyway).  I had strange dreams.  I even had a frightening dream wherein I awoke to the sound of a male voice shouting my name.  It was an auditory hallucination- the sort a person has when they are half dreaming and half awake.  This is not a usual sleep occurrence, so I pondered it for a moment (maybe I had felt anxious being alone?).   I curled up into my sleeping bag and drifted back to sleep.  The rain and wind increased during the night, which again made me feel okay with the decision to sleep in my car- even if I was a bit bunched up.


The next morning, the sky was overcast, but the rain had stopped.  I got ready for the day and set out on a hike.   My goal was to do the Continental Divide Hike (which was perhaps 3.75 to 4 miles round trip from my campsite).  This was a nice hike.   The forest was yellow and the park was entirely empty (spare one other camper).  It was odd to be the only human on the trail.  The trail itself followed…well, a continental divide…or a ridge.  On one side of the ridge, water flowed into the Gulf of Mexico.  On the other side of the ridge, water flows into the Atlantic Ocean.  The trails were wet so it was interesting to think about the long journey the water could take- on either side of me.  Although the hike was often up hill and along a ridge, it was pleasant and not particularly challenging.  I hate hills- but none of them were that steep.   Towards the end of the trail, there was an overlook deck- where a person could admire the lowland Tamarack forests and Wolf Lake.   I spent some time there reading the interpretive sign, then finished the rest of the trail before turning back.

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With the trail done and little to pack up, I left the camp site.  I headed back to Rice Lake Wildlife Refuge to see if I could catch a few more birds.  The sky cleared a little and I did see several birds, such as a Belted Kingfisher, Great Blue heron, Trumpeter Swan, Pied Billed Grebes, and what I believe was a pair of Blackducks.   I didn’t spend as long as I had the day before, but managed to devote a few hours to it.  I turned my phone back on.  I left the wildlife refuge and I started listening to radio news.  The first story that I heard about was the mass shooting in Las Vegas.  I was only gone Sunday into Monday, but it seemed that I had been gone much longer.  There is so much “world” to digest on a daily basis.   I like to escape it all.  I am not sure how others remain so engaged and yet sane or even happy from day to day.   Maybe I am weak for always wanting to run away.   On the drive home, I listened to the news coverage.  I saw a hawk perched over a swamp.  I turned the car around and watched it until it flew away (harassed by another bird).   I then headed home to change clothes and go to a feminist meeting.

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Image may contain: bird, sky, tree and outdoor

It wasn’t much of an adventure and I pretty much failed at some of the most basic elements of camping (setting up a tent or making a fire).   I was also somewhat miserable, but encouraged by my hardiness to at least TRY to be outside.  Yeah, I am not much of an adventurer.  I think about my co-worker who just spent two and a half weeks hiking the Superior Hiking Trail.  She was probably wet and muddy most of the entire time…without a place to warm up.   I wish I was more like that.   Maybe someday.  Who knows.  For now, it was nice to relish an opportunity to be outdoors- as winter is just around the corner.  With colder and shorter days, I won’t be as enthused to be outside.  We’ll see if I can squeeze one more camping trip in this fall.  Hopefully it won’t be as wet next time!

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Counting Countries

Counting Countries

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H. Bradford

9/26/17

I like to count things.  I keep track of the number of books I read in a year.  I count the number of species of birds I have seen.  I track the number of activist events I have attended and blog posts I have written.  Numbers provide a snapshot of life and data that can be analyzed over time.  The meaning should not be overstated, but keeping track of things is useful for goal setting.  It therefore seems logical that I should also count the number of countries I have traveled to.  Other travelers have mixed feelings about this.  Some have traveled widely and simply don’t care how many countries they have been to.  They may even feel that keeping track of countries is pretentious.  Others may focus more on quality, visiting a few countries for longer periods of time or paying repeated visits to a few favorite places.  And then, there are some who indeed count, but try to do this modestly.  Like many things, there are social norms about travel and counting countries might be seen as arrogant or “the wrong way to travel.”  At the same time, there is an entire club of globetrotters called “The Traveler’s Century Club” wherein members must have been to at least 100 countries (per their list) to join.  While I sense there is debate about the travel etiquette of whether or not a person should count countries, there is actually little debate over…what exactly is a country?!

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It’s one big happy world full of 195 countries…or is it?


I shamelessly count countries.  But, with counting everything, there must be rules and the “thing” must be operationalized.  Take birds for instance.  A person can count a bird for an official count if they make a positive visual or auditory identification.  There is wiggle room, since honesty is required when adding birds to the list.  Listing a bird also depends upon correctly identified the bird (so error is possible).  I try to photograph the birds as evidence that I can later check against a bird guide, but this is not always possible.  Birds are feathered, warm blooded, egg laying, beaked animals.  There is little ambiguity today of what a bird is, though if we went back millions of years in history bird identification would be more difficult.  Since birds evolved from dinosaurs, there are birds with teeth and tailbones or dinosaurs with feathers.  Where does bird begin and dinosaur end when looking at the therapods in the lineage of bird evolution?  All aves are therapods, but not all therapods are birds.  Birds are small, feathered dinosaurs but there are many gradiations of birdlike dinosaurs that are not birds.  Whatever a “bird” is or might include in a broader, evolutionary sense, today I don’t have to puzzle over it much as there are clear parameters of what counts as a bird.  However, a kiwi bird is considered an honorary mammal because of its mammal like characteristics such as heavy bones, hair like feathers, and lower body temperature.  But, kiwis aren’t related to mammals, they simply evolved mammal like traits.  Despite the uniqueness of kiwis, there is no debate of if they should be counted as birds.  The main debate in counting the 10, 000 or so species of birds today is what constitutes a separate species.  There may be as many as 18,000 species depending upon how species are defined (for instance, two birds may look similar enough to be thought of as the same species, but actually have different evolutionary histories ).    The big idea is that counting something is never as easy as one, two, three….  http://www.audubon.org/news/new-study-doubles-worlds-number-bird-species-redefining-species Image result for feathered dinosaur

Heeeey, want to add me to your birding list?!

 

Zhenyuanlong suni


Like birds, counting countries can also be confounding.  However, this is a stickier issue as the definition of countries is often a matter of power.   For instance, a country might be defined as a sovereign state – or a self-governing political entity that has diplomatic recognition of the international community (i.e. the UN).  According to the US State Department, there are 195 independent states in the world.   Independent state is often conflated with “country” so it is often said that there are 195 countries in the world.  The UN counts 193 countries plus two permanent observer states, Vatican City and Palestine.  There are many problems with this understanding of “country.”  One problem is that it relies upon international consensus to define what a “country” is.  However, because countries are political constructs- often constructed by more powerful countries that sought to colonize, acculturate, absorb, or otherwise control other territories, the independence status of a country is often a question of successful struggle against power or a matter of interests of some powers against others.   For example, around 135 UN member countries recognize Palestine as an independent country.   Interestingly, almost all of the countries of Africa, South America, Eastern Europe and Asia recognize Palestine.  Countries of North America, Western Europe, and Australia are among those who do not recognize Palestine.  Countries that often have less political power and a history of colonization seem more inclined to recognize Palestine than countries such as the United States, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom (who are allies of Israel and often played a role in the construction and sustenance of the state of Israel).  If countries that are recognized by some UN members but not others are added to the country list, there would be 206 countries in the world.   This is the same number of countries recognized by the International Olympics Committee.   Other countries with partial recognition include Kosovo (recognized by 100 countries), South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Northern Cyrprus.   Whether or not a country is recognized is related again to power.  Russia and a handful of other nations recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but most countries do not.   On the other hand, most of Western Europe + the United States recognizes Kosovo, but Russia and a hodgepodge of countries in Africa, Asia, and South America do not.  The question of recognition of countries is a diplomatic question of how countries relate to players in a particular struggle.  In the case of Kosovo, Russia had close ties with Serbia.  In the case of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the United States is more closely aligned with Georgia than Russia.  However, Russia’s intervention in those break-away regions of Georgia was justified by the same logic that the United States and NATO allies used to support Kosovo’s independence: namely the threat of ethnic violence and need to keep peace.   In general, the quest to figure out what exactly should count as a country needs to move away from statist and often imperialist definitions of what a country is.  After all, the definition that a “country is a country when other countries define it as so” sounds like a tautology.   Aside from this logical issue, this definition gives powerful entities, with different stakes in the definition, the right to determine the nature of a country’s independence status.

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South Ossetia’s flag- which is pretty cool looking.


Rather than relying on State Department or UN recognition of countries, a more nuanced approach might be to evaluate the history, politics, and culture of a country in question.   The central idea would be to determine if a particular region, territory, semi-autonomous state, or recognized country has been historically oppressed by another country.   Do the people of this area consider themselves an oppressed nationality?  Did they fail to gain independence or concede to colonial power?  Have they or do they have an independence movement?  Are they treated as a colony today?  What is their power relationship to other countries?  By this criteria, there are many territories that could be considered countries.  For instance, Puerto Rico could be considered a country.   The territory does not have the full rights of a U.S. state, has had an independence movement, and was once a Spanish colony that the United States gained from the Spanish-American war.   Its colonial relationship to the United States has been highlighted by Hurricane Maria, which knocked out power to millions of Puerto Ricans.  Power outages may last months and even up to a year.  The struggling utility infrastructure (and infrastructure in general) of Puerto Rico is the result of its debilitating debt and austerity imposed upon it by the U.S.  Elsewhere in the Caribbean, in 2009  Great Britain removed the government of Turks and Caicos due to allegations of corruption and appointed their own governor of the islands.  Voting rights of citizens of Turks and Caicos is limited to about 7000 people out of a population of 38,000 on the basis of individuals who were locally born on the islands.  Although this reeks of colonialism, small countries such as Turks and Caicos may not have strong independence movements because of the economic challenges of being a micro-state (without a diverse economy).   Other countries such as Curacao, Sint Marteen, and Aruba are part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but have their own governments and autonomy outside of military matters and foreign policy.   Aruba in particular had made an agreement with the Netherlands to work towards full independence by 1996, but this process has since been postponed (per the request of the Prime Minister of Aruba).  Again, these countries exist in a gray area, wherein they do not have full sovereignty and maintain a relationship with a colonial power.   Supposing that a person counts all of the dependencies or territories in the world, this would add about 61 “countries” the the list.  But that is pretty generous- since some of these territories are not even inhabited!  Though, I suppose if someone travels to Baker’s Island, an unincorporated island in the Pacific that was claimed as a guano island in the mid 1800s, a traveler may as well count it.  Uninhabited territories aside, there are plenty of former colonies that could be counted as countries as a matter of recognizing their right to self-determination.  Thus, I would count any former colony that has not achieved full independence on my “country count.” Image result for hurricane maria puerto rico

An image of the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico


Beyond counting territories, there are other nations of people who have been oppressed by imperialist relationships.  A nation is not synonymous with a state and there are many nation states that consist of various nationalities.  I believe in the right of self-determination to oppressed nationalities (i.e. groups of people with shared history, culture, customs, etc. who are oppressed by another nation within the context of capitalism).  Nations within nation states are often oppressed on the basis of their nationality (unable to learn their language in school or speak it in public life or face other cultural restrictions).  They often also serve as cheap labor or military fodder.  At the same time, their region may not be as economically diverse or prosperous.  Thus, aside from territories and former colonies, there are oppressed nations within nation-states.  For instance, today the people of Kurdistan voted on an independence referendum.  The referendum does not grant or even create a process for independence, but can serve as an example of a nation within a nation (in this example Kurds within Iraq, though they also live in Turkey, Iran, Armenia, and Syria).  In the example of the Kurdish people, the reason they lack a “country” or state of their own is a matter of history.  Many modern countries today were constructed by imperialist powers.  After the break up of the Ottoman Empire after WWI, Kurdish people were promised their own state by the Allies, but this did not happen.  Rather, French and British diplomats established the boundaries of modern Turkey, Syria, and Iraq from the former Ottoman Empire, dividing Kurdish populations between these countries.  In this sense, is a person travels to Kurdish regions of any of these countries, it may be perfectly legitimate to count “Kurdistan” as a country.  After all, its claim to country status and call for self-determination is no less legitimate than any other nation state.   With a population of 30 million people, they are the largest oppressed nationality in the world.  In another recent example, the government of Catalonia is moving forward with an (illegal) independence referendum on Oct. 1st.   Catalonia has been a part of Spain since the 1500s but Catalans want independence on the basis of their economic prosperity compared to the rest of Spain, history of oppression under Franco, and on the basis of shared history and language.  If a person travels through Spain, visiting Basque Country (in both Spain and France) or Catalonia, both of which have had nationalist aspirations, it seems reasonable that a person might count these as “countries” in solidarity with their struggles and recognition of the factors that have thus far stymied autonomy.

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A rally in support of Kurdish independence


Considering all of this, a person has to revisit the United States.  The United States grew out of our own colonial conquest of Native Americans.  There are 562 federally recognized tribal groups in the United States.  However, there are also around 250 unrecognized tribal groups.  This means that the United States consists of over 800 nations within our nation.  All of these groups have been and continue to be unquestionably oppressed by the United States.  All of these groups deserve self-determination, including the right to succession.  They are a part of this country because they were exterminated into submission.  A person might count legitimately count visits to Native American reservations as a visit to a “country” though I think that this should probably be discouraged as it might encourage unwelcome tourism to people who have struggled to protect what remains of their land and culture.  But, supposing one travels as a welcome visitor, it seems legitimate that this too could be counted as a “country.”  At least theoretically, a person could visit 800 nations without even leaving the United States! Related image


The Traveler’s Century Club is a club for someone who has traveled to 100 countries or territories.  Their list is fairly generous, as it includes 325 countries and territories.  Inhabited territories are included, as are island portions of Sovereign nations with populations of over 100,000 people, and regions with disputed autonomy but common culture.  The list does not make mention of issues like self-determination, but does include such places as Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, and even Hawaii.  Some of the entries on the list are places I have never heard of, such as Lampedusa, an Italian island of about 5,000 people and Umm Al Qaiwain, one of the United Emirates.  The list includes Abkhazia, Trans Dniester, but does not include Nagorno Karabakh, a break-away territory of Azerbaijan nor does it include South Ossetia.  Kurdistan, Basque land, and Catalonia are not counted, but Jeju Island in South Korea is!   The list is a bit hit or miss when it comes to including the regions of oppressed nationalities that could be counted as countries.  In all, it has a heavy emphasis on islands, which sometimes do correlate to areas nationalist struggle (at least historically).   But, since it is a travel club for people who want to claim they have been to a 100 countries it at least creates some sort of parameter for counting countries.  And, since it includes 325 countries and territories, it is more inclusive than using State Department or UN standards.


Counting countries is a political question and one I do not have a precise answer for.  It also raises the question, how many countries HAVE I traveled to?  I don’t know!  I haven’t definitively developed a standard of how to count countries.  But, if you are curious, here is my list- by my own standard.  I came up with 62 countries (which I listed in the order that I have traveled to them).  This list does not include Hawaii and Jeju Island, which can be included on the Traveler’s Century list.  Hawaii seems like it could be an independent country and certainly exists as a state as the result of colonization, but I am not sure how to include oppressed nationalities within the United States on my list.  I wanted to reach 80 countries by 40, but I suppose that depends upon my ability to save and take time off of work.  I also don’t want to share this list to in any way glorify travel.  I do think that homebodies are far more ethical than myself, since they aren’t destroying the environment through travel nor are they directly interrupting the lives of other people  (especially poor or oppressed people) as a tourist.  I also think that while there are some countries that I have explored for longer periods of time (like Russia, Ireland, or South Korea) many of these are brief visits on account of my lack of time and trust fund.  Still, it is interesting to think about!

  1. USA (well, I’ve been here quite a bit…)
  2. Canada
  3. Mexico
  4. England (I tend to break up the UK into its four countries, but am open to including islands such as the Isle of Man or Channel Islands)
  5. France
  6. Switzerland
  7. Italy
  8. Vatican City
  9. Austria
  10. Germany
  11. Belgium
  12. Netherlands
  13. Russia
  14. Denmark
  15. Ireland
  16. Wales
  17. Scotland
  18. Venezuela
  19. Cuba
  20. Finland
  21. Cayman Islands
  22. Honduras
  23. Belize
  24. South Korea
  25. Japan
  26. China
  27. North Korea
  28. Czech Republic
  29. Poland
  30. Slovakia
  31. Slovenia
  32. Hungary
  33. Croatia
  34. Bosnia
  35. Serbia
  36. Bulgaria
  37. Turkey
  38. Greece
  39. Montenegro
  40. Albania
  41. Ukraine
  42. Belarus
  43. Estonia
  44. Lativia
  45. Lithuania
  46. Sweden
  47. Puerto Rico
  48. Barbados
  49. St. Kitts and Nevis
  50. St. Lucia
  51. Grenada
  52. Trinidad and Tobago
  53. US Virgin Islands (St. Thomas)
  54. South Africa
  55. Namibia
  56. Botswana
  57. Zambia
  58. Zimbabwe
  59. Turkmenistan
  60. Uzbekistan
  61. Kazakhstan
  62. Kyrgyzstan

 

http://www.polgeonow.com/2011/04/how-many-countries-are-there-in-world.html

http://www.economist.com/node/14258950

Some Things I’ve done to Travel

Some Things I’ve Done to Travel

H. Bradford

9/13/17

One of the things that I really love to do is travel.  However, I don’t have tons of money.  So, over the years I’ve done a few creative things- and some ordinary things- to afford travel.  Of course, the internet abounds with advice about how people can quit their job and travel…or how anyone can travel if they are simply determined enough.   This is absolutely untrue.  I can’t quit my job.  My bills will not magically evaporate.  I am extremely fortunate that I currently have a job that has allowed me to travel- far more than most Americans are able to.  I am also fortunate that I don’t have children, pets, or anything or anyone to take care of other than myself.  This gives me far more freedom to leave- and to save.  I have a lot of privilege in terms of health, nationality, race, ability, etc. that also allow me to travel.  So, even though I am a working class person- I have traveled much more than most Americans and most other members of my class.  These are a few of the things I have done to travel.  Perhaps some of them might be helpful to some people.  A few make for unusual stories.  And certainly, I don’t want to spread a narrative that with hard working and dedication dreams can come true.  They often don’t on account of systems of inequality.  Thankfully, I have been able to obtain a few of my dreams.  Here is how…

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(One of my favorite pictures- outside of Chernobyl Reactor 4)


1. Donate Eggs:

I discussed this in an earlier blog post, but back in 2008 I donated eggs to pay off some bills and to help save up money for a trip to Cuba.  At the time, it was illegal for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba because of the trade embargo.  However, there were a few exceptions to this rule.  It was possible to travel to Cuba for research (as well as journalism and cultural exchanges).  So, I traveled to Cuba with Global Exchange on a research delegation.  It was designed to be a research delegation centered around education.  To qualify, delegates had to be working full time in an education field or a graduate student.  Back then, I worked as a tutor for Americorps in a program that served homeless youth in my community.  It was one of the most rewarding and enjoyable jobs I have had.  The trip was rather spendy (especially considering that my Americorps stipend was pretty meager), so donating eggs helped with some of the cost (though I mostly spent that money on bills).  Interestingly, I was in the midst of donating while I was visiting Cuba.   Yep…so I was giving myself daily injections of Gonal-F while touring schools and universities.   The highlight of the trip was a visit to the Center for Sex Education, where I learned about how Cuba approaches sex ed.  Shortly after returning to the U.S., I made me third and final egg donation.  I definitely wanted to donate eggs more than I did, but medical complications got in the way of that.  It was disappointing, but a good lesson that you should not put all of your eggs in one basket.

https://brokenwallsandnarratives.wordpress.com/2017/08/01/my-adventures-as-an-egg-donor/

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2. Medical Study:

I didn’t actually do this to save up for a trip, but to cover my living expenses upon my return.  So…back in 2010 I spent a semester in South Korea, followed by half the summer in Beijing and a visit to North Korea.  The North Korea trip was rather expensive.  At the time, there were fewer companies that traveled to North Korea.  I went with Koryo tours for a ten day trip during the Mass Games (if I remember rightly).  And, while I earned a small stipend while in South Korea, it was hard to survive six months in Asia without regular work.  I literally had spent all of my money upon my arrival back to the U.S.   Worse, a new semester was about to start and I needed money for books.  For some quick cash, I volunteered for a two week medical study.  Although it is closed now, there was a medical research facility in Fargo- which is about a four and a half hour drive from Duluth.  Their website advertised several studies, but I tried for one that was about two weeks long because it paid a few thousand dollars.  So…I went to Fargo, was screened for the study, and was accepted.  The study itself involved trying out some sort of respiratory spray.  Twice a day, each of the patients was administered medication through an inhaler.  Honestly, it was a horrible time.  We sat in a room full of hospital beds.  We were not allowed to leave the beds (to go outside, exercise, etc.) and experienced several blood draws daily.  It was torturous to stay in bed waiting for time to pass.  Our only entertainment was an endless parade of terrible movies.  I remember a LOT of romantic comedies.  I wrote and drew, but was terribly restless.  The days seemed to draw on forever as I watched the sunshine turn to night from a hospital bed.  I also hated how regimented life was.  We had to eat our meals without waste or extras.  Of course, this was all to control the conditions of the experiment.  And, I should also be happy that my inhaler never actually gave me any of the medication.  Others complained of a bitter taste, but my inhaler didn’t have a taste.  I lucked out and was probably a control subject.  I made it through the ordeal, but it was one of the most boring things I’ve endured.  On the bright side, I met a medical student studying in Cuba during the experiment.  She joined the experiment for extra cash for visiting her family, since even though her education was paid for- she did not have money for travel expenses. Image result for black guinea pig

(Random guinea pig image from Pinterest)


3. Work Illegally:

While staying with my friend Rose in Beijing, I worked.  Because I was there on a tourist visa, this was technically illegal.  I didn’t work that much.  I just did some English tutoring for extra spending money.  Rose connected me with the opportunities to do a little tutoring.  She also connected me with an opportunity to earn $200 by pretending to work for a school in Xian.  What happened next is a long story, but it involved a very long train ride, fear that I was being trafficked, and NOT actually ending up in Xian.  If you want to know the long story….well, here it is (copied from an earlier blog post).  If not, read on to the next heading.


“While in Beijing, I did some English tutoring for spending money. This is illegal, as it is illegal to work on a travel visa, but it was done in private homes and at a café. Another way that some people make money is through “white face” jobs. Basically, you can get paid to be white (isn’t that the epitome of racial privilege?). These jobs are temporary positions given to white people, wherein they pretend to work for a school or company to bolster the image of the organization as more international and therefore prestigious. Rose called me about such an opportunity. All I had to do was pretend to be an English teacher. In exchange, I would be taken on a 2 day trip to Xian and paid $200. Sounds good! An opportunity to leave Beijing and see Xian, where the Terra Cotta warriors are….and get paid. So, I arrived at the train station to meet “Chuck” the head of a language school. Chuck bought my train ticket, but didn’t tell me much about the trip or what is expected of me. I asked Chuck if there will be time to see the Terra Cotta Warriors. He became quiet and thoughtful, then stated that we are going THROUGH Xian but our destination is actually Yan’an. We needed to take the train to Xian to get to Yan’an. This revelation marked the beginning of my Kaftkaesque journey.


I got on the sleeper train, which if I recall took about twelve hours to get to Xian. The additional trip to Yan’an was another five hours or so. So, after seventeen or eighteen hours on a train, I was pretty exhausted. I still had no idea what was expected of me. My only instructions were that I was supposed to pretend to be a teacher for his school. The arrival in Yan’an was hazy. We took the train there and visited a temple. However, I was informed that Yan’an was not our final, final destination. Rather, it was a smaller city about an hour away. We travelled there by car, but were now joined by an entourage of unfamiliar people whose position or relationship to Chuck were unknown to me. Chuck sped along at what seemed like a hundred miles an hour, even passing a police car that was travelling too slow for his taste. As undemocratic as China is, there does not seem to be as much policing of everyday things such as driving or littering as there is in the U.S. or this policing is less consistent. As such, not only was speeding by a police car to pass it seemingly acceptable, so is driving on the sidewalk from time to time. We arrived at our final, final destination and checked into the hotel. Chuck informed me that there would be a dinner at six.


Before dinner, I asked Chuck what I should say to his company. He told me not to worry, as none of them spoke English. So, once again, I knew nothing about my position as a fake teacher. No idea about the school or what grades I taught, how long that I worked there, or anything. Oh well. Weary from the long journey, I attended dinner. Of course, I was seated by a diplomat, who spoke English. And, while everyone else watched my reaction to the food, eagerly hoping that I enjoyed it, he asked me questions about my job. The surreal dinner, wherein I felt that I was the dinner entertainment….there to please everyone with assurances that the food is good and eat more as I am given it….stared at the entire time…continued. Only, each time I tried to answer the questions posed in English by the diplomat, Chuck answered for me in Mandarin. They conversed about my position….in front of me….in Chinese. This left me entirely in the dark about the lie that Chuck was concocting about me. It made me anxious. All of it made me anxious. The dinner went on forever. The food was actually pretty good, which seemingly pleased everyone that I ate it. On a side note, I hate feeling the pressure to eat and even more, I hate it when people watch me eat. But, I suppose we all do this when we have guests….eagerly hoping they will like what has been introduced to them.


We all returned to the hotel and I was informed that I must be up at 6 am the next morning. I talked to Chuck at the door of my room about this. He tried twice to push himself into my hotel room, but I blocked him with my shoulder and door. I really didn’t want to be alone in my room with Chuck. The next morning involved an award ceremony to celebrate the anniversary of a school. This is why so many politicians, school administrators, and important people were there. This cleared up a little what exactly we were doing there. At the same time, the two day trip had already been three days. Oh well. I assumed that we would return after the ceremony the next day.


The following day there was a ceremony, complete with children singing and dancing. There were speeches and a band. It was all a pretty big to-do for the anniversary of a school. When it was over, I asked Chuck when we will return to Beijing. He told me that it might be a day or two. He doesn’t know. A day or two?! After my very long train ride, enduring a couple of meals, complete isolation from everyone that I know- in fact, no one in the world even knows where I am, a ceremony, and now an uncertain return….things fell apart. The whole thing had been pretty uncomfortable to begin with. Never have I felt so powerless and isolated. I began to think that maybe I would not be returned to Beijing. Chuck went on to inform me that I must attend another meal with him.


I snapped. I informed Chuck that I would not eat until I return to Beijing. He said that if I don’t eat it will embarrass him. I told him that I want to go back to Beijing and can’t eat until I return. This was my only tool. A hunger strike. Chuck begged me to eat. I reluctantly agreed to at least attend the lunch. I attended the lunch, but only nibbled. The Chinese guests offered me some apple juice that was made locally. It tasted warm and fermented. More misery. However, at the end of this meal, Chuck magically produced some train tickets and announced that we would be returning to Beijing that afternoon.


17 long hours later. I enjoyed the crinkled yellow brown landscape of the Loess Plateau and the snaking Yellow River. The landscape became less like a curtain of sandy mounds and flattened. There were farms and nuclear reactors. Yan’an was the end of the Long March. I feel as though I had been on a long march of uncertain roles, awkward meals, fear, and isolation. We arrived back in Beijing. Chuck asked me if I wanted to grab breakfast with him. I said no. I took my $200 and left.”

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(Image of Terracotta warriors from the Chicago Tribune.  I never did get to see them…)

4. Work- Really Hard:

This heading is not as interesting as the others, but there were times that I just worked really, really hard.  One of those times was…once again…when I was saving for the Cuba trip.  Despite the money from egg donating, I still ended up working WITHOUT A DAY OFF from March until June.  This was hellish.  But, it was back when I was doing a year of Americorps service.  The monthly stipend was about $800 a month after taxes.  Still, going to Cuba was important to me.  Everyone who I knew who had visited Cuba tended to gush about it- with the exception of Adam.  He hates being warm.  Travel to Cuba seems to be a leftist rite of passage.   Activists often want to travel there to see for themselves what this tiny, embargoed, island nation has done in terms of healthcare and education- against all odds.  So, I worked very hard that spring.  I did my Americorps services on Monday through Friday, then worked double shifts at a hotel over the weekends.  It was exhausting.  And, there is something quite demoralizing about looking at a calendar and seeing an endless stretch of work without a day off.  But, I survived it- and definitely earned that trip.

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(Random image stolen from a google search.)

5. Join a Mission Trip

This is pretty embarrassing at this point in my life, but back when I was 19 I was still religious.  My friend Libby invited me to join her church on a mission trip.  I joined the trip more for the travel experience than any calling to save souls.  Yep, so I went on a bus trip to Mexico with her church.  Although I was religious at the time, I really didn’t fit in.  I didn’t dress conservatively enough and had to be told to cover up more.  I also wasn’t socialized into her church, so I suppose there were theological and behavioral norms that I didn’t conform to.  But, we did help with some minor construction on a church and I was able to see a really awesome cave in a mountain while everyone else went to a water park.  The cave was called Grutas de Garcia and was fascinating in that I took a cable car up the mountain, then entered a cave which at one time was under a prehistoric sea.  Various marine fossils could be seen on the walls of the cave.  The mountains were pretty and it was an interesting social experience.   Still, in retrospect it was a weird thing to do, especially since it hardly seems that Mexico is in need of spiritual or religious help from U.S. missionaries.   But, it was a two week trip to Mexico for under $500.  It was also one of the last memorable religious activities that I was involved with (as I stopped going to church or attending religious events in the subsequent years).  Finally, it was a happy memory with my friend Libby- who was my best friend since the first grade.  Maybe I wasn’t the best at being religious, but it was certainly worth it to share an experience with her.

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(Image from Tours in Monterrey)

6. Tax Refund

I usually spend my tax refund on travel.  To ensure that I actually get a tax refund, I claim zero on my taxes so that more money is taken out of my paychecks each month.  I have read that this is not good financial advice, as if a person simply saved more, they would earn interest on the savings.  However, since I am not always that great at saving- having more taken out of my paycheck in taxes has resulted in much larger tax refunds at the end of the year.  I think that this scheme will dwindle once I start substitute teaching and now that I can’t claim a credit for being a graduate student.  But, in previous years, I usually received $1000- $3000 back in taxes.  I used that money towards going to Eastern Europe and the Balkans for a month back in 2014 and the Baltic Countries/Ukraine/Belarus in 2015.

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7. Second Savings Account

One of my strategies in the past has been to have two savings accounts.  The second savings account was located at an out of the way bank (in an area I don’t often visit in Duluth) and did not have an ATM card.  By making my money harder to access, I did not dip into the savings.  It also kept the money separate from my regular savings- so the money was earmarked specifically for travel.  I have since closed the second account, but I found this to be a very useful savings strategy and one that I want to employ in the future (probably a non-travel savings account).



8. Regular Saving and Working…

This is mainly what I do now to travel.  It doesn’t make for a good story.  Save and work.  Blah.  To that end, I picked up some extra shifts at work this month.  I try to pick up extra shifts when I can.  The other day, I worked a sixteen hour shift followed by a twelve hour shift the next day.  I might try substitute teaching in my free time as well.  (Though typically I only work 40 hours a week).  On the saving front, I will admit that I am terrible at saving.  I have too many hobbies and eat out way too much.  But, I’ve been using Mint since March and find that it helps me track my spending and set saving goals.   Each month I try to squirrel away money.  But, it seems that once I save up enough- I spend it all on travel.  So, perhaps I could add “living irresponsibly” to my list of things I do to travel, as I am definitely NOT saving up for retirement or a rainy day.   My goal is to eventually become good enough at saving that I can put money away for BOTH travel and responsible adulthood.


There are probably many other ways that I could travel.  I could work overseas, such as teaching English in South Korea.   I could try to find work that somehow involves travel.  But, for the most part, I am content right now to save, work, and dream of future trips.  Provided that my current job continues to allow me to take vacations each year, I continue to travel as long as I am able to.  It challenges me socially, emotionally, physically, and intellectually.  While it is a selfish endeavor, it allows me to re-dedicate to activism and my work.   That is why I like it and why it has been worth the effort.

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I also love this photo-in Kazakhstan, since I look badass- masking the fact that I am a dorky, fearful, and unfit.

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