Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Walter Mitty Loop

The campus ski route includes a loop over an open hillside. The hill is about 200 meters wide and faces to the northwest. You take a diagonal line from the northeast corner of the slope, down across the hill, then trudge up two switchbacks on the south side to get back up to the top. Then it’s another diagonal back about 1/2 way down to retrace your tracks back up to the northeast corner of the hill. The downhill traverses are because the hill is a bit too steep to schuss on XC skis, especially since there’s a fence at the bottom of the hill. It’s a mowed hillside that faces the prevailing northwesterly winds, so a small breeze can mobilize any loose snow and fills in any previous tracks (it’s an ungroomed trail). When the snow is falling and the breeze is fresh, it’s easy to imagine that you’re out alone in the wilds, trekking across uncharted wilderness. It is if you have an active imagination, anyway, and especially if the story of the woman who solo skied across Antarctica was just on the radio that morning.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Books about places

I’m teaching an honors seminar this term with a fellow faculty member, she from the English Dept. She and I both brought in some of our books about place to share with the students. I noticed that mine tended to be from the Great Plains. It’s not that I'm pining for the plains, it’s that I’m not there and so the next best thing to being there is reading about there (yes, reading, not watching a video). I don’t buy so many books about the Great Lakes region a). since I live here and b). they are readily available from the libraries here. A new entry in my collection of plains-based books is “The Eight Wonders of Kansas,” published by Kansas Sampler Foundation. The foundation’s goal is to “preserve, sustain, and grow rural culture by educating Kansans about Kansas and by networking and supporting rural communities…The cause is to keep every town viable that shows the will and spirit to help itself.” A great goal and they’re doing some nice things to reach that goal. This book is one of them. To see what they are doing, visit It’s good place-making and rural economic development work. For example, they have a Rural Brainstorm coming up early next month. But more about the book… First to take care of any wise cracks from non-Kansans about the book. Yes, it is a thick book. And yes, the hard part was choosing finalists, not finding eight wonders in Kansas. OK having taken care of that… The book represents the results of a contest to name 8 wonders (there continues to be an annual contest to add to the list). The contest was and the book is arranged around the themes of architecture, art, commerce, cuisine, customs, geography, history, and people. It’s a large format book, spiral bound to lay flat. The pictures are wonderful as are the short descriptions of each of the sites and people. It starts out with the 8 wonders overall, then describes the top 8 in each category along with the finalists. As a Kansan, I knew many of the sites, had been to several, but now want to visit the ones I have not. You can order the book from the website. I recommend it for people willing to learn more about Kansas or as an example of a good job at promoting places.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Pay yourself first

The financial advisors say ‘pay yourself first.’ They’re not saying to be stingy, just to make sure you stash some money into savings before it disappears. That advice also applies to tending to your mental health. Before all your time gets spent doing all the wonderful things you do for everyone else, take a few minutes to recharge yourself. It’s a wise investment. It’s too easy to fall into the daily routine. Get away from it even for a few minutes and you’ll be able to apply yourself more effectively to those other activities. For me this time of year, it's a quick stop to look out over the landscape or a quick ski around campus. If I have a few more minutes on a work day, I can get out to one of four natural areas within a few minutes of campus. Not for a long adventure ski (that’s for a different time). Just a quick diversion. Part of living here is the opportunity to do a quick ski right here in town. If I can then take an additional few minutes to write about it, that’s a bonus. How do you take advantage of what your place has to offer to pay yourself first in your daily routine?

Monday, January 9, 2012


As a school kid, I heard about the Voyageurs. Growing up in Kansas, they were not part of our local history – we were just south of their range -- but I had heard of them. Our local history was dominated by conquest of the west. These conquest stories were embellished, even as they happened, by the press, by popular novels and by the wild west shows that played throughout the country at the time. History does get distorted. One of the especially romanticized parts of western history was the Pony Express. A recent trip found our family passing through Marysville, Kansas. We stopped for lunch and drove by the preserved Pony Express Home Station #1 but it was closed for the winter. We’ll go that way again sometime in the summer and stop in. The Pony Express operated for only 18 months and was not that important historically, aside from the symbolism of a communications link between the Eastern US with the Pacific. Despite its short time in business and its limited importance in the country’s history, it’s a large, permanent part of western lore. It’d be interesting to see how many people have heard of the Pony Express and to compare that number to how many people who have heard of the Voyageurs. The Voyageurs story deserves better play. They did some pretty remarkable things over their 200 years in business. No, not all good things, but a lot of remarkable things. They paddled and portaged 18 hours a day in birch bark canoes, covering in one season the distance from Montreal to the Grand Portage of western Lake Superior or, for the hivernants, from the northern Rockies to the Grand Portage. They carried tons of freight in canoes and on their backs. They lived on flour and pemmican, along with their songs and pipes. Although they did bring problems to the native populations, the Voyageurs were not out to conquer them militarily. Native people showed the Voyageurs the pathways through what’s now Canada and much of what’s now the northern US. That’s significant history, even if not as easily romanticized as the Pony Express. Living in Voyageurs country, I wanted to learn more about them. The Voyageurs, written by Grace Lee Knute, provides a thoroughly researched, easy to read, un-romanticized account of the life of the Voyageurs. Originally published in 1935, it was re-issued in paperback in 1985 by Minnesota Historical Society Press. It’s easily available and not expensive. I recommend it for anyone wanting to learn about this part of history. Knowing more about the history of a place makes me feel closer to my place and may do the same for you. SIDEBAR OK, truth time. It wasn’t just my desire to expand my horizons and feel closer to my place that got me interested in the Voyageurs. It was the encouragement of a university colleague. His point, and his scholarly expertise, is that the narrative of a place helps define how we think of the place and how we treat the place. For him, it’s unfortunate that more people know of Paul Bunyan, a tale of exploitation, than know of the Voyageurs. My colleague has a camp. Camps/cabins are a big part of life up here in the North. The camp culture can be one of exploitation more than one of living with the land. This particular colleague, who is a burly outdoorsman, is thought a bit odd when he prefers to use and listen to the sounds of a bow saw rather than a chain saw. He prefers the aesthetic of moving goods to the camp by canoe and hand-pulled wagon rather than motorboat and 4-wheeler. When he’s asked ‘wouldn’t it be a lot easier to do with a machine?’ the message is partly that the machines would be the more manly way to do it. That’s where the story of the Voyageurs comes in. They each carried at least two, 90 lb packages on each portage (the record was 6!). They covered the continent in birch bark canoes. They slept under their overturned canoes. That’s pretty manly. My colleague's thinking is that the Voyageurs stories may help us promote the idea that a nature aesthetic can be manly. Instead of celebrating the Paul Bunyan legacy with lumberjack competitions, let's celebrate the Voyageurs with competitions that reflect the work of portaging. The contrast of the two narratives isn't that clear-cut. Paul Bunyan (and the loggers he’s modeled after) worked with hand saws and horse-drawn wheels. The Voyageurs supported the exploitation of the fur bearing animals for the vanity of Europeans. Yet, the image of French Canadians plying the rivers and lakes in canoes and portaging them across barriers lends itself more to a nature aesthetic while Paul Bunyan stories lend themselves to conquering nature. SIDEBAR TO THE SIDEBAR I always had the impression that the Paul Bunyan mythology was a set of stories told around the fireplaces in the lumbering camps. I recently read that while some heroic stories were told that way, the modern version was essentially made up as part of an advertizing campaign for a timber company. But isn’t that the way it works? How many kids think Disney when they think Alice in Wonderland? (Before you ask, 'do kids even still think of Alice in Wonderland, recent Disney commercials show that they do.) Regardless of their origin, the Paul Bunyan stories are part of the folklore of the north. Unfortunately the pine barrens left behind, places such as the Kingston Plains, where 100+ year old stumps look out over areas that never grew back to forests, isn’t part of that folklore.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


During a favorable break in the winter weather, we made a quick dash down to Kansas to see relatives. It’s always nice to visit the in-laws home place where my brother-in-law is the 4th generation of the family on the farm. In contrast, I have not lived in any particular town longer than the 16 years we’ve lived here so far. I don’t regret moving about; it’s given me a different perspective on place than I might have had if I had not been so mobile. During the long car ride down to Kansas, our family members do not retreat into their electronic devices. We may read a bit, those not driving doze off from time to time, but mainly we watch the scenery roll by. Maybe it was Yogi Berra who said “it’s amazing what you can see just by observing” (or maybe not -- he also said "I didn’t say half the things I said.”) One of the more unusual sights I saw was a picnic shelter in a small-town cemetery. I had never seen that before. I don’t imagine it’s a place for fun picnics, but I can picture a group of families, each of which has driven some distance to visit grandma's grave, now without a local home place to gather, conversing around the table out of the hot sun. I can also picture town events celebrating the lives of the ancestors, with participants under the shelter and out of the rain. I always notice the abandoned houses. They are not an unusual sight. Some date back to the time of a family on every quarter. They serve as silent guardians over now-huge fields cultivated by a single driver, running many hundreds of acres on a GPS-assisted tractor. Others are more recently abandoned, perhaps because a family got over extended on credit (mortgage defaults are nothing new in farm country). I found myself wondering about the story of one abandoned house. Its awnings were just beginning to become tattered. I surmise that not too long ago, someone was in the process of sprucing up the house but then had to abandon it. I don’t necessarily think of the abandoned houses as sad, just as an illustration of how life changes. I also see old houses left behind when the family moved into the modern new house. There’s something to be said for level floors and energy efficiency. It’s also nice to see someone preserve an old house and nice to see an old building repurposed – an old school that’s now someone’s house or an old church that’s now a restaurant. As usual, we did part of the trip away from the Interstates and lucked onto an old house converted into a wonderful Mexican restaurant. When I see the cars go by in which a DVD is playing, I think about what those passengers are missing by keeping focused on their world inside their vehicle and how we like to bring our world with us rather than observe the world we’re in.