The Child Inside

River WorksThere were no kids at the Water Works display in the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. Absolutely none. And I stuck around for quite awhile just in case. In fact the whole time I was walking around the Water Works, the only person I saw was a member of the staff who came by to get something out of the nearby cupboards.

“You need some kids to play with,” she said with a smile. I agreed.

It makes sense. I was there in early September, a week into the regular school year. I was there on a Monday, and I was there in the morning. So I wouldn’t take the absence of children as an indication of Water Works’s popularity. Because without a doubt it should be very, very popular.

Start of River

Water Works is an area designed to teach children about the water cycle and the ways in which humans interact with rivers. There’s a station where a kid can pedal on a bicycle to make it rain into a nearby cloud/bucket. There’s a giant beaver dam to run around in, and a place where you can assemble your own tiny plastic boat out of a bunch of components. But the best part is the river.

In the center of the room is a large table, representing a river. On one end of the table is a crank the kids can turn to make it rain onto the plastic mountain and add more water to the river. Next there’s a dam, with movable pieces to allow kids to choose how freely they want their river to flow. There’s even a little barn you have to protect from the water coming in off the floodplain. A faucet off to the side starts up the tributary, which happens to pass by a little house with a water wheel before flowing into the main river. Next the river encounters a second dam, this time with an adjacent set of locks. Kids can push the lock doors open and closed to allow their newly created boats to pass safely down the hill. At the very end there’s a fish ladder, a larger water wheel, and my personal favorite: a fully functional Archimedes Screw.

TributaryI keep referring to the kids but, as previously mentioned, there were none. I had to start the rainfall and save the barn and make my boat and get it through the locks all by myself. While I enjoyed the benefit of being able to play with a bunch of kids’ toys without being accused of shoving any of the little tikes out of the way, it would have been nice to see a few kids playing with the Water Works. I used to create my own rivers just like it when I was little. I imagine most of us did. You find a six-inch wide stream of water in the playground and immediately begin clearing debris from of some areas to allow it to flow, then you start stacking up rocks in other spots to create dams. You make boats out of legos, using your imagination to declare which part is the sail and which part is the steering wheel. While it’s fun to use the natural world to fuel your imagination, it makes your playtime dependent on the average annual rainfall. But a huge kid-sized river? With constantly flowing water? And the taciturn permission to get very wet at a museum? What a dream.

I must have played with that damn river for 20 minutes. Perhaps it’s time I take a trip back to the Seattle Science Center.

When It Counts

My boyfriend spent several years of his childhood living in Europe. His family always said that it counts as visiting a country if you go to the bathroom there.

I’ve been asked many times how many states I visited on my trip. I always struggle to do the math, and often find it’s easier to work backward. I count the states I didn’t visit. But even this isn’t as easy as it seems. For example, I can say for certainty that on this particular trip, I never set foot or wheel in the following states:

North Dakota
West Virginia

So that’s a list of 10 states, meaning that I visited 40 states on this trip. But it’s not as easy as that. I’d always wanted to know how quickly a person could drive across Rhode Island, so I never got out of the car the entire time I was there. I did the same thing in New Hampshire, but that was because there didn’t seem to be anything worth stopping for. Does that count?

BenchI ended up leaving Madison a day earlier than planned, so I decided to swoop down to Dubuque, Iowa after a brief detour in the northwest corner of Illinois. I was probably in Illinois for about 20-40 minutes, though I do believe I stopped to get out of the car and stretch my legs. Does that count?

My first night in South Dakota I slept in Vermillion, which is just across the river from Nebraska. It was so close, I went ahead and drove my first hour of the day inside the Nebraska borders. I got out at least once to take a picture of a tiny Statue of Liberty, and nearly ran out of gas I was so far from civilization. Does that count?

I’m starting to think that whether or not it “counts” is based less on time or distance, and more on what you expected the place to be. I spent the night in Iowa, and took a couple hours the next morning to see the local museum. I even went to the Effigy Mounds National Monument, though I’ll admit that the heat kept me from hiking up to see most of the park. The point is, I put in my time in Iowa. I slept there, I talked to people there, I went to the bathroom there, I spent money there, I have memories there. But in my mind, Iowa isn’t the roads along the west bank of the Mississippi River. Iowa is that great stretch of boring farmland in the middle. Iowa isn’t Dubuque, it’s Des Moines.

Perhaps that’s why it’s easier for my to say that I went to New Hampshire and Nebraska, even though I barely did anything there. My experience in those states matched my perception of them. I went to Nebraska and I saw farm land. That’s what I assume most of Nebraska to be. I don’t think of native burial mounds and river museums when I think of Iowa. When I look back on those experiences, it’s as though they must have happened somewhere else.

Back to IowaForty is a nice, round number, so I think I’ll stick with it. Were I to remove every state I was unsure of I’d be down to 35, which it still round but not as much. The other thing to consider is when I might count them in the future. It was easy to not count every state for this trip, since I knew I wasn’t going to visit all 48 in the continental United States. However I’ve already been to Ohio and Indiana, and one could make a solid argument that I’ve been to Colorado. Hawaii and Utah are both states I’d like to see within the next 5-10 years, which leaves only five out of fifty. Once you start getting that close, it becomes nothing short of a mission. Kentucky and West Virginia are right next to each other, and I’ve got a friend who’s itching to have me see Louisville. A few choice members of Rob’s family are moving to the Washington D.C. area, so Delaware isn’t much of a stretch, and I’ve always been a bit intrigued by those cruises up to Alaska that are regularly pushing off from the Port of Seattle.

I guess the point is that whether or not I want to count it is entirely up to me. If I never make it back to New Hampshire but I visit every other state, you can be certain that I will count it. I guess that means I only have one problem left.

Anyone know a good reason to go to North Dakota?

No Post Today

A series of events outside my control and preference ended with me working working 12 hours yesterday, with an early start this morning. In lieu of a post, here’s a picture of a sinister-looking dog stuck in a motorhome:

Sinister Dog

American Road Trip Playlist (updated)

It was a year yesterday that I first published my American Road Trip Playlist. For a while it was one of my most popular and most visited posts, probably because “road trip playlist” is an astonishingly common search term. In the original post, I only had eight songs on my playlist. By the time I got home, I had fifty. You’ll notice quite a few songs are place-specific. It’s extremely gratifying to listen to “Sweet Home Alabama” when you’re in Alabama. Here’s the updated list, including a few retellings of the original eight.

1. 1000 Miles Per Hour by OK Go

This song is number one for a reason. Before I even had a list, this was on it. I hear the chorus and I want to throw away my whole life and drive east without purpose or destination.

2. On the Road Again by Willie Nelson

3. Memphis in the Meantime by John Hiatt

I don’t even remember who told me about this song. Maybe it was someone I stayed with, maybe it was a stranger in a diner. I’d never heard of it, but it was a song about going to Memphis, and that’s where I was headed when this person mentioned it. The first few times I listened to the song I didn’t really get what it was about. It was only after I spent the night falling asleep to the sound of bluegrass in Arkansas that I understood the musical change that happens when you cross the border into Tennessee.

4. King of New York from the Newsies Soundtrack

5. I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) by The Proclaimers

6. Leaving Las Vegas by Sheryl Crow

“We can listen to ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ while we’re leaving Las Vegas!” So were the words my sister said to me when we made the plan to have her fly to L.A. and drive with me to the Grand Canyon. On the road out of California I threw on The Very Best of Sheryl Crow, and my sister insisted that we skip “Leaving Las Vegas” until we were really leaving Las Vegas. Two days later we were already an hour out of town before we realized we’d forgotten to put on the song.

7. Open Road Song by Eve 6

And for a moment I love everything I see and think and feel.

8. Route 66 by Natalie Cole

After much consideration, I decided to go with the Natalie Cole version of this classic song. When you are cruising through those tiny towns where 66 is still Main Street, it’s hard to listen to anything else.

9. The Boy From New York City by The Ad Libs

10. Home Sweet Home by the Paradise Valley Band

No link on this one I’m afraid, I got this track off a 1980s recording of the band my folks were in during the 1970s. It’s one of my favorites off the quietly produced album, and I played it almost every day from somewhere around Nebraska until I got home.

11. Wouldn’t It Be Nice by The Beach Boys

Really, anything by the Beach Boys sounds good in California.

12. Rock’n Me by the Steve Miller Band

A classic rock song you might not know you know. Not only does it name a lot of destinations, it’s a good grove to wake you up if you’re starting to suffer from the third-hour-of-driving slump.

13 & 14. Baltimore by The Clintons (the original recording from Who Invited Roger as well as the bootleg Jereco Sessions)

15. Lubbock or Leave It by The Dixie Chicks

This song has some real history. Back in 2003, the lead singer Natalie Maines made a comment during a concert about the group’s personal opposition to the Iraq war, and how they were ashamed that President Bush was from their home state of Texas. The backlash was incredible. Patriotism is so ingrained in the culture of country music, and in those years especially patriotism meant standing behind the president. Their 2006 album Taking the Long Way addressed the controversy, including this song about Natalie Maines’ hometown of Lubbock Texas. I starting listening to this song in Texas, but I found myself putting it on a lot. It’s good for when you’re ready to get out of wherever you are.

15. Soak Up the Sun by Sheryl Crow

16. Cruz by Christina Aguilera

I was never that into Christina Aguilera growing up, but one year my sister gave me the album “Stripped” as a present. She told me when I opened it that she knew it was a strange gift, but that she felt I might actually like it. She mentioned one song in particular that reminded her of me. I was confused when I heard it. It was a song about taking off, something I always felt was her dream, not mine. Perhaps it was the line about “living it, leaving it to change.”

17. Sault Set Marie by Mick Sterling with Kevin Bowe and the Okemah Prophets

See note.

18. California by Joni Mitchell

19. I’ve Been Everywhere by Johnny Cash

I think memorizing the words to this song is going on my Bucket List. I’m getting better at keeping up when singing along, but I’m still not even good enough for karaoke. My desire to sing it grew each time I passed through a place listed in the song.

20. San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in You Hair) by Scott McKenzie

21 & 22. Like a Rolling Stone (both MTV Unplugged and Highway 61 Revisted)

When I first decided to write a blog for the trip, I needed to pick a name. I went straight to this song, which seemed absolutely perfect. However every line I thought might make a good title had already been used by someone else as a title for something else. No Direction Home. A Complete Unknown. Rolling Stone. Sigh. I found my title elsewhere, but that doesn’t make the song any less perfect. There’s nothing like Bob Dylan to remind you not to think too much of yourself.

23. Steve McQueen by Sheryl Crow

24. Highway 61 Revisted by Bob Dylan

I had the pleasure of listening to this song on repeat while driving down highway 61.

25. I Love L.A. By Randy Newman

26 & 27. Walking in Memphis (both Brown Derbies and Billy Joel, though I really ought to get the Cher version)

I can safely say that listening to the song Walking in Memphis while in the city of Memphis was one of my life goals. I first heard the song when it was featured in “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” one of the best episodes of my first television love: The X-Files. The first time I saw the episode I had no idea what was going on, because we were on vacation in Puerto Vallarta and the whole thing was dubbed in Spanish. But when I saw Mulder offer his hand to Scully and pull her up to dance, well, 13-year-old me flipped out. Over time I developed an appreciation for the song outside the context of this one episode, until the day I found myself on Beale Street in Memphis, just like in the song. And I was walking by a bar that was pumping the live music outside onto the street, and there it was. Walking in Memphis, while I was walking in Memphis.

28. Truckin’ by The Grateful Dead

Lately it occurs to me, what a long, strange trip it’s been.

29, 30, & 31. Santa Fe & Reprise from the Newsies Soundtrack; Santa Fe from the Rent Soundtrack

I talked a bit about this once before, but I never actually went to Santa Fe. It doesn’t matter though, because neither of these songs are really about Santa Fe. They are about escape, freedom, adventure, and hope – all things I got plenty of in my travels.

32. Motorway by The Waybacks

It’s unlikely you’ll find footage online of The Waybacks performing this song, but it’s well worth looking. I bet you didn’t even consider incorporating a tuba into a Kinks song.

33. Down in the Valley by The Head and The Heart

I almost didn’t bother downloading this one, but by the end it was one of my favorites. California, Oklahoma, and all the places I ain’t ever been to.

34. New York Minute by The Eagles

35. Everybody’s Got a Home But Me from Pipe Dream

There were certainly times when this song seemed too sad for my journey. I wasn’t without a home, I was merely far from it. But there is something to be said about traveling from place to place, constantly seeing people in their own home towns and never seeing yours. The recording I have of this song is the 2012 Encores! Cast, which includes a few snippets of the dialogue normally spoken during the song when it’s performed as part of the musical. Before she breaks into the final chorus, another character tells her, “I guess you’ll land on your feet somehow.” She confidently tells him, “I am on my feet.”

36. Goin’ to New Orleans by The Waybacks

37. Jackson by Johnny Cash

38. The Shot Heard ‘Round the World by Ween (from Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks)

I had this song stuck in my head for most of the way between Virginia and Boston. Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill, Yorktown. Every time I saw a city or place named in the song, I heard the voices of Ween in my ears.

39 & 40. Good Morning Baltimore (both the original broadway cast and the film version)

41. America by Simon & Garfunkel

My sister was shocked when I said this song wasn’t yet on my playlist. By the time she found out, I was already somewhere in the northeast, maybe as far along as Toronto. She told me the best place to listen would have been while driving on the New Jersey Turnpike, but she assured me that I would pass through plenty of other places that would still work. Personally, I fell in love with it driving through Michigan.

42 & 43. Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again by Bob Dylan (both the Hard Rain version and the one from Blonde on Blonde)

44. The One I Love by Greg Laswell

Every playlist needs a song that’s both up tempo and bittersweet. Even if you’re not really running away from anything, it’s still the perfect song for solivagants.

45. California Dreamin’ by The Mamas and The Papas

46. St. Augustine by Band of Horses

I doubt this song is about the St. Augustine I visited, but the way they sing the words “St. Augustine” is positively haunting.

47. Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd

48. Savannah by The Waybacks

This song is about a woman, not a city, but it is a beautiful thing to hear when you’re driving into the city. I’ve got four versions of this song in my iTunes, and it just so happened that listening to all four in a row added up to the precise driving time between my campsite on Skidaway Island and a nice parking spot just south of Forsyth Park.

49. Down South in New Orleans by The Band

Live’s a pleasure, and love’s a dream.

50. Mississippi by Bob Dylan (Dixie Chicks cover)

This song is the reason I went in the first place. Well, not exactly I suppose. It started with a short passage in Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader about a cat that got lost in Russia. That gave me an idea for a novel about a young woman who traveled around America (by necessity, not choice). The more I thought about the novel, the more I found sources of inspiration, like the Dixie Chicks cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi.” I found the lyrics to be beautiful. It felt like the song had been written just for my protagonist.

I sat down one day to write one of the scenes that was to take place in Mississippi. I started to type something about it being hot and sticky. I stopped. Where did that come from? All the people who’d told me that it was hot and sticky in the Deep South, I supposed. I had no idea if that was a good way to describe it. In fact, I was sure it wasn’t a good description by virtue of the fact that I’d heard it a million times already.

I stopped writing. I thought of all the places I wanted her to go, and I had nothing. I knew nothing of these states. I couldn’t imagine what worth I could bring to the novel if every location I put my main character in was going to be a regurgitation of things other people had already said. That was it then. If I wanted to write it, I’d simply have to see it all myself.

Stick with me baby, anyhow. Things should start to get interesting right about now.

The Troll Capitol of the World

I’d like you to take a minute to consider the possibility of there being a Troll Capitol of the World. I’d like you to ask yourself where such a place might be, and why it might bear such a moniker.

While you’re considering that, I’d like you to also imagine the road out of Madison as it winds towards Dubuque. It’s a small highway cutting its way through the farmlands of Wisconsin. About 25 miles out there’s a point where highway 18 splits off from 151, becoming it’s own quiet main street. Before rejoining 151 a mere three miles later, it cuts a straight path through Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin: The Troll Capitol of the World.

Peddler TrollIt was late afternoon on a Sunday when I arrived at Mt. Horeb, and the Chamber of Commerce was expectedly closed. I took a picture of the female troll outside the Welcome Center. Two doors down I saw what looked to be a couple of shops with wood carvings out front. I took a few pictures of those trolls, too. I walked past the Peddler Troll to get to Open House Imports, the most Scandinavian store I’ve ever seen. There were clogs and viking paraphernalia and tiny figures of women with wreaths of candles on their heads. I saw a shirt that proclaimed “Leif Was First” and four shelves full of specialty beers and ciders. And of course there were the trolls – hundreds and hundreds of stuffed and ceramic and wooden and plastic trolls.

I picked up a postcard and stood in silence as the woman behind the counter rang me up. She had already handed me my change and told me to have a nice day when I finally managed to form the most polite version of the question I could.

“So, what’s with the trolls?”

Tooth Fairy TrollShe told me that traditionally trolls protect the farmland, and she gave some coded phrases to indicate that the area might have been settled by Norwegian emigrants. She gave me a magazine called “Southwest Wisconsin Uplands” and showed me the page with the “Trollway” map. The thoroughly not-to-scale map indicated ten official trolls, though I’d already seen several that we not officially marked. I thanked her and set out on my journey of troll discovery.

Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to live in one of these towns – one of these towns that has “a thing.” Mt. Horeb has trolls like Roswell has aliens. You see it everywhere. I found a tooth fairy troll in front of the dentist’s office, and a sign in the pub for the 11th Annual Thirty Troll Brew Fest. Does it ever become tiring? As a citizen, do you ever wish you could walk down the street without seeing a smiling but eerie face staring back at you? Do you ever wish you weren’t the Troll Capitol of the World?

Acordian Troll CloseupSuch questions go without answers in Mt. Horeb at 5PM on a Sunday. Everything was closed and few people were around. But if you ever find yourself on the way to Dubuque during regular business hours, do me a favor and stop by Mt. Horeb. Ask them if they like their trolls. Who knows, maybe they do. Or if they just keep them around for the sake of the kids, and the crops.

The Other Side

One of my primary goals in taking this trip was to meet people who were different than me. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the bubble of your own opinions, especially in a solidly blue city like Seattle. In my everyday life, conservatives are more of a concept than a real life group of people. I can try to go online or watch TV, but I know it’s no use. There’s no way to accurately judge the slant I’m getting, no way to verify the authenticity of the opinions. Not to mention we’re all inclined to click on things that interest us, so the internet will always point you to the places in which you will find like-minded friends. I figured as long as I stayed in Seattle I was guaranteed to get constant reinforcement of my own ideals. If I wanted to be challenged, I’d have to hit the road.

Capitol Building

Unfortunately, even when seeking out The Other I couldn’t help but constantly find The Same. I didn’t have any republican CouchSurfing hosts because nearly everyone on CouchSurfing is a variation on the hippie/liberal spectrum. When I stayed with family and friends I was often among liberals, because we are all inclined to grow up believing the same things as our family members and making friends with people who agree with us. I knew my own bias was getting in the way of my desire to meet my idealogical opposites, but I had no idea how to fix it.

When I expressed my dismay to my host in Wisconsin, she recommend I spend some time with her neighbor Tim. She’d had more than one political debate with him over the years, and assured me he was firmly in the Republican camp. I wasn’t sure how exactly to ask a complete stranger if he wouldn’t mind talking with me for several hours, but this problem solved itself when I went to return the bike we’d borrowed the day before, and he offered to take me on a tour of the local college campus.

Madison had been over-taken by the Ironman Triathlon that day, and Tim and I ended up in his car for most of the tour as we searched for campus roads that weren’t closed. While driving we talked about capitalism and economics and I related a few stories about international manufacturing that I’d recently learned from Planet Money. He told me he thought the people still singing in the capitol building were just whining because they lost the recall election, and I explained how in Seattle, photos of the Madison protestors were shown adjacent to the Arab Spring.

Tim told me about how he and his wife live in Florida for six months of the year. When they drive down they do so without stopping to sleep. It’s 27 hours to get from Madison to their home in Florida, and they do it with a dog and two cats. He said he and his wife prefer it this way; they don’t like to stop. Plus, it means they can time their drive to take advantage to low-traffic periods. They never get stuck in Atlanta traffic because they drive through the city at two o’clock in the morning.

After giving up on the college and finding all his preferred dining establishments closed on Sundays, Tim and I grabbed some pizza at a local chain restaurant. Back at the house his wife handed me some homemade cookies for the road, and Tim recommended I stop in La Crosse on my way to Minneapolis.

And that was my day with a conservative.

I was afraid that living in a bubble of my own values was going to force me to see opposing viewpoints as crazy, and the people who held them as monsters. I wanted to go out into the world and meet these people first hand, and remind myself that they are no different than the rest of us. I wanted to hear their views straight from their mouths and gain a better understanding of where the thinking was rooted.

What a moron I was.

If traveling around the United States has taught me nothing else, it taught me that we are all inclined to believe that the majority of people we encounter agree with us. It is universal. It happens during casual party conversation and at the fast food counter. We carry our bias with us everywhere, and we don’t notice it because it usually doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if I assume the woman making my hot chocolate at the coffee shop is a democrat, because it’s probably not going to come up. It doesn’t matter if I assume she recycles regularly and would also love to visit New Zealand. It doesn’t matter because it’s unlikely any of these things will come up. I can keep believing them, and she can believe the complete opposite, and there will be no evidence of either if all we talk about is hot chocolate. Believe it or not, Libertarians and Socialists are capable of having incredibly non-confrontational conversations regarding cocoa.

LakeThe real bias that I was guilty of and needing to fix was my belief that I wasn’t already surrounded by opposing views. I was afraid of turning the opposing side into a faceless other, when that’s exactly what I’d done. I didn’t need to drive 15,000 miles to meet conservatives, I meet them all the time. Most of the time I don’t notice because when not discussing politics, liberals and conservatives are (surprise) pretty much the same. I know plenty of ideologically conservative people. I just don’t talk about politics with them. Why? Because I don’t want every casual conversation to turn into a debate. And I understand that I probably won’t be able to change their mind, since I know they won’t change mine. So we don’t bring it up.

It’s polite.

During my travels I had so many polite conversations with so many people that probably didn’t know how different I was from them. We all assume other people are just like us. My conversation with Tim was very cordial, very polite. We spent most of it finding all the ways in which we agree. Because that’s what people do. When face to face we’d rather agree with each other, because it reinforces the notion that we were both right all along. All sides do it. It’s yet another way in which we are alike. And I suppose that’s the thing I drove around the country to learn.

I didn’t have to go to Wisconsin to meet a conservative. Of course, I didn’t know that until I got there.


My Bad Host, Aunt Sally

Aunt Sally is a bad host. I know this, because she tells me so several times on the phone.


I was introduced to Aunt Sally by my friend Sally, who was named after her aunt. Sally and Aunt Sally are very similar people, a fact that they don’t seem to understand and will barely acknowledge. Aunt Sally and Sally are the only reason I bothered with Madison in the first place. Originally I assumed that when I drove through Wisconsin I’d stop in Green Bay, Milwaukee, or possibly Appleton. But Sally insisted that Madison had the absolute best Saturday farmer’s market in the world, and I had to go to it if I could.


When I arrive on Friday evening, my bad host Aunt Sally has only bothered to set out a lovely table for two on her back porch, with cherry tomatoes and goat cheese on top of basil and crackers for h’orderves. Dinner is merely homemade chicken salad on a bed of lettuce, with veggie kabobs fresh off the grill. And since nearly every ingredient comes fresh from her garden, she only has one strawberry (which she saves for me). I should have seen this coming. Aunt Sally warned me she was a bad host.

Farmer's Market

Saturday morning we borrow a bicycle from the neighbor (Aunt Sally tracked it down for me the day before) and the two of us take off on the six mile trip to the capitol. We’re on a dedicated bike path almost the entire time, which Aunt Sally tells me is packed at 6AM every weekday from all the people commuting around the lake to get to downtown. Things start to get unusually crowded for a Saturday as we approach our destination. I’ve come to town the same weekend as the Ironman Triathlon. Hundreds of people are swarming around the capitol area in preparation for the event on Sunday. Competitors are doing practice laps in the lake, and we cross over the secured area where hundreds of bikes are to be stored.

We park our own bicycles and head to the capitol building. Aunt Sally and I walk the entire loop of the market, which surrounds the deceptively large and classically Jeffersonian structure. Eventually I decide to grab myself a turtle bar from one of the bakery stands, and Aunt Sally picks up an apple and some cheese curds for herself. We sit on the grass at the base of the building to enjoy our lunch.

LibertyInside the building, Aunt Sally gives me a crash course in Wisconsin politics. “In this building, you can have a concealed weapon but not a camera.” She starts talking about the protests that happened back in 2011, explaining the backstory. Apparently the people of Wisconsin are unaware that they were front page news for several weeks. When Aunt Sally begins to explain how protestors would sing in the rotunda, I interrupt to let her know I’ve already seen the footage on youtube. She says they still come to sing on most days, though the crowds are understandably smaller. Lately there have been some arrests, including the arrest of a few elderly citizens. Aunt Sally wonders if the arrests will make national news again.

Bike Racks

Back near the triathlon headquarters, Aunt Sally and I sample the products being peddled at the event booths. We admire the gluten-free, dairy-free energy bars, and get our calves massaged using a pretty sweet muscle roller (which Aunt Sally ends up buying for herself). We pass by the bike holding area, which is now packed with bicycles in waiting. Aunt Sally mentions how expensive professional bikes like these are, and the two of us speculate on how many tens of thousands of dollars are lined up on the racks below.

From the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright), we get a good view of the swimmers out on Lake Monona. Ironman triathletes must complete a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike ride, and finally a 26.2 mile run. I understand why some people do it, but it’s sure not going on my Bucket List.

Parking and LakeWorn out from watching other people expend so much energy, Aunt Sally and I stop at a chocolate shop on our ride home. We talk politics a bit more, and she’s amazed when I tell her how in Washington State the legalization of marijuana passed by a wider margin than gay marriage. I tell her that the city of Seattle banned plastic bags at the grocery store, and she couldn’t believe it. “How do you get something like that to happen?” she asks with envy. It seems like Aunt Sally would welcome a plastic bag ban, but can’t fathom an entire city’s citizenry allowing such a thing.

We end our day at a fancy pizza place, and Aunt Sally helps me pick a good place to go to church in the morning. We talk more, and I enjoy every minute I spend with Aunt Sally. After all, she’s just like my friend Sally. As I leave the next day I thank Aunt Sally for her hospitality, and tell her I had a wonderful time spending the weekend with her. I don’t think she believes me, but then again, Aunt Sally is a bad host.

Were You Ever Scared? Part Two

Stream in the woodsI was one mile into a two-mile hiking trail when it first occurred to me that I’d done a very, very foolish thing. I hadn’t told a single soul where I was going, what I was doing, or when I would be back.

There was no one else on the trail, which surprised me. I was expecting to see at least a few others along the way. This didn’t help with my fears. I started running down the list of people that might think to come looking for me. I had stopped at the ranger station earlier to get the guide map and ask about the trails, but we hadn’t discussed the trail to Lost Lake at all, so even if she remembered me she wouldn’t think to look for me there. My parents and boyfriend both had access to my regularly updated spreadsheet of sleeping locations, but I didn’t know I’d be staying in the park until long after I’d lost internet access. My spreadsheet for that night indicated I was “camping in Northern Michigan,” so that would be less than helpful. The trailhead parking lot was right next to the main park road, so in theory someone might see my car there after dark and wonder. However the trail I was on had designated areas for backcountry camping, so there were probably vehicles in that lot overnight on a regular basis.

In short, I was confident it would be quite a while before anyone started to look for me, and much longer before they found me.

I didn’t have enough daylight left to get to the ranger station and then back to finish the hike, so I kept going. What was I afraid might happen? Bears, mostly. Ever since Crater Lake I’d had this sinking feeling in my heart that I was going to have to fight a bear. Not be killed by a bear, not just be mauled, but that I was going to be in a position to fight an actual bear. It’s not completely unrealistic. There are certain circumstances when encountering a black bear in which fighting would be your best option. They’re not common of course. But neither are bears.

I encountered a small stream and took some photos. It was beautiful, like something out of a fantasy novel. Perhaps I would be bitten by a snake. Were there venomous snakes in Michigan? I couldn’t remember. It seemed like the kind of injury that could be slowly fatal. Those were the only ones worth worrying about, after all. Those would be the only ones whose fatality could have been prevented. It’s always possible to have a lethal animal attack in the woods, and no amount of telling the rangers where you’re going will fix that. But you could have an injurious incident – the kind that leaves you incapacitated but alive. That’s when the rangers could have helped you out. That’s what I was normally so prepared for.

I wallowed in my own frighteningly specific imagination for 40 minutes before I decided I was doing more harm than good. I tried to think about other things. I tried to enjoy the scenery. I tried to listen to podcasts or music. Nothing helped. I couldn’t focus on other things because the story I was telling in my head was far more intriguing. That’s when I began to talk to myself.

“It’s This American Life, I’m Katrina Hamilton. Each week we pick a theme, and bring you a variety of stories on that theme. This week’s theme: dying alone in the woods.”

When I write fiction I tend to replay the scenes over and over again in my head before I write them down. I’m very good at imagining every aspect of a pretend event. So instead of playing the animal attack over in my head, I decided to play the result. I imagined myself in the woods, hurt, and struggling to make it back to the road. I imagined my mind becoming fuzzy from the venom or the blood loss. I imagined that I would only be able to make it so far before I had to take a break. I imagined being worried I would fall asleep on my break and never wake up. I imagined I took out my phone and starting talking to keep myself awake. I imagined doing my best Ira Glass impersonation and recording a story for the radio.

It would be a great story, too. A sort of narrative Last Will & Testament. I would talk about how I ended up where I was, but I would start at the beginning. I would talk about the whole trip. I would talk about where the idea first came from. I would talk about camping as a child and loving to travel. And the whole thing would feel so hauntingly immediate, because you were never sure when the recording would cut out, and an announcer would come on. Perhaps it would be Katrina, explaining how she passed out in the woods but was fortunately found only a few minutes later by some passing hikers. Or maybe it would be Ira, explaining that the rangers found Katrina’s body alone in the woods several days later, her phone at her side, the battery dead.

Now that’s good radio.

The answer of course is that everything turned out fine. I made it to Lost Lake, and found the act of looking at a lake by myself to be incredibly calming. The entire hike I was alone – no humans, no snakes, no bears.

Lost LakeWhen I tell people I traveled alone, they often ask, “Were you ever scared?” The answer is yes, I was scared. But not of the things they’re thinking. Not when I went home with strangers. Not when I drove through the wrong side of town. Not in New York City traffic or at night on the lonely highway. I wasn’t scared of the people and the places that I didn’t know. These things weren’t scary. They were wonderful.

I was scared when I gave myself the opportunity to consider the limitless possibilities. I was scared when I thought too much, when I pondered all that could go wrong. I was scared preparing for the Grand Canyon, but I was never scared during the hike. I was scared sitting outside the Westboro Baptist Church, but I wasn’t scared sitting in the pews. The greatest fears I ever experience come from my own dreadful imagination. I can work myself into a frenzy if given the time.

The best cure for asking what could happen is to consider what did happen. There are a lot of things that could have happened to me on my trip. I considered them, I was prepared for them, and I didn’t experience any of them. I used to be pretty uncomfortable around strangers, but I’ve spent too much time with too many strangers to still feel that way. My experience can go toe-to-toe with my imagination, and experience will win.

Was I ever scared?


But that was before I left.