Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Hiker's Mixtape

Until the death of the I-pod somewhere in Central Iowa, music was a major factor in the maintenance of my sanity over the last few months. Even afterward there were certain songs I would sing to myself for motivation or merely to see what sort of animals would be driven to suicide.
Since I had some time on my hands, I spent many of the hours composing a list of tunes which seemed to fit the traveling theme. Journey somehow does not make the list. I must subconsciously have too much respect for Steven Perry's legacy to attempt to equal his greatness with my own mortal vocal cords. Feel free to chip in with your own suggestions - there is still a mile or two thousand to go yet.

1. "Here I Go Again" by Whitesnake - Believe me, as much as I appreciate the eternal greatness of Europe and Great White, I'm not a huge fan of this era of music. That being said, there simply is not a more fitting way to start a day on the trail than with "Here I Go Again," which became my official theme song by the middle of the trek. Coverdale tells a tale of surviving in the face of adversity over and over again each day. I've also been described as a drifter in certain publications, so I can definitely feel where he's coming from here.

2. "Country Roads" by John Denver - Again, John Denver is not an artist whose collection I would regularly raid for inspiration. Geographically though, this song just made sense - I couldn't go more than an hour in West Virginia, especially the rural mountainous areas, without starting to belt out this ballad. Take me home John.

3. "Within a Mile of Home" by Flogging Molly - The Irish rock band Flogging Molly is a more predictable piece of the puzzle. I've seen these fellows perform on several different occasions and have always been impressed by their stage presence and their ability to play as if the current show was their last. Never have I been in the midst of a more amped up crowd than during a Flogging Molly concert. Obviously, the title pretty much explains why "Within.." is relevant, but why don't you give yourself the pleasure of a listen anyway.

4. "The Road Behind" by GWAR - A power ballad from a bunch of men used to playing heavy metal dressed up like human genitalia comes as a bit of a surprise to those who don't properly appreciate the musical versatility GWAR consistently displays every ten years or so. Most artists lack the vision to integrate roadkill into their works, but not GWAR. The complex stanzas also speak of wheels rolling, not a luxury I am allowed, but listen carefully - their's is a metaphorical journey on a bus to rock, do drugs, destroy planets, and vomit. The connection may be fleeting when compared to my trip using a semblance of logic, but if you've followed closely you'll notice a similarity in the weirdness factor that is truly irresistible.

5. "Powerwalking" by Archers of Loaf - A lot of people who think they are funny suggested a comparison between myself and Forest Gump. Besides the fact that they seem to be implying I am semi-retarded, they also displayed a complete ignorance of the fact that a hiking pack weighs forty pounds. If you carefully view the film, you'll notice Mr. Hanks is carrying nothing of the sort, thus his ability to run. On the other hand, I would have considered advice relating to power-walking, which is indeed faster than regular walking. The Archers of Loaf succinctly explain here why such an approach is flawed and I owe them many thanks.

6. "Long Way Home" by Enter the Haggis - You'll be glad to know the lyrics for this track have nothing to do with the insides of a sheep's intestines or the cooking preparation thereof. Instead, these Canadians deliver a softer version of the Celtic thunder pumped out by the Mollies. The theme is the same, a long trip with the end not yet in sight, a feeling I had often and imagine I will have again in the near future.

7. "On the Road Again" by Willie Nelson - I haven't spent enough days in my life smoking the copious amounts of marijuana necessary to properly comprehend the greatness of Willie or else "On the Road Again" would probably have beat out Whitesnake as my official theme song. In addition, on some days saying I just can't wait to get on the road again would have been a bald faced lie. Nevertheless, this testament to the joy found in America's wide open spaces could not be left off the honor roll.

8. "Way Down the Old Plank Road" by Old Crow Medicine Show - I spent a couple days on this very road while traipsing through Illinois, so I would have been remiss if this oft-covered folk song was omitted here. There are, however, elements of the chorus I have to take umbrage with since, in all honesty, I probably will not be participating in the sober future the singer proclaims.

9. "Sec Walkin" by My Morning Jacket - "Left leg, right leg..." I won't ruin the beauty of the band's efforts here by using the kinds of words a writer would splatter on the screen to inspire in the reader a sort of Godlike awe before a chance is given to examine the material. Do your homework and you'll understand why.

10. "Amazing Journey" by the Who - Granted, I'm not deaf, dumb, blind, or even any good at pinball. Regardless, the album "Tommy" has always spoken to me. What about a journey filled with mysterious figures and endless adventures could appeal to me? Um, pretty much everything.

11. "Walk, Don't Run" by the Ventures - See number five.

12. "Adventures in Solitude" by the New Pornographers - This song earned a spot on this list thanks to a magical moment during a hike several years ago, long before I came up with the not completely sensible idea of walking across the country. I had been having a hard time in my personal life and decided to take a trip up to the top of Table Rock to clear my head. Just as I reached the apex, "Adventures..", which I had just downloaded and theretofore never heard, came on my I-pod. The whole of the piece is somber and beautiful in a way the written word can't justify, but there is one line which stood out in my mind. "We thought we'd lost you, welcome back." My mind immediately went to Ken and a couple other friends of mine who had survived near-death experiences. Suddenly all the comparatively minor problems I was going through faded into obscurity. I sat atop Table Rock and wept tears of joy.

Honorable mentions: "Hit the Road, Not Your Woman, Jack" by Ray Charles, "I Would Walk Some Indeterminate Amount of Miles" by the Proclaimers, " Christopher Walken is Really Funny in that Fatboy Slim Video" by Wilco (or "Walken" if you're not into the whole brevity thing).

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Day After

September 23: As always, there is a day after, unless y0u die, then yours is canceled. My flight home wasn't scheduled until five a.m. Saturday morning, so since I was not yet hanging with Kenny (those bastards!) there was the matter of twenty four hours left to kill before departure.
The baking and alcohol dispensing industries both required Dan's services, meaning Meggan was left alone to administer the one day grand tour of Council Bluffs and Omaha. She first took us to Hot Shops, where Dan's brother Chris plies his trade as a metal-worker with serious artistic chops. He is the man responsible for the iron work outside O'Leaver's.
Housed in an old warehouse, Hot Shops is basically a gallery exhibiting an ever-shifting and varied series of pieces from local painters, photographers, sculptors, and other artistic types. There are also work spaces where creators like Chris craft their handiwork.
Following an hour of awestruck wandering amidst the genius of creative minds we picked up Sherman (Dan and Meggan's canine) and headed over to the Hitchcock Nature Center. On the way I saw my first black squirrel. Council Bluffs is famous for the rare coloration. The city protects the squirrel vigorously. It is illegal here to "taunt, maim, kill, annoy or otherwise disturb a black squirrel." You should also not taunt super happy fun ball.
After a short drive we arrived at Hitchcock Nature Center. The preserve houses some of Iowa's largest remaining tracts of prairie and also happens to lie square in the center of the loess hills. We went for a stroll (no rest for the wicked) and I took a long deep breath, grabbing one last glimpse of the Iowa outdoors while Meggan chided Sherman for running off for the seven thousandth time. Towards the end we came upon a sorry sight - a beautiful yellow and turquoise snake trapped alive in the mesh net which coated the ground.
I don't know what the purpose of the mesh was, but I found it bitterly ironic that in a place meant to preserve nature mankind had managed to trap and possibly destroy the very thing we had meant to protect. Without my knife I felt powerless to free the poor beast. We instead traveled back to the park office and informed the woman on duty of the serpent's predicament. I'd like to say there was a happy ending, but the animal's fate is unknown, I can only hope the ranger was able to free him in time.
Our next destination was the Grenville Dodge house. Council Bluffs has a fascinating history dating back to a visit from the Lewis and Clark expedition, who conducted a palaver here in 1804 with the Otoe and Missouria Indians on the site where the town would one day be built. The council part of the city's name derives from this historic meeting between the explorers and the doomed aborigines.
Dodge was one of the earliest settlers to move into the area, making his home here in the 1850s. A previous attempt to settle farther west in Nebraska was rebuffed by hostile Comanche tribesmen who signaled their displeasure with flying arrows and spears. Taking the hint, the young man and his wife moved to the healthier environment of newly formed Council Bluffs.
In his twenties G.D. was already a serious mover and shaker. He set up a banking business with his family and became a player in the railroad game as well. The young man had been involved in surveying since the age of fourteen and had recently received a degree in civil engineering before leaving his birthplace in Massachusetts and heading out to the frontier.
The Civil War presented Dodge with the opportunity of quick advancement. He started the conflict as a colonel. During the next few years he accomplished the rare feat of living while also earning respect and friendship from luminaries in the military establishment such as Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan. As a result Dodge became one of the Union's youngest major generals, helping Sherman to burn and loot all the way to Atlanta before a shot to the head convinced Dodge a job commanding the Department of Missouri might be more his style.
Once the rebels were defeated the general moved back into civilian life, becoming the chief engineer of the Union Pacific. 1866 was an incredibly exciting era to be involved in the company. Union Pacific was in the process of building the Trans-Continental Railroad, which would be the first to connect the Pacific coast with the rest of the country.
After the golden spike was driven to celebrate the completion of the project, Dodge became a globe trotting surveyor for other amazing engineering achievements such as the Trans-Siberian Railroad and a railroad in France which he built despite the participation of the French. He also spent many years as a representative of Iowa in the United States Congress.
When Grenville Dodge died in 1916 he was the last Civil War general to begin the below ground decomposition process. How do we summarize such an amazing career? Some say the general was a bit off his rocker thanks to the head wound he earned in 1864. Others point to his involvement in the Credit Mobilier scandal as a mark against the man. There are even those who speak of his lobbying for the railroads in Washington while he was a lawmaker as a questionable conflict of interest. Although I admit others are entitled to opinions that are wrong, I feel Dodge was a really swell guy.
After signing our non-disclosure agreement, promising not to bash General Dodge in any written form, Meggan and I were allowed into the Dodge residence, which had been turned into a museum. The mansion was purchased in 1869 thanks to proceeds from insider trading which we refer to here as sound investing.
There were many interesting baubles and trinkets inside, including some original wallpaper, which would really have blown your mind if "Better Homes and Garden" is your idea of a magazine. During our tour my interest in home furnishings waned, as my stomach was gnawing upon my lower intestines, bringing the normal attention span of zero to an even lower rating if you believe in those sort of imaginary numbers.
Meggan had said something earlier about dim sum and the reckoning had finally come, steamed Chinese delicacies were our due. The meal did require a trip west into Omaha, however, all the way to Gold Mountain on 730,000th street, which I believe is only twenty miles east of the Colorado border.
The drive proved worth the effort. Squid, roasted duck, spare ribs, and a fantastic turnip cake, the revelation of the meal, all danced on my palate like Sugar Plum fairies enjoying one last prance before the inevitable agonizing drowned doom within my acidic insides. We picked up some to-go items for the poor imprisoned Dan and went to visit him at O'Leaver's.
Soon after the day disappeared into hazy night a last celebration in the far west commenced. Dan escaped his shackles behind the bar and joined us, along with his parents, for a last cocktail or two before saying goodbye.
The moment slipped by all too quickly and before I knew early morning had come. I was whisked away to the Omaha airport and back into the waiting arms of my friends in Greenville. Suddenly the last few months felt like a great long dream. If so, I can't wait until April when I can go back to sleep.

o miles/1796 total miles

Thanks to recent donors:
Peggy Byrd and Harlan Newton
Colin Stewart
Greenville Area Blue Star Mothers
John and Dot Bishop
Ed Kemp
Dan Kemp and Meggan Gibson
Monty and Teresa Hoyle
Mark and Melissa Normington
Paul and Sally Hoover
Josh and Katie Gillespie
Cindy Walsh