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A Steinbeckian Tale For The Tinder Age

Diary of a young-going-on-middle-aged, recently single guy looking for love – could be a little tedious to read. Diary of a young-going-on-middle-aged, recently single guy looking for love and traveling all across the country …that’s something more memorable. And so we have my most recently-read book, Leave Only Footprints, by Conor Knighton.

Knighton managed to blend two parts of latter-day Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and one part male Bridget Jones Diary with quite compelling results. A TV news correspondent called upon sporadically by his network, he found himself dumped by his fiancee. Heartbroken, bored and tired of seeing all the places they used to go to in Phoenix, he decided to take a year off and travel. His plan – visit everyone of the national parks in the country. There are over 50, from Atlantic to Pacific, Maine to California, plus ones above the Arctic Circle in Alaska, and out in the lonely ocean in Samoa and the Virgin Islands. Cleverly, he sold his network on the idea of having him do it as a regular segment for their morning or news shows, so as to get a bit of an expense account to cover the thousands of miles by road, air and sea.

He begins the year wanting to see the first sunrise of the year before anyone else, so he visits Acadia National Park, just off the Maine coast on a frigid New Year’s morning. 364 days later he finishes up watching the sun set into the Pacific at the Point Reyes National Seashore (technically not a national park) in California. Along the way he developed a profound and newfound love of his country and its nature, as well as the people who’ve worked to preserve it. He describes all the parks he went to, and adds a little history, but the book moves along swiftly, as he had to himself, not lingering too long on any one site or sight, and introducing us to a range of interesting personnel at the parks. In an unusual but effective writing twist, he avoids making it a chronological recounting of the year, and lumps parks together by “theme.” Crater Lake and Congaree were “mysteries” as I mentioned in the previous blog. Big Bend, on the Tex-mex boundary, and American Samoa, in the middle of the ocean were “borders.” Joshua Tree and Sequoia were among the ones he labeled “trees” for obvious reason. He comes to some great insights, like how many of the people who worked hardest to set up and protect the scenic national parks came from Kansas and other similarly geographically unremarkable places. “If Dorothy had grown up in New York City rather than on the Prairie, Oz may not have looked as spectacular,” he points out. The non-linear approach worked well, keeping us a little off-balance and wondering what would be his next category.

As for love, we never really know if he found it. He used the modern apps to find dates in many cities and described one promising relationship cooked up in the fogs of Washington’s Cascades, but it never seemed to entirely take off. Then there was the nice gal who helped him when his car skidded off the road in Wyoming; he sought her out only to find she was engaged. He does a lot of self-evaluation and personal growing through the year and his recollection of his failed engagement that led to the journey. In one or two places, this side-story became a little distracting and slowing, but all in all, it helped us see him as a human on the road to somewhere… just not somewhere he had mapped out quite yet.

All in all, an interesting and at times endearing look at the United States. I give it 3.5 Smokeys out of 5.

Thankful Thursday XIII – Conserving Nature

This Thankful Thursday, I’m thankful for the Nature Conservancy. They’ve recently been in the news for being the lead participant in saving some 230 000 acres (about 400 square miles) of tropical rain forest in Belize that is home to one of the few populations of jaguars left in the wild (the cats that is… it seems to me the cars have suddenly become very common!). In doing, it also protects any number of other animals that live in the jungle and helps keep rivers used for drinking water clean and helps the forest to keep churning out oxygen and doing its little bit to prevent climate change. Which is right “on brand” for them.

The Nature Conservancy is a non-profit that quite simply puts its money where its mouth is. Many organizations try to protect the environment, wildlife and natural habitat by educating and lobbying… admirable objectives. But the Nature Conservancy goes one better. They still educate and advocate, but their main modus operandi is to simply identify ecologically valuable lands which are threatened and buy them up to keep as parkland or preserves. Spending ten million bucks to lobby politicians to save a rainforest or the home of an endangered owl is not bad. Spending the money to simply save the land yourself is a more direct and effective route. To date, the organization has saved land in 72 countries including all 50 U.S. states – something in the range of 125 million acres and counting. Among their objectives are “protecting land and water” and “providing food and water sustainability.” At a time when governments tend to be cutting funding for parks and right-wing policies favoring corporate for-profit use of lands are gaining ground through much of the Western World, it’s an increasingly commendable and valuable function, and best of all it’s all funded through donations rather than your tax dollars.

I’ve been something of an environmentalist all my life I guess. I value nature for its own inherent beauty and, in my opinion, its right to exist alongside us. As time goes on we see more and more repercussions of not taking care of the environment – everything from landslides and out of control wildfires to increased damage to coastal areas in hurricanes, increasing numbers of endangered species at home and rising numbers of cancers and illnesses caused by poor air and water quality overseas. I’ve also worked in a limited capacity for governmental agencies formed to tackle such issues and have witnessed the difficulties they have getting through the bureaucratic red tape to get things done. So I’m always happy when concerned people take matters into their own hand and solve the problems. So on behalf of the jaguars, I thank you Nature Conservancy.

Thankful Thursday V – Spring Is In The Air

I just got in after running any number of errands and getting the groceries done. I’m sweating. But that’s ok, because this Thursday I’m thankful for spring arriving.

Now if you want to get technical, spring doesn’t “arrive” until some time next week, based on the earth’s tilt and so on. But I’m a weather buff and a naturalist and meteorologists and ornothologists alike consider March 1 through May 31 “spring.” Enough for me to go with, even if it wasn’t 80 and tropically humid outside with the threat of tornadoes penciled in for the weekend. Which it is.

Spring was always a joy for me when I lived in Canada. Arguably summer was my favorite season but spring had a whole lot going for it, enough for it to create the weather equivalent of a “two-sided hit single” to me. Now, spring in Ontario can be a bit of a tease… I’ve seen snowstorms at Easter and fruit trees blossom before one last blast of Old Man Winter and his sub-zero temperatures blew back in. Not to mention that early spring can often be dreary, rainy and cool. Still, to me that beat drearier, snowy and colder. Spring always had its appeal because quite frankly, I don’t like winter. I don’t like being cold, I like lots of daylight and the emotional boost (not to mention Vitamin D) it gives me, I don’t like having to wear heavy coats and gloves. I don’t like seeing young women bundled like penguins in heavy coats and gloves…err, when I was single that is! What I do like is being comfortable outside and seeing the landscape awaken day by day…the grass getting greener, the trees leafing out, new birds arriving by the day, people crowding into garden centers with happy plans. And of course, baseball being back, which I looked at a few weeks ago.

Here in Texas, spring often creeps in almost unnoticed, mainly because winters often dress up like it. This year is a bit different of course, after the state saw record cold temperatures, eight to ten days straight sub-freezing temperatures and an ice storm that shut down stores and electric plants alike. Texans can welcome spring with the gusto of Canadians this year. I am!

Spring! Co-recipient of Dave’s “Best Season of the Year” award. How about you, friends? What’s your favorite season?

Thankful Thursday III – A Waxwing Moment

It’s Thankful Thursday again, and today like others is a good day to be thankful. I actually had a draft of today’s ready to go yesterday – and it may see the light of day later – but I had a nice little moment earlier today that I to replace it with.

While out running many errands – many boring errands – grocery shopping, filling up the car, driving a relative to work – I needed to drop off a package at a courier drop-off center in a big box store. I pulled into the parking lot, got a spot at the edge of the lot and found a whole flock of Cedar Waxwings flitting about in the trees right in front of my car. Waxwings are a bird that perhaps could earn the designation “charming”. Small, elegant looking little sparrow-sized birds with a crest like a cardinal and a mask like a Raccoon, and when you see them in the right light and angle, little bright patches of yellow and red. Little birds that have human-like traits of being highly gregarious (you seldom see one waxwing) and a slight tendency towards drunkenness. You see, waxwings like berries more than anything else, and if they’ve fermented on the tree… well, you get tipsy birds. Unlike humans though, the tipsy birds don’t seem to fly at each other or shoot one another.

Anyway, I opened the door of the car and expected them to take off, but instead, a few flew and others kept on looking for berries in the tree and hopping around not far from my feet. I snapped a few photos with my phone which is most definitely not high-def but captures the moment at least. As I did, with the birds flying around me, a car pulled over to the side of the road, window rolled down and a lady yelled out at me “what kind of birds are they?” I called back that they were called waxwings. “They’re adorable” she answered before driving on her way.

It was not a dazzling event, and I was walking into the building three or four minutes later to do the task I had come for. But it was a nice little moment. For a couple of minutes I was not thinking about the best route to avoid traffic to the next stop, money, or anything else other than enjoying the outdoors and the active little birds which were going on about their business of the day. The passerby who noticed and appreciated it encouraged me more.

And that is often the key to being in a good mindset. You don’t win the lottery, get promoted from sweeper to CEO or get to be on the cover of ‘Great People Of The World” magazine everyday. But if you look around you, you probably do get the special little fleeting moments no matter where you are. Learn to enjoy them and you’ll find the mundane becomes a lot more magical.