Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ex-POWs, Couch Pillows & Twinkies

Most Americans are soft - including me. I should drop right now and do a hundred on the dirt, but I'll finish writing first. Too much skin lotion, political correctness, warm water, protectionism, plastic playgrounds, and electron dependencies. We weren't always like this, it's been a gradual softening throughout history, but now just at an accelerated rate it seems over the past half century.

During my visit to the VA hospital in Boise, ID, they informed me that the National Convention of Ex-POWs was being held three miles uptown and that a presentation was scheduled that afternoon. The speaker was a long-time doctor of the local VA medical center that specialized in post-traumatic stress and he's been working with patients since World War II. I was half the age of the next youngest person in the room, which was a former Vietnam veteran. The doctor gave an excellent presentation that touched on various aspects of the topic, "Forces of Resiliency and Surviving" - basically research and studies in the qualities and characteristics of former POWs that possessed (or didn't) the resiliency of not only surviving torture and harsh imprisonment, but also the ability to overcome the lingering symptoms of PTS.

The characteristics found most common in resilient soldiers were: optimism, developed cognitive flexibility, having a moral compass, or what some might call, "shatter-proof" beliefs, altruism, being adept at facing fears, active coping skills, maintaining social relationships, keeping fit, and most had found a mentor, hero, or role model in life. Similar results were found in other studies done with disadvantaged children.

The personal stories told during the Q&A that followed were gut-wrenching at times: endless marches between German war camps, sickness, starvation, and one story of a man captured in the Korean War who spent eleven months in solitary confinement. Stories of dire conditions told by real men that had directly endured such experiences was profoundly humbling. Those former POWs ended the session with words of advice for our injured soldiers returning from war as well as their families and fellow citizens supporting their return: listen to your family, don't drink and drug, and therapy works.

So en light of this, it's hard not to wince when the experts via the media or the president compare the current economic recession to that of the Great Depression and so many other stories of middle-class crunch, cut backs, financial adjustments, or "lifestyle changes". Pity us! Recessions are a part of living - we create them, then we figure our way out of them until enough time passes, that we forget and make a new one with its own unique, knuckle ball elements. Hopefully they won't include the long food lines, unemployment, or stiff conditions that existed nearly 80 years ago.

Relatively speaking, yes, the bad stats are up, we are having to make changes, take new perspectives, and "toughen up" 2009-style, but take a second to look around and you'll see cars buzzing and grocery stores abundant (more on grocery stores later). Take a second to think, or try and think of another's circumstance, whether he or she is a soldier returned from war or someone you see that's honestly struggling to get by. Help them with their bootstraps while tightening your own.

Maybe technology brings teleportation and a few other toys that read your mind to increase your efficiency or ease your burdens, but really, it's hard to imagine a life of greater convenience than we already have.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Early Reflections on the Great Northwest

The Great American Northwest! It doesn't take long to exhaust one's personal arsenal of adjectives when describing this land, the people and such incredible diversity of climate, geology, or culture. With the exception of warm ocean water, the region is blessed with an intense richness beyond the far fathoms of a wild dreamer's imagination. For the first white Americans, the northwest certainly began as a dream. In blazing the early paths into an untamed, rugged, and truly wild west, those early settlers left a richness that colors our history and will forever define the core legacy of America's pioneering spirit.

Long before the 19th century began, the Shoshone warriors were some of the first tribes believed to have inhabited the land. Among all the Native American tribes, the Shoshone were considered to be some of the toughest and most skilled - possessing advanced tactics whether it was in battle or trade strategies. Many of the region's historians note that the northwest territory would have been much more difficult to settle if the tribes hadn't fought amongst themselves as much as they did.

Eventually, there came the mountain men, pioneers, and trappers in trade of beaver pelts and other hides. Gold was soon discovered in many of those same streams and gulches - igniting a national excitement whereby the mid-1800s, Americans began feverishly pushing west to the land of Oregon, a land of absolute freedom and free to claim, a land of milk and honey, a land of manifest destiny.... Despite one in ten dying along the way, the idea bubbled beyond biblical proportions, far flung fantasies, and exaggerated claims that electrified the atmosphere and buzzed across newly strung telegraph lines. "...there was a species of madness among us...", described a frontiersman at the height of the frenzy.

Well, so goes my super-condensed history of the early settlement era in the northwest... It's difficult to resist after a visit to the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center outside of Baker City and the countless other museums, cultural centers, historical landmarks, and most importantly, the story-telling old-timers (pardon the pun) that have intrigued my interests along the way.... but really, history is impossible to ignore when attempting to connect the dots of our days, because drawing lines that start with an awareness of our past, ultimately allows us to shed a bit of ignorance and realistically face the future better informed. I'll try to come back later and wrap this point.

Fast forward to today and there's a lot to be said about "the northwest life". I could numb fingers on keyboards all day, but as most residents would tell you, it's one of those things you just have to experience in order to fully grasp. Not withstanding, I'll proceed with two years of mid-twenties fast-paced living and a bike tour under my belt as sufficient credentials to convey (or at least intend to convey) a valid impression.

If you want ocean, marsh, swamp, pond, lakes, rivers, rapids, streams, creeks, cascading waterfalls, scree, talus, snow, ice, glacier, active volcanic peaks, lava rock, scrub, sand, canyon lands, then you can find them all moving west to east between the perpetually misty mank cloud coastal harbors and sunny dry desert star dust.

If you enjoy Kenyan cuisine or Japanese sushi, Korean BBQ or hearty stews, incredibly fresh caught seafood or the world's finest brews, then you will find an unmatched global platter of culinary creation at its absolute best. Whether you're a green bean vegan or bloody rare carnivore, you can not only exist, but thrive off of the healthiest locally grown cornucopia that undoubtedly includes organically grown fresh produce, but arguably the most supreme grade A+ beef to roam the land. It would be difficult to match the happiness and health of the Oregonian cow. The food alone is reason enough to live here.

If you prefer to associate with the farmer Joe's or coffee shop Shmoe's, then you can find them and all their third cousins and cool kid friends in between e.g. abolitionists, separatists, hard-core libertarians, neo-cons, old-fashioned traditional trustworthy conservatives, salt of the earth farmers with more intimacy and soil soul than Loa Tzu, true cowboys, true big man ranchers, small farm self-sustainers, hill billies, hermits, rednecks, renegade rednecks, silver spoon jacked-up truck daddy boy rednecks, simple people, good simple people, good honest people, good honest hardworking people, striving renaissance men, yogis, weekend warriors, sci-fi computer game techno geeks, cool geeks, reclusive geeks, super moms, super 80-hr family negligent life dedicated worker dad, slackers, system-drag-down slackers, active-aware suburbanites, common suburbanites, oblivious suburbanites, aware-but-don't care suburbanites, hypocrites, NIMBY-liberals, weirdo, wacko, emo, goth, snob, radicals, free radicals, deconstructionists, tree huggers, other separatists and other abolitionists (that claim difference but really the same as those first mentioned, just a change of clothing and music preferences), etc, etc, etc. If we could only remember that we are all God's children.....

If you want adventure, recreation, sporting, or pursuit of the extreme -once again, it's here. But sparing another agonizing non-comprehensive list, it is quite possible to immediately detect the presence of a northwest outdoorsman by the content of conversation with respect to his or her exploits with nature. Specifically, it becomes most apparent with a sometimes extensive knowledge of snow and avalanche conditions, or maybe the preceding mountain cloud formation weather warnings to incoming warm and cold fronts, or you know for sure, and it is most blatantly displayed in a detailed description to some special ski expedition of dropping from helicopter into wild back country slopes to cut fresh new lines atop untouched hoarfrost that has the unforgettable euphoric feel and sound of a continuous champagne glass shattering with each clean turn taken en route to a warm lodge and rosy cheeks of the apris ski.

It seems to be an amalgamation of various elements herein that constitute one of several possible, but all distinctive modes of northwest living. It's a way of life, a way of spirit that infects and is then perpetuated by its inhabitants. Although I have neglected to mention much about the arts, the presence of that northwest soul is pervasive in much of the region's music, craft, and canvass. It doesn't have its own genre and it's not quite a style, but you feel it, and know it's there. It could be a mid-90s Modest Mouse sound of slight spooky strange sadness that sings from your speakers while simultaneously sending imagery of a winter's drive beside icey cascade skylines that echo frozen during the frigid dark dampness of January...or a smirky Seattle sarcasm that happily radiates with the bi-polar painful hide-n-seek sun dance of June just to name a's hard to overstate the affect that northwest nature and climate has in carving the culture. Summers are often breif, but they perform the most dramatic tranformative magic when illuminating the land and enlivening the (west of the Cascade) people from a nine-month shroud of clouds. The option to flee east of the range for the vinyards, orchards, and dry desert sun relief is always an option that many take advantage of. But such unforgiving juxtaposition and sharp contrast creates surprising results - bringing out the best and worst in people...whether reflected in the bliss had upon the alpenglow summits or steel cold ice axe attitude of the tired and hungry bivouaced mountaineer. Or revealed through closed closet creations of all the diligent mad scientists and starving artists that somehow harvest that gloomy cloud power to focus and forge their genius and authenticity.

That "spirit", a pioneering spirit evolved, seems to have begun with those early settlers, and has since seeped permanently into the rock, infiltrated the water, and permeated the air that blows between mountain passes, across prairies or urban avenues. Maybe since there is no more territory or "physical" west existing to explore, that the new frontiers are of imagination, mind-body, body-mind and the never ending pursuit to push boundaries further into those realms be it artistic, technological, personal fitness, or the ultimate game to juggle them all....a game so many here are determined to win.

Just some early thoughts to let loose before pedaling further away....

Monday, September 14, 2009

Participate in the Soldier Ride of the Carolinas

I will still be making my way across country while this event is happening, but I'd like to encourage people to get on their bikes and participate in the Soldier Ride of the Carolinas, currently scheduled for October 7th thru the 11th. The Soldier Ride is a series of fundraising events coordinated by The Wounded Warrior Project and takes place at several locations across the country throughout the year. More details of the Carolinas ride will be released soon, but it will begin at Fort Bragg and finish in Charlotte.

What exactly is the Soldier Ride?

"The Soldier Ride, at its core, is a rehabilitative cycling event designed to challenge our wounded warriors to get back in the saddle, both literally and figuratively, and is a tool to help both the physical and mental wounds of war. These rides also help to raise awareness for the WWP mission and our many important programs designed to serve our injured and their families, and in turn raise money through sponsorships, pledges and donations for WWP." - Soldier Ride Website, WWP

Additional information can be found at the Soldier Ride's:
For obvious reasons, the Soldier Ride was one of my initial attractions to The Wounded Warrior Project when first learning about all of their programs and events. There are so many styles of bicycles that people of differing abilities can ride in pursuit of an active, healthy, and mobile lifestyle.

While riding along the Oregon coast, I met a man by the name of Sonny who had lost the use of both legs, but had riden his handcycle over 3,000 miles across various parts of the country ( When you shake this man's hand, you know it. Sonny was raising awareness for the American Cancer Society in his route to Seattle (my launch point). If you're out there Sonny, hope you made it safely, and best of luck.

Again, as more details are released for the Soldier Ride of the Carolinas, I'll forward along. So try and get out, even if it's only riding a few miles, or supporting our participating soldiers. Thanks everybody!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Talk of Patriotism...

What a decade it has been to start this 21st century! In retrospect, the volatility and unpredictability of events on both domestic and international fronts has been staggering....conflict, war, boom & bust.... I think to a certain degree, everyone expects a dynamic, fast-changing, future - it's implicit in the word's meaning.

9/11 certainly changed the world, and will likely go down in history as THE defining event that helped shape this decade. Time will tell of its prominence throughout the remainder of this century, but a fire was lite and flags hit the assembly line, were raised, stitched, or stickered just as fast. It was a harsh slap to the American face - one that woke this nation from its loathing, self-centered, money grubbing excesses of the late 90s. It forced reflection and questioning of who we were as a people - a search for identity. Out of the fear, anger, sadness, and searching, Americans came together. Out of uncertainty, and the grave possibility of wide-scale global violence over re-ignited clashings of worldviews arose a renewed spirit of patriotism - one that my grandfather and other wise elders said they hadn't seen since World War II.

For a brief time, true solidarity arose from the chaos, but it wasn't long before much of the mainstream media (e.g. pompous pundits, disingenuine newscasters, fake reporters, hypocritical radio blabbers, etc) and some politicians began to use our new found patriotism as a divisive tool in creating a polarized playing board for their subversive motives of power and / or profit - really just competing entertainment disguised as unbiased news or constructive argument. It obscured the issues and derailed healthy debate from decisions of international policy all the way to rifting the bonds of community and neighbor. It's never all bad, but within the mixed bag, the meaning of what it was to be a patriot or patriotic had been contorted.

Those that know me, are aware of my general distaste of some television productions, and occasional cynicism towards the mass media. It's more an issue of distrust than contempt, although the former can lead to the latter in extreme cases. It has been nearly seven years since I first delved within the academic realm of critical studies and that's a decent  amount of time to match up experience and perceived reality with that of theory and concept - ultimately equating to the formation of personal opinion, beliefs, and conviction.

So despite what is often portrayed or depicted on many widely broadcasted / distributed news sources, America overall really has less sharp contrasting disagreement and is less polarized with either "side" being no less patriotic than the other. After more than a thousand miles across urban, rural, "red", or "blue" lands, I believe this more than ever. Don't get me wrong, we are still the melting pot of the world and arguably the most pluralistic society, but it pains me to see the mounting misconceptions, the building of false pretenses, or good people's perspectives about their fellow Americans skewed because of strategically manufactured mis-information. It can create hate. And in the words of an old blues guitarist I met in Eugene, "Ain't no time to hate."

"Understanding" today's language, but specifically, our culture's current conception of patriotism is a key interest here....After spending a year away in Puerto Rico, and looking, listening, and thinking about our country from the outside, it is with this journey, that I dive back in, re-learning, re-living and re-breathing America... maybe inspiring a few along the way, but wanting more to sew a single stitched seam of solidarity from one coast to the next in reminding us that some of us are STILL out there fighting for our beliefs and attempting to preserve our way of life that defines us in one way shape or form. It is out of the beauty in discovering who we are, discovering the history of who we have been, what we are made of, and what we stand for that constitutes much of my patriotism, or pride in being an American, and desire to make it a better place for those who are fighting for it to come back to.

Yesterday, en route to Boise, ID, I climbed up and over Freeze Out Hill. At the scenic viewpoint, a memorial had been built and a flag was flying, all dedicated to those lost and those serving in the wake of 9/11. I'm not exactly sure why that location had been selected for such a memorial, but it was there, and looking out, stretching as far and wide as the eyes could see, was a beautiful American landscape. That explained enough for me. be continued...

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Special Places: Land of Dinosaurs

In this series, you can click on the photos below, they will take you to the full gallery of photos I have for each special place. Wish I had a better camera, but I think most people say that about cameras.

As a kid, I was fascinated by dinosaurs (who wasn't?). If a school enrichment field trip would have taken me to the John Day Fossil Monument, that just may have sealed my career fate as a paleontologist. Through an incredibly beautiful high plains desert stretch along highway 26 in central Oregon, you wind through the canyons of Picture Gorge, and you feel their prehistoric presence, seeping from geologically stratified walls that whisper stories of their old, mighty reptilian kingdom. It even smells prehistoric. With little traffic, I found myself stopping frequently, letting the area's aura take me back in time until I could almost see them grazing, flying, or stalking. Then a dry, dusty breeze would wisp through and I was back on my bike, in flow with their ghosts.

The visitor center two miles up 19 also serves as a paleontological research center. After walking through the galleries of fossils and exhibits, you can peer through the windows to see the laboratory where the work is done. Lots of fancy-looking, hard-core, hi-tech scientific equipment. Solar panels on the roof powered the building. Outside, you look across the valley to a landscape so broad, so dynamically carved and colored, that you simply sit, stare, and feel the impress of its power.
Once back in the gorge, the wind makes for a difficult escape, but right as I was approaching the opening, its direction (or appetite) strangely changed, and spit me back out into our modern world of mechanized farming and irrigated pastures. Looking over my shoulder, I wondered if it would take me back.