Tradeoffs

Trip Start Jun 25, 2008
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Trip End Aug 02, 2008


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Flag of United States  , Montana
Tuesday, July 1, 2008

If this "living sustainably" thing were easy, we'd all be doing it.

Well, actually, I'm not sure I believe that. It is easy. At least, it can be. I've spent enough summers running wilderness camps to know that living simply, and in many ways off of the land you're on, can be immensely rewarding, deeply satisfying and, well, easy.

I am reading Daniel Quinn's Beyond Civilization right now. He points to the deep-seated belief that "growing all your own food is the best way to live" as one of the biggest reasons our culture (and by this he means our global, industrial or wanna-be-industrial culture, not Americans per se) has made such a mess of the planet. Yet he, like so many other thinkers trying to think our way out of this mess, refuses to consider that becoming some sort of hunter-gatherer may be in our future, not just our past.

Admittedly, when I ran camps, kids were wearing mostly mass-produced clothes, eating food that had primarily been purchased and not grown or gathered on-site, and reading daily bulletins produced by computers. But we were teaching them the skills to do it otherwise. Every session's menu included at least some wild game and foraged plants, and campers were invited to learn how deer hides were brain-tanned. Most importantly, we were learning to live tribally - in close quarters, in zero-privacy tipis, figuring out how to negotiate conflict in a way that actually made the group stronger. It was work, but everyone who came through that camp now sees the possibility that living tribally and off the land can be. Daniel Quinn says people won't change if they feel they're giving something up, only if they feel they are getting something valuable. I hope my campers saw not only the possibility but the value of living the way we did. It wasn't perfect, but it worked.

But I digress, you protest. The title is "tradeoffs." Ah yes. The problem is attempting to live sustainably in a sea of unsustainability. This trip is not taking place in a carefully-crafted replica of tribalism. It is taking place in America, 2008. It is emphatically not easy. And so, try as we might, we (our family and anyone trying to live within the earth's means) are making tradeoffs all the time. A few examples. . .

***
I was one of those moms who swore my kids wouldn't watch TV. Nasty stuff, I thought. Turns your brain to mush. Even movies, cute ones with nice happy messages, were a pale substitute for stories, spoken or live-acted or read. The problem is, my kids discovered them anyway. And I discovered that they provided a few moments of peace when I desperately needed them. (Not to mention lots of fun afterwards, when the kids retold and re-acted them.) So I, the mom who scoffed endlessly at SUV DVD players, loaded my laptop with kids' movies, Wonder Pets episodes, and fun iTunes before we hit the train.

Five minutes after we plugged it into the train, my computer died.

I mean really dead. Hard drive unrecoverable. I didn't utterly panic - anything critical is backed up at home - but remember, I was not coming home for five weeks. There went our backup plan for fussy kids. I had some crazy plan to find a computer repair center during our four-hour layover in Chicago. You can imagine how successful that was.

"Maybe we should get a portable DVD player," Joe suggested. I balked, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. We could always sell it on ebay when we returned home. Still, I felt like doing this represented some sustainable-parenting failure on my part. What kind of mom was I when I couldn't survive without this 21st-century gadget?

CVS didn't have one. They sent us to Walgreens on the other side of the station. Joe stayed with the kids at the food court while I ran over; typical of the issues we faced as a young family traveling, 30 seconds after I left Joe called to say Ren needed to go to the bathroom and he had no idea how to handle getting him and Aislyn and their lunch and our bags to the restroom and back. I ducked into the store anyway. Providence - they had one! For a hundred and fifty-nine dollars. I hesitated, then forked over the credit card. Sigh. One point for modern civilization. And yes, I will admit - with chagrin - that there were moments over the next two days (especially on that nine-hour bus to Minneapolis) when I was very glad to have it.

We're still planning to sell it on ebay though.

The train arrived in Whitefish around 11 PM, almost two hours late. Both kids were fast asleep and we thanked the universe that it was a service stop for Amtrak, which meant the train would stay in the station at least 10 minutes and Joe could unload luggage, then come back for me and the kids. We called the shuttle to the hotel. It turned out to be a minivan, but the kids' car seats were left at the station (we had left most large luggage overnight, since the bus to Missoula left from the same station the next morning) and we, without hesitation, held them unbuckled during the two-mile trip. It beat going back for the car seats, taking still more time, and risking waking the babes. I thanked the Universe and anything sentient in it that the trip went safely. One more tradeoff.

And another. The next day we arrived back at the station, collected the luggage, and called the bus company. Running half an hour late. Tickets were $35 for adults, almost $30 for Aislyn. Oh yes - remember those bike boxes? They'd made it safely to Whitefish, but they and our other bags would cost an extra $45 in luggage fees. $140 to ride the bus to Missoula, and oh, we were weary of buses after the Chicago-to-Minneapolis junket.

As we pondered all this, a local strolled by and inquired about us.

"Taking Rimrock, hmm? They're always really late. Plus there's construction on 93 to Missoula - it's a 2-lane, so that slows things up pretty good. Won't hit Missoula until late afternoon I'm sure. Well, good luck." And off he wandered.

Joe and I looked at each other. I looked at my watch - 11 AM. "We could rent a car?" I suggested weakly.

He started calling. Only one company had anything at all available. It was a giant Jeep Cherokee, still not big enough for our stuff unless we tied bike boxes to the roof. $125 plus gas.

"I think we should do it," Joe said emphatically. "Otherwise, how will we get all this stuff from downtown Missoula to our house?"

"Whatever you want to do." I was tired and beyond thinking clearly. It sounded cheaper although it probably wasn't. Maybe, with the two cabs it would probably take to tote our gear half a mile from the bus station.

The rental shuttle appeared a few minutes later and Joe disappeared. I was left to entertain two kids and a pile of luggage. He returned about 20 minutes later and started loading. Aislyn, Ren and I wandered down the street. "Look!" Ren shouted. "A big bus!" And sure enough, Rimrock was there. The big bus pulled up in front of the train station, did a U-turn, and zoomed past Joe, still trying to fasten the bike boxes on the roof. Half an hour later, we hit the road.

Remarkably, Joe managed to coax the Cherokee into getting over 20 miles a gallon, even with the bikes atop it. (He never exceeded 60 mph.) Unremarkably, the kids bickered in the back, and, not being in a bus, we couldn't separate them. Out came that DVD player. . . .

We hit Missoula around 3:30, and never did find out if we beat the Rimrock bus. I started unpacking and Joe began the task of re-assembling our bikes. The kids were impossible. I'd put away a sweater, then hear a shrill scream from Ren. Stop, pay attention to the kids, mediate, provide a toy or coloring book, grab another shirt to put away. More screaming. By 5:30 we were desperate to get out of the house, which was clean and spacious but felt empty and unwelcoming. Aislyn clamored to go to the carousel. Ren refused to nap. I went to find Joe, but the xtracycle was still in pieces.

"Sorry, hon. I'm going as fast as I can. The red bike took a long time to put together."

How could I be angry? He was working so hard. "I know, but we're going crazy in here. We need food and something to do."

"We could walk," he suggested.

I tried to calculate how far it was, but couldn't really remember. We had no stroller. Ren, as he often gets when he hasn't napped, had lost any vestiges a two-year-old has of good judgment and was resolutely playing in traffic and destroying household objects. (I caught him banging enthusiastically on the outside railing with a handmade Native American flute bearing a host of brand-new dents; when I confiscated it he screamed loudly enough to bring the neighbors out.) I couldn't imagine herding him all the way downtown without some catastrophe befalling him.

Joe and I both looked at the white Cherokee, parked tantalizingly in the driveway.

"No," I said firmly. "It's bad enough we took it instead of the bus. We are NOT starting our vacation by driving that thing downtown."

Joe shrugged and went back to work on the bike.

An hour later, we all cycled into town. It felt triumphant - look world! We really can have a low-carbon vacation! Isn't this xtracycle thing great? But the kids were cranky and hungry and I was out of shape. In terms of immediate preservation of sanity, we might have been better off with the Cherokee.

What is the message in all of these tradeoffs? Nothing earth-shattering, I guess. At least, nothing that any family who lives in America and is trying to leave the world a little better than we found it hasn't grappled with. Some might call us hypocrites, for professing to have a lighter-on-the-earth vacation at all (isn't in an oxymoron?), and for making some of the tradeoffs we have. But at least we are trying. Getting away from cars, particularly, is going to take a bigger effort than one family, or even one hundred families, can make. Like our nation's food policy (a topic for some other blog), our transportation policy and the landscape it's spawned keeps big business and ridiculously unsustainable practices firmly entrenched. Even in Missoula, getting by without a car isn't always easy. In Northampton the challenges are even greater. We do the best we can, but it will take major shifts in policy to get this country to a place where things like transportation work, for us and the planet. The good news is that hopefully there will be plenty of people like us, tired of tradeoffs and lining up to take advantage of those new policies.
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Comments

sherwoodk
sherwoodk on

Awesome blog!
If you add a few pictures to these entries, I bet you could get your blog featured on TravelPod. You've got some great messages to get out there.

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