The Monarch Adventure

Day Whatever – Things Break but There’s Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving, and we’re back from the great monarch adventure…

Although I wrote most of this post on the road, lack of internet and electricity kept me from finishing until now, so I’ll cover several points from the last two or three weeks. Some reconstruction ahead.

 


Nov. 16th – So says a receipt in my pocket, acquired after writing most of this passage. One week after election day.


I think part of living long enough to claim adulthood is to embrace the truth that everything’s broken or in the process of breaking. Bob Dylan said it and I affirm it. Here he goes, from ‘Oh Mercy,’ that lovely and underappreciated Daniel Lanois-produced album from 1989:

Broken bottles broken plates
Broken switches broken gates
Broken dishes broken parts
Streets are filled with broken hearts
Broken words never meant to be spoken
Everything is broken.

Seem like every time you stop and turn around
Something else just hit the ground

I’m sitting in a car dealership sipping wifi while they change the truck’s oil and I race against my bluetooth keyboard’s last remaining battery charge. Last remaining because my keyboard, like many delicate things I’ve forced to travel a long, bumpy road, has received a blow from which won’t recover. For the moment though, in spite of its busted charging port, I have juice to blog.

What can I say now, though, thirty-odd days into our adventure? With the bulk of our beautiful trip complete, we now return north to cold weather in a world that just shifted on its axis. Funny. The broken keyboard just spelled out ‘shitted on its axis’ before I corrected the typo. Fair enough.

On Election Day

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By way commentary on the election, I’ll let Dorothy’s morning-after statement lead off because no one can call too much foul on preschooler politics: “Let’s not make breakfast because Donald Trump might come and eat it all up!” I guess she has the gist of it. We’re still trying to convince Dorothy that we didn’t vote for Trump. The idea of majority is a tough sell to an egocentrist under the clearest circumstances. Here’s us trying to explain it to her:

When two people want to go out for sushi and one person wants to go out for pizza, you have two votes against one, and two’s more than one so everyone goes out to sushi. Right? Even though mommy and I voted for Hilary Clinton, a lot more people voted for Trump than… well actually… Hm.

So, I’ll wait on explaining the electoral college. I’ll also wait on explaining the full reasons for my anger, sadness, and disgust. As a Christian I’m ashamed of evangelical Christianity’s support for this man. It confounds and maddens me. For a while I likened Trump to a Bond villain, then an Austin Powers villain, and then… my friend Alex gave me the perfect correlative: America, through its votes or lack thereof, just chose for its leader a Paul Verhoeven villain. Like this evil guy from Robocop. Remember him?Robocop

Like many others I find myself searching for what right action I can take now. What’s reasonable to do in an unreasonable situation? Another friend of mine, Joseph, is a minister who went to Standing Rock for five days just before the election. We spoke on the phone about it. Joseph’s one of my favorite people: a former atheist who received a full ride to Union Seminary in New York (the famous US digs of everyone’s favorite anti-autocrat, Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

At Standing Rock Joseph saw tribal elders leading people in prayer, keeping vigil around a fire kept burning since August. This is one small part of their protest over the Dakota Access Pipeline, but an important part. He described a scene of protesters who didn’t act out of desperation, but from reliance upon prayer. Even though the tribes admit they’ll likely lose this cause, their grounding in prayer gives them a sense that they’ve already won. They’re connected to something greater than their circumstances, greater than the macings, beatings, and rubber bullets doled out from local law enforcement.

Joseph said the elders had this response when he asked how his community could help: (my paraphrase) “Money, a truck, food – they’re helpful, but what we need most from you is prayer.” I talked to Joseph about that – how even as theists, he and I usually look for immediate, practical solutions. We fret. We grasp for a right action, wondering if we’ll make an irreparable mistake. Right action is necessary now, of course. I don’t condone inaction or anything that looks like apathy, but I was moved by the simple idea that right action can be grounded in the broad, sturdy peace of prayer. Peace that’s victorious even in the face of defeat.

“This is what we try to do in church,” Joseph chuckled. Along with practical social/political justice, yes, that is what we try to do. I’ll try to do it better.

img_9840In my office I have a little prayer station filled with a few items of remembrance: A picture of my grandma, a little wooden dolphin brought back from Bali by my late brother Quentyn, a copy of Sarah’s wedding vows – examples of love given to me. Last year before Otis died, he sometimes sat there in my lap. In the quiet we’d watch a candle burn down, his little hands upturned in mine, and I’d say a few thank-yous. It’s a ritual I miss sharing with him, but I do get to share it with Dorothy. I think we’ll start Thanksgiving that way.

Traveling On


Nov. 23rd


Now that we’re back home I’ve spent the last couple days repairing lots of those little trailer things that broke over the course of five weeks. So far I’ve been very successful, and that’s satisfying. I try to know my limits, though.

Last Friday, on our last day of travel, a wheel bearing went out on the trailer in a burst of smoke and sparks. It happened just five miles south of home on I-205, rush hour. What are the odds? We were able to get off the freeway and leave the trailer overnight near an office building since we couldn’t find anyone to tow it. After piling our things in two cars, one belonging to Bonnie, my beloved mother-in-law, we drove the last five miles home sans-trailer and slept in our old beds. I say ‘old beds’ and not ‘real beds’ because the trailer became a very real home for us these last five weeks. The cavernous space of our house feels alien and pretty ridiculous. Dorothy couldn’t even find the bathroom, and we’ve lived here two years. But back to the trailer: After calling a number of places I finally secured the help of Wayne’s Mobile RV Repair, who came out and replaced the R-Pod’s ruined lefthand drum and bearings. Thankfully the axle was fine and we got away from it all for a few hundred dollars and no wasted time from me trying to do the job myself. I do love experts.
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My work over the next few weeks should be exciting as I compile all the trip’s photos, data, and rough draft pages for use in The Guidebook. I also have a meeting coming up to discuss partnership and scientific fact-checking with the Xerces Society, who lead the march to protect and restore monarchs across the country. It’s great fun to start piecing everything together after five weeks on this latest trip and five years since we first set out to gather resources for this project. I know there’ll be plenty of days where I throw up my hands because making books is hard, but I feel fortunate to have so many creative resources gathered up just waiting to be pieced together.

Thank you for following along on this journey with us. Updates from the road were sometimes sporadic, but that’s the nature of adventures. I have so many other tales to tell – monarchs at Hearst Castle, waterfalls in Big Sur, building a lego trailer in a trailer. For now I’ll leave off on this memory which seems like a good shorthand for the whole trip:

Near our southernmost point, Dorothy and I took a daddy-daughter day to explore Moss Landing’s estuary in our inflatable kayak – a Czech-made Gumotex Solar 410c, for you gear-junkies. After we suited up Dorothy with life vest, sparkle skirt, and a bow strapped over her torso, she declared, “No one’s going to mess-up with me.” That’s right, girl.

We put in and paddled for two hours, seeing in that time dozens of sea otters, sea lions, pelicans, barnacles (absurdist Dorothy’s favorite, of course), and more. The kid never complained or declared boredom: A new stage for us in boating. img_9619After this we slogged ashore on a muddy bank at about noon. We slung our hammock between two cypress trees and ate a veggie-heavy picnic lunch chased by Dorothy’s Hello Kitty jelly beans, which she shared with me. Miraculously, she does love to share. Then it was over the sand dunes to the beach for archery practice on monster heads made of sand. When we returned to our boat the tide had gone out enough that we couldn’t paddle back, so I ended up shouldering vessel and gear the last quarter mile back to camp. A small price to pay for our fun.

And I guess that’s the gist of my experience out on the road – things broke, or the tide went out, or they elected a Robocop villain for President, but these things were the least of it all. The riches outweighed them.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.
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Day 14 – Victory on Albany Hill

Albany Hill

Yesterday, in the eucalyptus trees on top of Albany Hill, I saw monarchs. This was in spite of my timing being early for their arrival in this particular part of the Bay. It was a definite high point in my journey to bring The Guidebook to life, and one of many small miracles I’ve encountered on our trip.

Until last night I’d only seen one monarch in the wild, this summer on top of Portland’s Mt. Tabor. I’d just finished the day’s work on my rough draft from my mobile hammock+notebook studio. At the moment I closed my notebook I looked up and saw it fluttering ten feet directly over my head like a little spirit come to say, “Yes, grown man. You may perform your work in the woods, in a hammock. Good idea.” I watched the monarch for two or three minutes before it shot west down the mountain. I chased its shadow through the leaf canopy for a few paces before it glided into a clearing, across a road, and out of sight.

Historically, I really try not to force meaning from these moments. I want to tell the truth as best I can, even through the complete fabrications that are my books. Then along comes this year with its tragedy upon tragedy and I find it just a little easier to embrace the big pile of schmaltz that’s inside me. If I have to find gratitude in impossibly awful scenarios (and I do have to), acknowledging the miraculous in very small moments becomes natural.

Last night, when I finally found migratory monarchs on Albany Hill, there was no clear message like that time on Mt. Tabor. mexico day of the deadStill, I have to claim a growing bond to these creatures and all the mysteries they embody. Butterflies are a symbol across world cultures for those who’ve died before their time: Soldiers in war, lovers, and lost children. Mexico’s Day of the Dead is rich with monarch iconography. Even Shigeru Mizuki, Japanese master of manga, recounted a spiritual experience with butterflies in his autobio and history of Japan, Showa. A vet of WWII, showaMizuki tells in one chapter of his return with war buddies to a South Pacific island and an old battlefield covered with decades-old bones from dozens of Japanese soldiers. After a restless sleep in the jungle, Mizuki and his friends share with each other that they all had the same nightmare: the bones rose to ask them why? Why did they return? How did they deserve to live? Shaken, the men decide to gather all the remains they can find, anoint them with sake, and hold a makeshift funeral. After praying over the bones for a time, they’re shocked to see butterflies pour out of the jungle from all directions, then descend to cover the bone pile in a blanket of living color. Were they just attracted to the sake? Were they the movement of spirits? Shigeru asserts the latter. I think I would too.


Photos from Albany Hill, ordered to give you an impression of my hunt:

albany hill cross

I don’t think it was the random giant metal cross that prompted it, but as soon as I reached the top of the hill, I prayed for a monarch. I’d spent a few minutes circling and climbing the park with no sign of any flying insects whatsoever, maybe thanks to the thriving robin population. But… robins don’t eat monarchs.

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This little one appeared moments later, maybe sixty feet above me. I thought this might be the best photo I’d get. I lost the butterfly in the trees, then spent about ten minutes circling the hilltop looking for more. I gave up, grateful for the brief sighting, and headed back down towards my car…

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When I saw another! Just down the hill the same way I’d come up. Again, far off, even with the telephoto lens.

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Closer, but not better.

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I took a few dozen wasted pictures as I tried to follow one, then two butterflies through the tree limbs. Finally:

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Some color! Blurry, but now most definitely a monarch. Then I saw this:

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A whole cluster of them!

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Two clusters! Just 15 – 20 feet above me.

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Then another flash of orange…

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Then a slow fanning of wings. A gift.

With night about to fall, I celebrated this victory with a Japanese dinner accompanied by a giant Sapporo beer. Just me, Shigeru Mizuki, and the memory of two dozen little miracles.

Day 5 – Nature vs. Blogging

Already five days into our adventure and just getting in a blog post now. I blame the wonder of nature. This is just the reality of all kinds of camping adventures taking over my time and energy. That and lack of internet. Oh, the joys and perils of the internet un-plug. I see you, (33) emails. I’ll be with you in a while.

It’s hard to know where to begin for an update, but I’ll just start with this picture, stolen from Sarah’s Facebook wall:

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Look at that form! Not bad for her third time. I hope it’s just a glimpse of things to come. Occupying Dorothy’s a full time job, but we’re keeping her busy with hikes, in-car/in-trailer artwork, and various candy bribes. Here we’re sharing an art session, she painting with my watercolors while I rough out my next book:

artThese are the riches of dad-dom.

So where have we been since Saturday morning, anyway?

On Saturday, instead of getting away by noon, we left at 7:30 PM. Regardless of our underestimating the work required to launch, we were dead-set to sleep somewhere else, even if that meant our driveway. We ended up driving just a bit down HWY 99 to Champoeg Park. That marked our first night in the R-Pod as a family. All three of us collapsed into our transformable beds exhausted but thrilled to be really doing this crazy thing.

It wasn’t until Monday that we felt our trip was under way. Honeyman State Park just south of Florence, OR gave us a shot of the coast’s rugged beauty and our first fair weather day. When we decided to leave in October I knew that rainstorms would be an inevitable part of our mobile, semi-outdoor lifestyle, but theory differs distinctly from practice. When I shut my eyes now I see water, grease, and clinging pine needles. On the other hand, because of this season I also enjoy open roads, open camp sites, and warm tea with my girls in the morning. Speaking of the girls…

TEAM STATUS:

  • Dorothy’s doing remarkably well as a travelling companion. I couldn’t ask for better company in a four year old, in spite of the Princess and the Frog audio book. Currently sleeping.
  • Sarah’s a born road warrior. I’m regularly surprised by her grace and patience in limit-testing moments (who knew the chaos one bunch of bouncing bananas could unleash in a travelling travel trailer). Currently yawning (9 PM is the new midnight).

We’re now a few hours north of the redwoods, bearing down on one of our two time-and-place commitments. I have a short talk and signing in Arcata, CA for the Dear Creature hardcover at Northtown Books on Saturday. I promise to shower.

That’s all I can muster at the moment. Next up, I hope to have the pine needles and water cleared from my brain so I can share a bit more on the new book. For now, it’s scotch with Sarah (and whatever she’s drinking) and a moment of quiet while our child is OUT.

Day 1 – The Limits of Planning

Planning.

You try your best and God/Nature/Life does the rest. For example: When an ‘historic’ storm blows into the NW United States on your travel trailer rig’s departure date. Right now that storm’s battering Pacific City, Oregon, my hometown and first planned stop, with wind and rain. They even had two tornadoes up the coast in Manzanita, and tornadoes are not Oregonian. They are just not done. All this to say, we may have to revise the plan before we even really begin.

Manzanita Tornadoes

That’s adventure for you.

Last night I spent several soggy hours doing trailer prep, much of it for the first time and without the proper tools (favorite scenario). I figured that since I didn’t know the water tank’s recent history I should give it a good cleaning pre-launch. If everything else in the Pacific Northwest was getting flushed out, why make exceptions?

Humorous scenario #1: Rolling in the dark of night on a half-working creeper under your trailer in a record-setting rainstorm to find the low point drain locations, failing to do so, then exiting slowly and awkwardly from under the trailer as rain pummels your face. At least I had my trusty waterproof+rechargeable headlamp. I endorse it here with no expected compensation from its manufacturer: It’s this one.

Humorous scenario #2: A trip to Home Depot and its flooding parking lot to get the right socket to open the hot water tank, then a second trip to get the required 1/2″ driver. Exiting the store a second time, you note the white sedan halfway underwater in the parking lot. You drive a white sedan…

BUT NO! It’s not your car, it’s some other poor schmo’s. You win one.

I did eventually succeed in my mid-storm mission to flush the tanks. After I came in at 10, Sarah and I made a last few feeble efforts to pack, then collapsed. Whether to the Oregon Coast or not, we were determined to go somewhere on Saturday. Final packing would just have to wait for the morning of.

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The essentials.

 


 

Waking on launch day to the sound of rain and the sight of our upended house, I thought of my son, Otis. I had a plan for him too. It involved hiking through the Oregon woods together, teaching him archery, video games – the boy stuff. We bought our current home with the intention of having more room for a family of four. Our family car, too. So many decisions based on our best plan – all upended in January of this year, when Otis died of seizure complications. He was 20 months old.

I want to share a little about my boy and who he was (and continues to be) to me.

Otis in adventure gearOtis was full of love and enthusiasm for people in a way that strangers readily noticed. His big sister, Dorothy (now four) is very bright and focused on the mysterious world and how it works (plus making art and stories out of it – good girl). This is contrast to Otis, who was chiefly concerned with the world’s people. He was generous with smiles, greetings, toys, and kisses.

He didn’t have nearly as many words as Dorothy commanded at his age, but he had a startling sense for relationships. One of my favorite memories is of sitting and talking with him in the dark on our big bean bag in the early morning, waiting together for the world to wake up. We ‘hid’ under a blanket and he ran through lists of names this way: “Mimi, Papa (my mom and dad), Daddy son. Mama, Daddy, Otis son.” To be snuggled with him there, knowing from his simple words that he had a clear picture of his family – that was a universe-expanding pleasure.

In his general health and development, Otis was an ordinary boy. He had a total of three seizures in his life, two of them a month apart, but those two occurred almost a year before his last. After the first two events we put him on an anti-seizure med, Keppra. After putting him on Keppra, we saw no further signs of seizure activity. His neurologist was optimistic, and we hoped he was in the clear.

Five percent of young children experience seizures, many of them fever-related. Most of them grow up to lead ordinary, healthy lives. Even those with seizure disorders (which we could never prove Otis had) can see great, normalizing effects from a drug like Keppra. The night of Otis’s last seizure, Sarah, Dorothy, Otis, and I were at the dinner table together when it hit. We’d been through the shock twice, so we knew our action plan and followed it to the letter. The difference this time was that he aspirated some food, and in spite of my attempts at CPR, his heart stopped before the paramedics could arrive. They restarted his heart, but after a night in the hospital, the doctors determined that Otis had been without oxygen for too long. That morning someone showed us a little glass vial with the piece of macerated apple they took from near his collapsed lung. It was such a small thing to make such a difference.

We said goodbye to him in that hospital as they wheeled him away, strong little heart still beating, toward surgery. He chose to donate his organs to whomever could benefit. Hard as it was, we’re grateful we chose that path, as his body gave new life to two people. A fitting legacy for a boy who loved others so well.
Christmastime

 


 

It’s now nine months since that goodbye in the hospital. The difficult images are still with me, but they’ve dimmed some and are now in better balance with the joys I shared with Otis when he lived. We did hike the Oregon woods, even in his first week of life. We did play video games – or rather I did in the middle of the night while he slept next to me on the couch. And this week, I gave Dorothy her first archery lesson.

One of the many things Otis left me is a commitment to shared adventure: To pursue awe with Dorothy and Sarah and to love as best I can whoever I meet on my way. That’s a sort of manifesto for this trip of ours. Whether we head out today towards the wind-battered Oregon Coast or along a more serene inland path, we’re ready to step out and encounter God/Nature/Life, however it presents itself to us.

As soon as we finish packing.