Category Archives: Travel

Notes from Albuquerque

four horseman of the western statueEvery time I visit this city, it finds new ways to surprise me. There is no planning for contingency here. Last week, I returned to Albuquerque for the 40th annual Southwest Popular/American Culture Association Conference to present a paper (animal studies, rats, Paris, Ratatouille, and so on) alongside a broad, interdisciplinary spectrum of scholars.

There was an eco-feminist reading of Hey Arnold! There was a close reading of Nick White and Paulo Bacigalupi’s portrayal of toxic water (in the context of the crisis in Flint, Michigan). There was a critical assessment of whether or not altering National Parks iconography is a useful political strategy against selling public lands to corporate interests. This conference is my  favorite, more than the national PCA conference and even AWP (where everyone is trying to hide how stressed-out they are). Maybe it’s the Breaking Bad T-shirts in the hotel lobby, or the actual meth dealers just down the street on Central Avenue, but for whatever reason, this particular conference allows scholars, an otherwise overly serious bunch, to take themselves just a little less seriously.

I’ve missed the high desert, the southwestern aesthetics, the tan and adobe architecture. I’ve missed the sunlight and the dryness. But this is Albuquerque, a city of endless surprise. So I should have expected that the restaurant a friend and I taxied to would be closed in the middle of a snow storm, forcing us to walk down Central Avenue looking for an emergency alternative. Right now, nearly every place that I have known is covered in snow: Flagstaff, Lincoln, Moscow, Spokane, and for a while even Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I neurotically plan for contingencies at every step, but it’s good to know that the unexpected isn’t always bad. For me, it takes an effort to relax and take things less seriously. Shout-laughing at the high desert snow while looking for an Italian restaurant in the wind and snow with one of my best friends reminds me that some of the most productive, engaging experiences are surprises, without prediction and against planning.

The stakes are high, for interdisciplinary academic work that actually makes a difference. Back home at the University of Idaho, there are two interdisciplinary efforts to address climate change, first an ecocriticism reading group and second an emerging collaboration between the humanities and sciences to communicate accurate climate science to local communities. This weekend, I realized that not only is pop culture necessary to communicating serious climate science, but framing it all as a doom-and-gloom apocalypse is also counter-productive. The most important part of the countless post-apocalyptic films and novels that have come out in the last five years is that, one way or another, people express survival in terms of art. Despite zombies, drought, or plagues, characters always make room for culture, whatever that culture is, no matter how subtle its recreation and preservation is.

Image result for alt national parksPopular culture studies finds a comfortable home in Albuquerque. This academic field, like the city itself, resists expectations. It forces people to recognize that grave concerns and lightheartedness can coincide.

This conference is an (expensive and limited) opportunity for scholars to “make sense of the things they love.” It’s a space to recognize the ambiguity inherent in everything we interact with: TV, movies, comics, music, genre. All of it has a radical potential to shape the way people see themselves and the world around them. It’s not that pop culture is sacred, but that it has the potential, like the most radical aspects of the world itself, to surprise us.

 

 

-jk

Road Stops: A Photo Essay, Part 3

The Daly Mansion is just outside Hamilton, Montana. It belonged to the copper baron Marcus Daly in the late 1800s, and was previously a homestead in the Bitterroot Valley. During his life, Daly was owned and expanded the Anaconda Copper Company during the copper boom in western Montana. The mansion served as his summer home and has now been remade into a museum, a testament to the wealth that the nineteenth century copper kings accumulated. There are strange things on the grounds, though. There are creepy statues in a shed near the mansion, and a trophy room with dozens of animal heads and furs.

 

See part 1, in northern Idaho, and part 2, in Montana and southern Idaho, respectively.

-jk

Road Stops: A Photo Essay, Part 2

On a rainy day in summer, Butte, Montana, and nearby Anaconda are rich with shades of green and rust. Mining rigs from its copper boom remain scattered around town, alongside monuments to the victims of mining disasters. More permanent is the Berkeley Pit, a toxic lake in an abandoned pit mine. Driving out of western Montana through the mountains on Highway 43 in this weather brought me through fog obscuring the road and the pines, but the clouds gave way to wind when I reached southern Idaho, still populated by ghosts from the Second World War, including a prison for German POWS and a Japanese internment camp. There are only a few remaining buildings from the internment camp recently preserved, a haunting and increasingly familiar testament to the scapegoating and indefinite detention of thousands of families. The remains are not as physically toxic as the Berkeley Pit, but the landscape is just as still and silent as the lake’s surface.

More to come. See Part One, in northern Idaho, here.

jk

Road Stops: A Photo Essay, Part 1

Here is a collage of photos taken at various stops on Interstate 90 between Couer d’Alene, Idaho, and Missoula, Montana, including Cataldo Mission at Old Mission State Park and the historic town of Wallace, Idaho. The road out west is weird and long and very quiet on a Sunday morning. In most towns in northern Idaho, nobody is awake. It’s spooky.

More to come.

-jk

Nobody Plans to Stay in Spokane

SpokaneMy plan for the break was to take a bus from Spokane to Missoula, and get a ride from there to Hamilton, Montana, to visit my grandparents, then travel to Arizona with my parents. To make a short story shorter, the bus was delayed, and now I’m stuck in Spokane for the night. I will depart in the morning, I hope.

My aunt was kind enough to give me a ride to Spokane from Moscow, on her birthday no less. In her profound generosity, she booked a hotel room for me in Spokane after learning the bus was delayed twelve hours. She then joined a friend for per-arranged birthday plans, hurrying because apparently there was an active shooter in downtown Spokane. She told me that her well-traveled husband has only ever been afraid of Spokane. Moscow, Russia? Fine. Dubai? Sure. But not Spokane. Anything but Spokane at night.

Of course 2017 would draw to a close with me stuck in a hotel room in Spokane where there’s an active shooter on the last day of the semester, listening to “Pale Green Things” by The Mountain Goats on repeat. There are worse endings.

The last time I was in Spokane, I was with the only other nonfiction first-year student in my department. He was picking up a friend from New York at the same Greyhound station I will (hopefully) depart from. He and I wandered the town at night, what my well-traveled uncle would strongly advise against. We found cool bars, he visited a dispensary, and we waited for his friend’s bus in his car listening to Utah Philips sing “Solidarity Forever” on repeat, talking about the possibility of unionizing grad students to protect ourselves from the multitude of organizations attacking higher education.

A month later, he had to leave. His story is not mine to tell, but I know that a graduate student union might have been able to help him stay. A better healthcare system, or even expanded medicaid, would also have helped, and stricter environmental regulations would have spared his health from the start. But, as with so many things this year, it’s too late now.

I didn’t expect to be in Spokane tonight. I expected to explain again to my grandparents what a vegetarian diet involves and sleeping in a comfortable old house in the Bitterroot Valley. Instead, tonight I can see the spot my friend and I parked and shared our insecurities from the view of this hotel. What an unexpected gift, to remember the people who have helped me survive this semester. I needed this reminder of the many people who unintentionally hold me together at the seams just by being themselves. At the end of a dreadful year, what an unexpected gift.

-jk

Surrendering a Pocket Knife

IMG_4603There wasn’t much going on at the Spokane International Airport. Its two runways did not seem busy yesterday as I navigated the rigid airport security system. I diligently took off my shoes, placed my laptop in its own plastic tub, and placed my sparsely packed backpack in another tub. Shoeless, coatless, without my glasses and a little sleepy, I went through security. Past the body scan, I then waited as a TSA agent rummaged through my backpack.

“It looks like there’s a knife in here,” he said to me, casually.

Of course. My air travel backpack is the same as my camping backpack. Before packing, I had emptied my backpack of all my camping equipment, and even emptied it of pens and pencils, just in case. It seems I had missed a pocketknife, which took the agent a few minutes to locate after it slipped into one of my backpack’s many pockets. Only an X-ray could detect it. He held the knife in front of me, saying I had three options. I could have it delivered somewhere from the airport, put it in my car (I didn’t drive there), or, as he put it, I could “surrender it and let it go to knife heaven.”

I paused for a second. My flight would begin boarding in thirty minutes, and I probably had enough time to have it mailed back to my apartment and then go through security again, even though the knife was the only issue. But the line behind me and the agent’s calm patience made me feel embarrassed, even ashamed, at not doing my civic duties and preparing my backpack for Thanksgiving travel thoroughly enough. I chose to surrender the knife.

During my flight, I mulled over the word surrender. There are so many other ways of putting it: confiscate, disavow, give up. Instead, the situation looked like this: a TSA agent held my knife at me and told me to surrender.

It occurred to me that I felt safer at an airport than I do in my own classroom. I cannot take a knife on a plane (fair enough), but if I wanted to, I could bring a concealed handgun into my classroom while teaching. Idaho’s laws are finicky, and concealed-carry gun-owners, while on campus, are not allowed to reveal their weapons, but I still have the option to have one, and so do my students.

The argument is that the only thing stopping a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, and yet we don’t apply this logic to airplanes. On the plane, we cannot trust anyone with a pocket knife, or scissors, or toothpaste, so we regulate these things, or at least we collectively agree to embrace the cognitive dissonance required to believe that the good guy/bad guy hypothetical situation works everywhere except a plane. Nobody is trusted on a plane, but we have to trust that good guys will be everywhere else.

While teaching my last class before the holiday break, a man walked into my classroom, abrasively opening the door and marching toward me. He was older, balding, and looked frantic. Before I could panic, before I could beg him not to shoot me, he pointed to the lectern at which I stood and said, “I need to get a flash drive.” Then, in a few quick moves, he unplugged a flash drive from the computer. Evidently, he was another professor who had previously used the same classroom, and had left his equipment there. He apologized for the inconvenience and walked out. My students didn’t seem bothered. Maybe they’re all just good guys.

As my plane landed, I thought about something Charles Olson wrote in his 1947 literary criticism Call Me Ishmael: “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.” I’m skeptical that there is one central fact of America, but after the twin incidents in the classroom and airport, I’m inclined to think the central fact of America might be surrendering. This might be the case for every nation-state, but I cannot speak to other countries, but it seems more widespread in America: If I were not white, I can’t imagine what the TSA agents would have done to me after discovering a pocket knife in my backpack.

The word surrender has another, more sinister layer. Only combatants can surrender to another authority, lesser or greater in force. Soldiers surrender in war, and criminals surrender to cops. It suggests a more equal power dynamic than what is actually recorded in history. Native Americans surrendered land and life, Afghan children surrender security under drones, politicians surrender principles and we surrender to them our votes and our privacy, the working poor surrender their labor. What the state calls surrender is more like seizure because those who are asked to surrender are made to feel responsible for their defeat, as if it was their choice to enter into a conflict with America, large and without mercy.

And what was I ashamed of? That I was caught not remembering the state of terror we live in? I think, in truth, I was ashamed that the first time I relaxed this semester was walking into an airport, that I felt safer in a security complex designed to reinforce fear than I do in a classroom designed for comfort and an easy pace, and that I’m made to feel responsible because I’m not a good guy with a gun. Instead, I walk into a classroom with pens, pencils, markers, books, and slideshows, but none of those things, it seems, are enough to make me good.

-jk

The Place-Based Writer Goes Places

Moscow Idaho“I suppose our capacity for self-delusion is boundless. I knew very well that I rarely make notes, and if I do I either lose them or can’t read them. I also knew from thirty years of my profession that I cannot write hot on an event. It has to ferment.” –John Steinbeck, Travels With Charlie

I’ve been on the road since June 4. I’ve traveled from Nebraska to South Dakota to Montana to Idaho to other parts of Idaho, and I will soon be on my way to another part of Idaho, then Utah, then Arizona. I’ve stayed in a lot of places, and seen a lot of places, and have plenty to write about. The problem is that writing on the road is difficult. Even John Steinbeck, known for writing about people (and dogs) traveling from point A to point B, knew that he had to let his stories stew. I’ve never had that kind of patience. I want to write the moment I get an idea.

I’ve often been accused of being a place-based writer. This makes sense, I suppose, because I place myself in bars with my laptop, then place large quantities of alcohol into my mouth, then place my fingers on the keys and type until I forget which place I’m in. But I also enjoy describing places. Setting is crucial for my stories, because most of my recent writing has focused on historical situations. Most of my stories cannot take place elsewhere, and taking place is an apt description of most of my plots. Setting, time and place, has more influence over my characters than I do, sometimes.

Right now, I wish I could write about the places I’ve seen, notably Moscow, Idaho,where I will live for three years starting in August, where I will hopefully get an MFA in creative writing. The town is small but quirky, surrounded by hills and distant mountains. There is a bagel shop that serves beer and a video rental stores on the same street. I drove into Moscow through a rain storm and misty curving roads, past industrial bridges and tall, deep green patches of forest and small, isolated towns. The campus is old and maintains most of its original architecture. It is a patchwork quilt of red bricks and green vegetation. Under overcast skies and in silvery clouds of mist, the town is surreal, even spooky. It’s the ideal place for a writer.

Not that I need an ideal place. I don’t want to be so tied to place that I need somewhere specific to be comfortable, to be myself. But I will admit that, as far as places go, Moscow looks like a lovely place to spend three years writing about all the other places I wish I was in.

-jk