In early spring of 2007 I decided to quit my job, sell my house along with nearly everything else that I owned, and to live out of my car while traveling the country. These are my stories (and pictures) of life on the road.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Christmas Memory

Got an extra 1/2 hour? If so do yourself a favor and listen to "A Christmas Memory", read by Truman Capote. You can find an audio link on this page-

The link is on the right side under "Audio" and you'll need to have Real Player installed to listen to it.

If that doesn't work for you or if you'd rather read it yourself you can find the whole short story here-

I heard this play on NPR today on the way to my grandparent's house for Christmas. I was lucky to have only missed a few lines in the beginning and kept good reception for the whole thing. After just a couple minutes I was completely caught up in the story and enjoyed it thoroughly. As I pulled off the highway onto my grandparents road I was forced to pull over and wait about 5 minutes until the story was finished.

There are a lot of stories about how you should enjoy the little things instead of the material things for Christmas, but none have resounded in me quite like this one. I do hope the audio version works for you as I think Truman's reading adds a lot to it.

I hope everyone had a Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Prairie Story

The prairies of the upper midwest used to stretch to the horizon, as far as the eye could see. No rocks, no hills, no trees, and few lakes, rivers, or streams. The grass would grow higher then a man's head and with no visual markers for a guide the early travelers through the prairie had difficulties keeping a straight line. I've heard that they used to sit a couple kids on back of the last wagon to watch a 200 foot section of rope being towed through the grass. If the rope started to curve that meant they were starting to veer off course and the kids would give a holler.

Things aren't that way anymore. While there still aren't any rocks or hills the prairies are long gone, along with the buffalo that used to roam them; they've been replaced with fields and cattle pastures. I'm sure there are still some native sections of prairie somewhere in the area that have never seen a plow, cow, or herbicide; but I don't know where they are and if they exist they can't be very big. What we do have though is land that the state has bought and turned back into pseudo prairie. I've never been a hunter but I'm sure that they're to thank for this land. If it wasn't for the pheasant and deer hunters paying the state for the right to hunt the money never would have been spent to reclaim these lands and to try and turn them back into prairies. I doubt the main purpose of these lands is for prairie reclamation, but rather to give the deer and pheasants a good place to live so hunters can shoot them every fall. Yeah, it sounds kinda bad, but really I think it works out best for all involved, deer and pheasants included.

North of Estherville there are quite a few of these public lands and about 5 or 6 years ago I started exploring them. I'd always driven past them and seen signs for them but I'd never thought of walking them. Once I did though I found something I hadn't experienced hiking anywhere else in the area and they turned into some of my favorite hiking areas. In particular a largish tract NW of town where four such adjoining areas have been bought one at a time that now let you walk for miles through uninterrupted prairie.

On the northern edge is small little Ringham Habitat. It's a really small section and the only one that actually tries to be something. It has wide, mowed trails around it leading to the star attraction, a few indian burial mounds in the back near the Burr Oak trees that begin growing as the land drops away to the river. The other areas to the south are Crim Savannah and Anderson Prairie. They have no trails, attractions, self guided signs, or anything else to try and accommodate you other then a small, roped off, grass parking area. If you continue walking east on the southern side of Anderson Prairie you'll reach the oak trees that follow the river and you'll find a trail through them. If you follow this trail you'll come out of the woods in about 1/2 mile and be in a separate section of Anderson Prairie that can be also accessed by N26 just north of town.

When I woke up this morning I found myself thinking about the prairie and how I wished it was spring time so I could get out and enjoy it. Then I decided that I didn't need to wait for spring to go out and enjoy it; I'd take Rudy and we'd go today. While the prairie is usually much more interesting in the spring and summer it can also be a pretty neat place in the winter with a nice covering of white snow. There are an amazing number of animals that live in the prairie but you usually never see any sign of them because of all the grass. That changes in the winter though with snow on the ground; even the smallest critter leaves tracks behind as a record of it's presence.

We arrived a little before 2:00 on a surprisingly warm (around 30) and relatively calm day with winds blowing up to a little over 10 mph. One thing about the prairie is that there's no place to hide and the wind can just about drive you nuts, and that's on a good day. On a bad day it can make it so bitterly cold you can't stand to keep your eyes open. Today was a better then a good day.

We pulled into the parking area for Anderson prairie and from the car tracks it was obvious some other people had been around in the last week or so since the snow. As we started walking into the prairie we were following a couple other sets of footprints when I realized that I'd never seen anyone on the prairie that wasn't hunting. I see tracks in the snow from people I assume are out hunting early/late and I see people walking through the prairies during hunting season (when I avoid them). But I've never before seen someone just out enjoying themselves; they don't know what they're missing.

In the winter with snow on the ground it's plain to see these prairies aren't virgin. It's easy to spot the 2 rut trail the maintenance trucks use when they need to do something on the prairie and you can see that the grass even seems to be growing in rows, just like crops. I don't know why exactly it looks like that; though I assume they planted it with a machine when first turning it back into a prairie and while the grass is growing on its own everywhere it's still thickest where it was originally seeded.

We climbed up on a small, rolling hill for a better look of the area and found tracks running everywhere. On top of the hill, following two neighboring “rows”, looked to be a pair of coyote tracks. We followed the tracks for a while as they crossed rabbit and mouse tracks and as they went down one small hill and up the next, always staying in their row. I could almost see the pair loping through the darkness at a steady gate, hoping to scare up some game. I'm sure if I would have followed the tracks they would have led to the woods bordering the river about a 3/4 mile away.

Instead we turned north to follow the prairie the long way. After a short distance we came across a set of rabbit tracks which were soon joined by a set of canine tracks. It's possible they could have been the tracks of someone else who had their dog out, but I like to think it was another coyote. I followed them for a while before they went into thicker grass and I was further thrown off track by Rudy following them as well, ahead of me of course.

I also came across the trail of what I think was a kangaroo rat. They looked like they were made by only 2 feet (always right next to each other) and a tail lightly dragging behind. I can remember seeing them on TV as a kid and thinking they looked so cool. Then one night when I was probably 8 or 9, returning from fishing with my dad, I swore I saw one hop across a gravel road in our headlights. My dad didn't see it and I don't think he quite believe me, and I wasn't so sure I believed myself either; I didn't think we had them around here. It wasn't until fairly recently that I discovered that actually we do have kangaroo rats in the area but since they live the prairie and are mainly nocturnal they're not generally seen. The tracks that I saw today was the first time I'd seen any sign of them since my brief siting as a kid. It made me happy.

We continued walking to the north into Crim Savannah where we picked up a small creek, next to which the state had cut down some very large trees in the last couple years and left them laying there. While it kind of seems like a shame, on the other hand there aren't supposed to be trees on the prairie. We followed the creek down across a small valley it had either cut over the years or had opportunistically decided to follow as a path of least resistance. We went back up the other side and walked to the edge of the line of Burr Oak tress where we could look down the mostly frozen river below us. Rudy walked around, sniffing about, while I just stood there for a while and enjoyed whatever it was I was enjoying.

We'd walked quite a ways by then through the snow and we were both ready to head back. We picked up a well worn path the deer had made right next to the tree line and followed it back towards the car. We followed the tracks up a steep slope, where judging by all the skid tracks and spots where it looked like deer fell down, that they'd had a tough time getting traction on the hard, icy snow.

Over the prairie, in the deep blue sky, hung a perfect looking 1/2 moon. I stood looking at it and when I looked down it seemed that Rudy was watching it intently as well. I don't know just what exactly was going on in his mind but he seemed a little unnerved by it. He wouldn't take his eyes away from it for very long and started growling a little at it. I've never seen him pay any attention at all to the moon before; maybe it was the first time he'd ever actually noticed it. Once we started walking again he managed to put the demon in the sky out of his mind and went back to sniffing the holes in the grass. By the time we got back to the car the sun was hanging pretty low in the sky, casting long shadows from the tall grasses and making odd patterns in the lightly drifted snow.

I don't really know why I enjoy walking in the prairie so much. It's generally not very exciting and because you can see for miles ahead of you there aren't any surprises waiting around the corner. I suppose it's mostly about being alone and feeling like you've been transported back in time a little. It's not too hard to stand in just the right spot and imagine that instead of a bunch of cattle just on the other side of that hill that the prairie keeps rolling on for miles. While I don't think I could explain it there's just something peaceful about being out on the prairie on a warm, calm day.

As the winter turns into spring, summer, and fall I'll try to keep you updated on the prairie and how it progresses through the year. It's quite an amazing transformation and I'm usually astounded but what I see when I actually take the time to look.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Take a Step Back

In the couple days since I've made this post I've received some excellent and varied responses; both here and on a forum that I frequent. I really appreciate everyones input and it's left me with plenty to think about.

One of the things I was reminded of by a couple people is that a job isn't everything and there's much more to life then that. Funny how me of all people would forget that since it's been my motto the last few years.

I think the thing that's got me a little but frustrated right now is that for the last few years my plan has been to just live my life how I wanted and to do what I want. If I feel like moving then move. If I feel like living out of my car for 6 months and traveling the country then live out of my car and travel the country for 6 months. If I feel like having a different job then get a different job.

But right now I'm not doing what I want to do and unfortunately there isn't anything that I actually want to do right now. So that's got me in an awkward feeling position where I want to do something but I can't seem to make myself take the plunge. Perhaps because I know I'm prone to changing my mind and life direction on a whim I'm reluctant to devote large portions of time/money on something that I think I might want to do only to end up abandoning it later. I also don't want to just sit around waiting for something to come along that I actually want to do only to find myself broke when it shows up.

ACK! I gotta quit over thinking this!

This morning started like most other mornings over the last month. My dog woke me up because he was hungry at about 7:30. I told him to shut up and laid in bed for another 15 minutes because it was really comfy before I broke down, fed him, and let him outside. There's no going back to sleep for me then so it was onto the computer to check my e-mail, research things I might want to do, check forum postings, and to generally just kill the morning.

Around 8:30 or so I came across an excellent response to my blog post on a photography forum that I belong to. It was like a wake up call for me and really stopped me in my tracks and made me think. I went upstairs and had a couple bowls of cereal while I contemplated things. Then the dog, cat, and myself stood in the warm sun coming through the window for about 10 minutes to think a little longer. Never had I been so motivated not to do anything!

Instead of heading back downstairs to the computer for the rest of the morning I grabbed my camera gear and my dog and headed out the door. The first stop was the grocery store to pick up a loaf of bread. On the way past the deli I noticed some good looking chocolate pie in the display and thought, “why not”! I got myself a piece of pie and found an empty booth were I enjoyed my mid-morning snack and read about a robot heckling Bill Clinton and found out that Blossom is 32 years old. Then we stopped by the shop to see what my dad and sister were up to and then out to Ft. Defiance state park for a hike. I brought along my macro lens and tripod so I could continue a little project I started last winter of photographing ice formations on the edge of the water. Me and Rudy both had a good time, he even did a little swimming (I never said he was smart).

I came back to the house, wrote this, and now I'm getting ready to head out the door to drive to Lakefield and hang out with Sarah. We'll eat some food, drink some wine, smuggle Rudy into her apartment (Shhhh!) and start watching season three of The Office. I'll crash on the floor and then we'll get up early and go for a hike before she goes to work if we're ambitious; or we might be lazy and just drink hot chocolate instead.

I don't need to stinkin' career; at least not now anyway. I'm gonna keep my options open and my bills low; maybe I'll pick up some little rinky dink job to make a little money, who knows!

I'm almost 30 years old, unemployed, and living in my mom's basement. Life is good!!

Thanks Jorn.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Tough Choices

Things continue to move along at a snails pace here in Estherville and I can't seem to break out of it. I'm getting bored and would like to go back to work but I don't have a clue what I want to do. I'm sort of stuck in a funk where I want to do something but I just can't quite motivate myself to get started.

I've actually enjoyed helping out at the shop now and again and I considered going back there on a more permanent basis if for no other reason then to make some easy money. Most of the work I've been doing has just been diagnostic work, which I enjoy; but last week I went in two days in a row and was doing more general repair work along with the diagnostics. The work wasn't bad but it didn't take me long to remember why I had to leave in the first place. I was really surprised on the second day how quickly my attitude took a dive into the toilet and soon I found myself cursing under my breath at every vehicle I was working on. By noon it was apparent that coming back to work for anything other then just “pinch hitting” wasn't going to be an option.

So that's left me wondering just what I am going to do to try and earn a living. My options are limitless but I don't know where to start. It seems like every week I come up with some idea on something that I think might be fun but the more I think about it the more I realize that they're not what I really want to do either. Man, making decisions sucks!

One thing I have been thinking about pretty seriously is trying to turn photography into a for-profit venture. For years people have asked me if that was something I wanted to do for a living but up until now I've never had a real desire to turn it into a career; or at least into a money generating hobby. The fear is that once it turns into a “job” it will suck all the fun out of it. The upswing would be not only that I'd still enjoy it but that it would stimulate my creativity and give me a whole new passion for it.

I've been doing some research and have been talking to some local studios to see if they need an assistant so I can get a look behind the scenes before I just dive in. Unfortunately this is a really slow time of year for them and they don't need much help. I do get to help out with a large wedding towards the end of the month though and I'm looking forward to that.

Although it's something that I want to try I worry a little bit that I keep dragging my heels. If it was something I really wanted wouldn't I be pushing myself a little harder? The other side of the coin to that is that I don't just want to rush into something that big unprepared and pay for my recklessness later.

Should I take my time, do my research, find a “mentor” to work with, and slowly enter a career in professional photography? This seems like the safe choice and the responsible choice. But is it the right choice? Doing things like studying and researching are good and all but they're no substitute for actually doing. Plus there aren't a whole lot of choices around here when it comes to finding a mentor either.

Or should I just toss away my inhibitions and dive in head first; forcing myself to learn as I go along? There's bound to be mistakes made this way but I'm sure it would also be a much steeper learning curve. Being lazy and not getting anything done all day wouldn't be an option because people would be depending on me to get something done.

If I wait a while I can work on my photography and get some experience not only behind the lens but behind the counter (so to speak) as well while working with professionals in the area. Spring will be the beginning of their busy season and I shouldn't have a problem finding someplace to help out. Hopefully the experience I gain from that would make it an easy transition to go out on my own.

On the other hand that's still a long ways away and what am I going to do until then? If I waited until after summer to start doing photography as a career then I'd be starting out during the slow time of the year.

If I were to "just go for it” now then by the time spring came around I'd have learned some valuable lessons in the school of hard knocks and I'd know what works for me and how I'd want to run my own photography business; and just in time for the busy season.

Or maybe this isn't what I really want to do at all and next week I'll be thinking about something completely different.

I know that all I have to do is actually commit to it personally and then a little switch in my brain will flip. After that most of the nervousness and apprehension will be gone and I'll just do what needs to be done. That's a tough commitment to make though. Funds are dropping though and something will need to be done soon.

Decisions, decisions........

I'd also like to pose a question to all of you out there reading the blog-

What if you could be 20 years old again with the option of taking any career path that you wanted? You've retained all the knowledge that you've gained from your years in the work force and now you can put that to use on a blank canvas. The only thing holding you back would be your desire and determination.

So what would you do?

Would you take the same career path that you took in real life?

Would you have the determination to pursue your dream career no matter how much hard work, time, and money it took to achieve it?

Would you know what you wanted to do?

Thursday, December 6, 2007

An Otis and Margaret Update

In case you missed it after posting about Otis Ray and Margaret (wife of Otis Ray) my dad did a quick Google search and left this in the comments section-

I did a little digging, if you google Oak Hill Cemetery Estherville you will come up with a registery for the cemetery with all it's guests listed by alphabet.

They have Mrs. Woodyard listed, she is shown to have passed on in 1981. She is listed as the wife of Otis Ray.

Now why isn't her name Ray? And is she buried somewhere else in the cemetary, or did they just not bother to chisel in her date of death?

That got me to do a little digging of my own and while I didn't find much I did come across a 4 year old post on a genealogy website asking for information about Otis Ray and Margaret. She didn't really get any but I dropped her an e-mail directing her to my blog thinking she might enjoy the pictures of the head stones and the stories about them. I got an e-mail back a little while later saying that she was indeed happy to get the e-mail and she included a little more information about Otis Ray and Margaret. She also included her “story of their life”-

I LOVE to turn me computer on and find a totally unexpected, but great
genealogical-related email- thanks so much.

Ok I've look at the picture of the head stones and several comments -
Otis wasn't born in 1864-he was born in 1884, so he was only 4 years
older than Margaret. But I have, since my post, learned that Otis Ray
married Margaret Skaggs -and later married Richard J. Woodyard?
Margaret Woodyard died in 1981, and her stone looks fairly new, so .....

I think Margaret Skaggs married Otis Ray in 1918 - they didn't have much
but they loved each other and tried to scratch out a life together. In
their seventh year of marriage, Otis contracted influenza and died.
Margaret tried to move on and married in the Woodyard family, a marriage
that provided her with a secure life, a quiet life, but one without
passion. And as she moved through her life, she grew old, alone again
after Richard died. So when she died at age 92, her last instructions
were, 'don't bury me with the Woodyards, bury me beside Otis, and make
sure the stone makes it clear that I was OTIS's wife....

How's that?? Diana

That's great!

Diana is also right about Otis' date of birth. I took a closer look at the picture and he was indeed born in 1884 and not 1864 like I said. Some moss and lichens appear to have camouflaged that part of the stone making that “8” look like a “6” on initial inspection.

Thanks to everyone who responded with comments and their own take on the life of Otis Ray and Margaret. On one hand it would be fun to find out the real story but it's probably nowhere near as entertaining as making something up.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

A Matter of Perspective

A few weeks ago, not long after getting back from my trip, I was driving around town and looking to get some exercise. I took a turn that led me up a steep hill on the edge of town to Oak Hill Cemetery. This is the neatest cemetery we have in town and contains the grave of some of the towns founders, including Esther Ridley, who the town (Estherville) was named after.

As I was walking through the cemetery I came across a couple graves that I'd seen a few years previous and that I'd taken a 4X5 polaroid of. I couldn't remember where that print was off hand and figured since I was armed with a camera that I'd take another shot of it. Just in case you can't read the head stones the one on the left says-


The one on the right reads-


What's the first thing that comes to your mind after looking at those two head stones? What circumstance did your mind jump to?

The first time I saw them I found it sad. Poor Otis Ray, nearly 25 years the elder of his wife, probably bought the plots which gave him piece of mind knowing that although he'd likely die long before her that one day she'd lie beside him again. For some reason though that didn't happen and now they were separated forever.

Then I started to wonder why she wasn't lying next to Otis Ray in the ground. I mean, judging from the dates on her head stone she'd be in the Guinness Book of World Records if she was still actually alive, so I think we can rule that option out.

Maybe Otis was an overbearing brute who suckered her into marrying him at a young age and forced her to grow up faster then she wanted. Otis could have been a paranoid and controlling husband who wouldn't let his pretty young wife out of his site for fear she might not come back. Before he died he made sure to buy the adjoining burial plots, his last attempt at controlling her fate. When he finally kicked off she was free for the first time in her life. After the initial shock and pseudo-mourning wore off she spread her wings and flew. Far, far away from the tiny town of Estherville and out to find her dreams. She traveled the world and went to see all the things that Otis would never have done, going wherever the winds blew her. When she died she asked to be cremated and her ashes were spread from one of those new fangled flying contraptions far over the ocean.

I suppose another option could be that Margaret was madly in love with Otis Ray and after his death she never really could come to terms with it. They'd never had much money and after paying to bury Otis and purchasing the adjoining plot there was no money left. She'd never had a job in her life and didn't know what to do. Maybe she was poverty stricken the rest of her life and forced to move in with relatives back on the East coast who she barely knew. She'd always been a little off in the head and it only got worse after Otis was gone. She didn't talk much to anybody and no one really knew about her previous life in Iowa with Otis. As she lay on her death bed the doctor couldn't make heads or tails of what she was mumbling; something about a berry and two people named Otis and Esther, neither of whom he'd ever heard of in the area. He gave her something for the pain and she slipped off to sleep for good. Three days later she was buried in a cemetery with no one else she knew. Only a few people came to the service and no one cried.

Or maybe Otis and Margaret had a happy life. They loved each other dearly and she cared for him as he got sick, right up until the day he died. She mourned for him deeply and she didn't think she'd ever recover from his death. She resined herself to being alone and miserable for the rest of her life. Gradually though her spirits began to rise and she ventured back out into the world. She became reacquainted with old friends and made new ones easily. She'd never been able to imagine life without Otis and two years after his death, though she still missed him greatly, she was surprised to find that she was truly happy.

She continued on with her life and found new things to live for. In a couple more years she met a man while volunteering at the church clothing drive. He was about her age and all day long they kept stealing glances at each other. They bumped into each other a few more times over the summer and one night at the Elk's club he asked her to dance. She felt very awkward at first but halfway through the song she relaxed and it felt good to be held in a mans arm's again. They began dating and after a year he asked her to marry him. She accepted and within 6 months they were married. They bought a small house just outside of town with a nice big porch and swing. They were too old to have children so it was up to them to keep each other entertained. It seemed the older they got the younger they felt. She'd chase him around the yard with the hose while watering the newly planted flowers in the spring and he'd sneak up and scare her while she was cooking in the kitchen.

While Margaret never forgot about Otis Ray she realized that that wasn't her life anymore. That she'd moved on and her new life was out here at the acreage with Brett. They both lived long and healthy lives, never leaving each others side for very long. When they were in their late 80's Brett passed away in the middle of the night unexpectedly; two months later Margaret followed him. They're buried in adjoining plots in a small cemetery in the country not far from their house, on the other side of town from Otis.

After leaving Otis' grave I continued walking around and saw something odd sticking out from under a couple leaves. I kicked back a couple of the dead oak leaves to reveal the corner of a grave; the rest was buried under the dirt. I began scraping the dirt off from the top and then went about digging all the dirt out of the lettering with a stick.

When I was done I found the head stone of Mary Ellen Sewcll - Age 7. I looked at the surrounding graves but found none of her family; she was the only one there. Seems sad, doesn't it? But is it? Is it really so sad to think about parents coming to terms with their loss and moving on with life; doing what they needed to do and being happy once again; even if it meant moving away from the child they were leaving behind?

And what does it really matter anyway? If you're a religious person then Otis, Margaret, and Brett are all up in heaven the best of friends. Well, unless Otis really was a butt head, which would mean he suffered a different fate. Mary Ellen was re-united with her parents and they're a big happy family again. They can barely remember the short time they spent on earth and the grief that they once felt. It was a small price to pay for what they have now.

And if you're not a religious person then there are just a bunch of dead, non-feeling, non-caring bodies lying in the ground that don't know or care what you do after they die.

You've reached the end of the page but that's not the end of the stories. If you want to read more (and who wouldn't!?) then click on the archive links to the right hand side of the page. They're listed by month; the adventure starts in May.

The February archives aren't actually from this trip but are previous adventures I've had, which are worth reading as well.