A Ride on the Road

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Covid Compromises

The original plan, the dream, was to motorcycle all the way to Prudhoe Bay and back, a ten thousand mile, six week, round trip to the top of the world highlighted by travel on the infamously dangerous Dalton Highway of ice road truckers. Of course, the elephant in the room, or maybe the bull in the china shop, is Covid, which is still a long way from releasing its grasp on the course of events of the world. Covid washed out efforts to ride last year but this year we remained hopeful all the way up until June 21st waiting for and expecting Canada to open its borders. But Canada faltered, I think perhaps their low-budget wall to keep us lower 48 Americans out. You are dead to me Canada! Until our trip to Jaspar and Banff anyway.

Some trip had to be made and it had to be made this year because I am no spring chicken and because I had the housesitter arranged and the vacation time approved. So after flailing around with alternate trip ideas, Hetal convinced us (and rightly so) that the heart of the original trip was to stand at the top of the world and travel the Dalton Highway to get there. We met some people that made the trip through Canada on the Alaskan Highway. It required either a work permit or a house in Alaska, a rigid itinerary that didn’t even allow for a visit to Whitehorse just a few miles off the main highway, and typically an interrogation by Canadien border personnel.

So the compromise trip was to ride motorcycles to Seattle, fly to Alaska, and drive a ruggedized rental car to Prudhoe from Fairbanks, then sightsee in the rest of Alaska for a bit, fly back to Seattle, and then finish the trip with a ride inland hopefully to Jaspar and Banff to visit the Canadian highlights of the originally planned trip. Of course, the Jaspar and Banff piece didn’t pan out either as Canada still hasn’t opened its borders as of this writing. Oh, Canada. You are nothing but an ocean to fly over to me.

Another casualty of Covid is car rentals, the agencies having sold off most of their covid-idled stock. But Hetal made it happen and we planned our trip around rental car availability. Of the few motorcyclists we met, one rider made his trip by shipping his bike to Anchorage, a five thousand dollar proposition at best. It would have almost made sense to buy one for those costs.

Masks are still required in airports and on planes. Mask requirements were lifted in Oregon and Washington only a few days before we arrived. Many people still wear them now out of habit, something unimaginable just a year and a half ago although some Americans are kicking and screaming the whole way down. As one woman who refuses to give in to the demands of Covid with either mask or vaccination put it, I hope I don’t get Covid but if I do get it, I hope it is mild, and if it kills me, then it is just my time. Maybe she could just substitute the idea of not getting a vaccine with the idea of standing on the traffic lane of an expressway. Maybe she should think about the people she might give it to.

And so on July 1, 2021, some three years after conception and significantly compromised due to world events, three travelers left San Diego in a caravan of two motorcycles and an SUV.

The Caravan

The caravan has a daily rhythm. Ride the ride. Find a place to stay. Set up camp. Do whatever the place affords. Sleep. Morning coffee. Tear down. And on your way. Never a night in the same place. (On only two occasions did we stay in the same place, Denali and Oakland.) Each day has a different feel and each night is a new setting and a new cast of characters.

  • A trafficked ride through LA and a meandering ride through Ojai with hints of the heat and cold to come. Pizza and wine on the square at Paso Robles.
  • The winding roads of the PCH1 stopping to see elephant seals. An austere house in Hayward and brutal Covid stories of a respiratory therapist.
  • A time costly trip to Pt. Reyes National Seashore to see a lighthouse and fortuitously, a pod of humpback whales. A walk-in campground at the mouth of the Russian River.
  • More time on the PCH1 through red wood forests not stopping to see them to make up lost time. Fourth of July in a Crescent City in a warm Air BnB after searching for a camping spot on a crowded holiday and a cold, cold shore.
  • Slow travel up the crowded roads of Oregon. A night in a hotel under the impressive bridge at Astoria.
  • Weaving through the tree farms and clear cuts of Washington and hiking to a waterfall in Olympic National Park. A night staring at the forbidden shores of Canada across the Staits of Juan de Fuca.
  • Ride to the airport with a backdrop of Mt Ranier and flight to Fairbanks. A night at Salty’s talking about the challenges of travel through Canada.
  • Ride to Coldfoot in the spotty rain through spartan spruce forests each tree ever diminishing in size as we travel north. Dinner on a pull out just outside of town in a barracks hotel.
  • Ride over the Atigun Pass in the Brooke’s range and through the tundra. A trip to the Arctic ocean and through the oil works at Prudhoe.
  • Return to Coldfoot on a much drier day driving over the Atigun Pass. A night in the farthest North bar in Alaska drinking canned beer with the locals.
  • Return to Fairbanks stopping at the Yukon river for a roadside lunch and a hike to the scrotal finger. A night in the Musk Ox house finding Musk Ox in the morning.
  • A short drive south to Denali for two nights of camping at Savage River campground hiking Mountain View and the Savage River loop. Attacked by an Alfred Hitchcock gull and sleeping in the rain.
  • Ride down to Knik stopping for a plane ride over the Anchorage glaciers. A night with an overly friendly dog on a horse farm in Knik.
  • A day in Anchorage hiking the Knik arm from Earthquake park to downtown for beer and reindeer sausage pizza. Drive back to Fairbanks for a quick night in a small apartment with an all-night TV.
  • Transfer to the Bridgewater. Walk ten miles covering the entirety of Fairbanks including an Indian lunch and a flock of sandhill cranes. Lousy company at an overcrowded bar.
  • Fly back to Seattle to recover bicycles and a night in a crappy basement Air BnB for Chris’s birthday.
  • A morning brunch in East Lake with Chris’s people and a ride through the cascades stopping for a river float. A night in Pateros sleeping on the road next to the bike.
  • A smokey ride to Sandpoint, Idaho stopping at the Coulee Dam. Dominoes pizza and craft beer at a pub.
  • A smokey ride to Westchester, Idaho through the unbelievable scenic Hell’s Canyon National Park. A night fishing and sleeping on a dock holding a woman’s hand while she unloads and cries about all her family issues.
  • A smokey ride through the unbelievably scenic stretch of the Snake River with the road just feet above the dam lake and a night ride with a near death experience. Night camping at a BLM site in the middle of no where.
  • Another amazing stretch of scenic highway with a not so dry lake of water and salt and various shades of algae. A night in the pine forest of Lassen national forest.
  • Various stops in a very smokey Lassen national park followed by a fifty degree temperature change from the mountains to the valleys. A pizza party at Brooke’s new house.
  • A long ride home more cold than hot.

Each moment is structured to be free within the matrix of destination, camaraderie, and equipment. The reward is the experience of ups, downs, and in-betweens while the regret is the unchosen and the left behind.

Here it is in pictures: https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=1t1iTJmhaAUycbphfRdvGRz2NCZO0pNQd&usp=sharing

Highlights

In general, the highlights are the unexpected moments of turning a corner and running into stunning scenery.

  • Turning onto the PCH1 to see a white wave washing over a black rock in a green ocean. (Actually, pretty much everything on the PCH1 if it weren’t so damn cold.)
  • Seeing the sixteen percent grade of the Dalton Highway ascend up the side of a mountain into a cloud bank.
  • The entire valley of the Atigun pass surrounded by snow-patched black mountains with green bases and interesting rock formations overlooking a river road, the pipeline, and the soon to be ubiquituos tundra of the North slopes.
  • Big sky country stretching to the horizon under puffy cloud shadows throughout central Alaska.
  • Driving through Hell’s Canyon, a river gorge in Idaho deeper than the Grand Canyon.
  • Driving along the Snake River at near surface level for twenty or thirty miles on a road selected off a map for its gray line and off-the-beaten-path route.
  • A near dry lake stretching for miles in Northern CA on the 395.
  • Glaciers on the small plane ride over the Knik glaciers outside of Anchorage. You can’t ask for a better view though we were somewhat worried about that co-pilot.
  • The view from the mountain view trail in Denali.

Traveling within the Arctic Circle was certainly interesting. The midnight sun messes with your head as much as your circadian rhythms. Time has no meaning during the two-month day at the 70th parallel. The sun never sets playing havoc with your sense of time and normalcy. Every day has a second noon: a high noon and a low noon and what business does the sun have being to the North of you in the northern hemisphere anyway? Why do stores close? What do owls do? Would you dare to pull an all-nighter in the winter? It broke my weather app which showed a 3 PM sunrise at Prudhoe. We started a three-hour hike at seven in the evening and never worried about hiking in the dark. We came out of the farthest North bar in Alaska in Coldfoot at midnight in the middle of the day. Or maybe it was towards the end of the day, the day not ready to end until sometime at the end of July.

Wildlife viewing is always a highlight for me. A day of travel in Alaska is measured by the number of moose seen. Our best day was a four-moose day. In total, we saw one bear from the safety of a plane, more than a half dozen moose, deer, elk, a lynx, an angry fox chasing after shorebirds, a golden eagle taking a crap at the top of a pine tree, a flock of sandhill cranes, caribou, a pod of humpback whales off the point at the lighthouse at Pt. Reyes, and myriads of small critters. As side notes: Caribou and muskox live off lichen and moss under the snow during the dark winter of the tundra, my definition of heroic. In the western hemisphere, reindeer are simply seasonally employed caribou.

Flower-blooming flora, though generally more overlooked than fauna, was on full display. Large patches of fireweed added reddish-pink hues to the landscape. Alternating yellow, violet, white, green, and purples lined the roads.

Of course, it was great to see and even stay with the relations. We thank them for their support.

Lowlights

In general, the lowlights were the temperature extremes and swings. Ironically, I nearly froze my ass off riding on the trip North where we hugged the coast in the perpetual fifty-degree chill with Mark Twain’s astute observation gliding across the ice in my hypothermic head, “The coldest winter I’ve ever experienced was a summer in San Francisco.” But on the inland trip ride home, we fought the heat much of the way experiencing the remnant of the heat dome over the Pacific Northwest. Forced out of the mountains by a fire in Lassen National Forest on the stretch of highway from Chico to Fairfield, we rode in a dehydrating 105 to 110-degree heat. On that particular day, the temperature swing went from 50 in the pines of a Lassen campground to 110 on the I-5 heading south and then back into the low 60s as we headed into Oakland. Note to self, need to lobby for flexible roads in that narrow band of about five miles between the freezing coast and the burning inland empire. Maybe put Elon Musk on the job.

It’s hard not to mention another elephant in the room, or on the ride… Global Warming was in our faces during much of the trip. Alaska has interior warming of 7 degrees. The spruce beetle population is exploding resulting in the devastation of spruce forests around Anchorage and beyond. As one Alaskan put it, “You don’t have to prove global warming to an Alaskan. All an Alaskan has to do is look out the window.” There is nothing subtle about the direct cause or the results. The spruce forests are patchworks of green and dead trees. Back in the mainland, we dodged forest fires in Washington, Idaho, and California. In California near Lassen, we had to double back due to road closures or drive all the way to Reno to go around. The re-route briefly took us back into an ominous, sun-obscuring, red-orange smoke cloud on a road lined with green fire trucks and firefighters in their yellow suits.

Mosquitos were inevitable and anticipated. In fact, they were not nearly as bad as I anticipated. In Denali, I spent two nights under the stars (ok, under the twilight) without once fainting from blood loss.

An Alfred Hitchcock moment when I was forced to wave off an angry seagull with a stick because I had inadvertently entered a nesting area. Warnings were posted at the side near the road but we came in from the opposite side. Birds make people happy, particularly if those people are the ones watching you get accosted by an irate nesting bird.

And one near-death experience, when a jackass decided to pass the SUV and me on a blind curve and had to cut me off to narrowly avoid a head-on collision with a car coming at it from the other direction. If I wasn’t on the right side of the lane or if the oncoming car was going just a couple of miles an hour faster, it would have been ugly for a lot of people. F**king jackass.

Midlights

Driving over the Atigun Pass was actually a highlight tempered only by the confabulation of what it would have been like if we had attempted the thirty or so miles of slippery road on a motorcycle on the trip up. Slippery mud from light rains looked manageable on the mostly hard-packed road but slippery mud is a tricky thing on a steep grade. On the much dryer return trip, it looked easy, at least in my confabulation of the ride. But we will never know.

Standing in the Arctic Ocean was an emotional highlight. it represented the pinnacle of the trip and the purpose of the mission but it’s not a particularly pretty sight, rocky and barren with a backdrop of oil-pumping plants in the background. You have to pay for a tour for the few miles across the privately held oil lands to actually get from Deadhorse to the Arctic Ocean. I always have mixed feelings about the canned patter and the false camaraderie of people working the trade. But in this case, it was useful learning about all the inner workings of the oil pumping process at Prudhoe and tires that under a million pounds of drilling equipment burst into flames from overheating if they move too fast.

My favorite met person was a bi-polar, elderly lady working an information kiosk in Fairbanks. She is bi-polar only in the sense that she has been both to the Arctic and the Antarctic. She worked out of Point Barrow providing medical care to nearby villages for many years and then participated in expeditions to the Antarctic to teach high school children about the environment depriving them of their electronic connections during the journey. We should all be bi-polar! After our conversation, I drifted over to the exhibits. The bi-polar woman shamed me as I walked past her again asking me in a good-natured spirit, “What did I learn?” I muttered something about the Ididerot race but I hadn’t really read anything, just looked at a relief map of Alaska. So she called me out on a wasted opportunity.

The weirdest encounter was with a forty-six-year-old, single woman proprietor of a flower shop on a yearly gathering with her family. She poured out all of her family issues and tragedies on a dock in a state park to three complete strangers. At one point when she was crying, I offered my hand for her to hold. I felt kind of awkward because I didn’t know how long she needed it for but I didn’t have any immediate use for it, anyway.

Other interesting encounters included a dance in Sandpoint saloon with a decent band, an itinerant worker in Coldfoot who skied tree-barren mountains in Alaska by driving up in a snowmobile then letting it self-drive to the bottom while he skied down to meet it, and all the people Hetal introduced herself to, particularly in bars. The names and stories of the others have already faded. But that is the way of the caravan.

There is a certain glamor in motorcycle riding but the reality is isolation in a space capsule helmet with earplugs and the discomfort of riding in more or less the same position for hours on end despite alleviation from bike yoga stretching routines. Of course, hiking is pretty much the same way in the sense of isolation and discomfort. Both are long periods of repetition punctuated by a few moments of interest justified by the sense of accomplishment at the completion.

Pulling off-road to cook a meal is a great alternative to paying for every meal at a restaurant, especially if you are on a road like the Dalton Highway that doesn’t have them for stretches of a couple of hundred miles at a time. On more than one occasion, we cooked with the stove in the car on account of inclement weather. Sitting down at a restaurant on occasion is nice too; different food to try and different folk to interact with. We never succumbed to convenience food at the many gas stations we frequented though I did pick up a couple of bottles of convenience wine as gifts for Brooke so we didn’t come in empty-handed.

I spent five nights sleeping under the stars without using a tent, once under a shrubby tree in Woodland Hills, twice in Denali, once in a parking lot in Pateros, and once on a dock in Westchester State park. Actually, it’s pretty comfortable but for some reason, haha, I tend to awaken at sunrise. In Denali, on the second night, I retreated into the bivy for an hour or two when it started raining at 7:30 in the morning. Not all city folk need a roof over the head, Mr. Muir.

Rant all you want about being online and connected, we relied heavily on the devices to navigate and find places at night. On every day during the trip, we were connected at some point. And I still took satisfaction in providing my trophy pictures to the world through Instagram completing my mission of a daily post for one year.

All of our equipment never gave us any serious trouble. The motorcycles and the truck fired up each morning and started promptly after sitting for ten days at a Seattle motel doubling as an airport parking lot. Given how rarely equipment actually does what it is supposed to do, I might consider this a highlight, too.

Postpartem

So now it is over and while I am quite happy that my motorcycle performed and I performed on the motorcycle, its future is definitely uncertain even though I am much more confident of my riding ability. I am staring at four walls and have a ceiling permanently over my head. I don’t think I will miss sleeping literally on the road but, damn, a couple of weeks ago I was standing knee-deep in the Arctic Ocean at the top of the world having traversed the Dalton Highway. Even though I conceived of the idea, I would have certainly failed to execute without the determination and persistence of Hetal and Chris. A proverb echoes in my head, “If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far, go together.” I might change that a little, “If you want to back out, tell no one, if you want to go far, go together.” Damn it, motorcycle or not, we did the Dalton Highway. We went far. To the ends of the Earth far.

Confabulate

Reading Time: < 1 minute

I’m not sure where I picked up the word confabulation, but it is my current favorite word. In psychology, it refers to a dysfunction of the mind to manufacture believed memories no matter how fantastical. I generalize its use as a verb for the tendency of the mind to fill in the blanks, to provide the missing pieces, to make up fantastical stories, to create a satisfactory explanation out of chaos without proof, to find a pattern in the randomness that doesn’t exist, all without any intent to deceive.

Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” is a story of confabulation. Of the need to go back in time to convince ourselves that we took the right path and that has made all the difference when each is equally as good.

Anti-confabulate, a word I just invented, would be to resist this urge to confabulate though I am having a hard time convincing myself that anti-confabulate and confabulate aren’t the same thing. In other words, everything is a confabulation because we can’t resist our proclivity to provide an explanation. Unconfabulate would be to tear down a confabulation.

Confabulation as an exercise in imagination is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, it’s better to go for the most outrageous story rather than the most accurate one. Maybe someday you will get lucky and have both.

Muskoxen

Reading Time: 2 minutes

From my youth, I remember the photos of snow-bearded muskox huddled together in an outward-facing circle to protect one another from the arctic blizzards. They are to the cow as the wooly mammoth is to the elephant, a stringy-haired relic of the ice age that didn’t get the memo to go extinct. They only live in the tundra of the far north latitudes surviving on lichen and moss during the harsh long winters.  

One of my ambitions was to watch and photograph these beasts in their native habitat on our trip to Deadhorse, Alaska.  From our ship container(-ish) hotel room, the hotel manager told me that they were on the river’s edge earlier in the day before we arrived. He peered out the window across the road and toward the river but didn’t see any. He said they might come back later in the day, although that might have been a trick answer because the day in the Arctic summer is two months long. So I checked every couple of hours through the course of the nightless day during our twelve-hour stay and on the trip in and out, but the ice age creatures failed to reveal themselves.

Two days later, back at Fairbanks, we overnighted in an Air BNB place that was interestingly called the Musk Ox house. In the morning, looking out the back window onto a field behind the house, I saw a large black mass of fur which I guessed to be a grizzly bear. So I bravely or foolishly grabbed my camera and ran out to capture a photo trophy. You have probably guessed already that the grizzly bear was in fact a muskox. It turns out one of the few herds of captive muskox live at the U of Alaska Fairbanks Large Animal Research Station which just happened to be in the backyard of the overnight rental.

So I saw muskoxen although not really on my terms. Which now that I think about it, might actually be the underlying theme of our trip. Hashtag on #prudhoe for more on the trip, if you are interested.

Author’s note: subsequent research tells me that muskoxen are more closely related to goats and sheep than cows. (https://uaf.edu/lars/animals/muskox.php)

Abduction

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Author’s note: As the protagonist moves into the underworld of the subconscious through injury, sleep, suffering, and cojiba, he enters the negative space of the mind where he encounters shadowy inhuman figures and chases after the golden earrings. In this encounter, he has banged his head against a concrete floor in the basement of the museum in San Juan after an argument with the curator.

Your eyes don’t focus. A silhouette of an inhuman shape stands in front of you in the darkness of semi-consciousness waving a hand in your face. It asks, “What do you see?”
The ribbon of the golden earring chases itself around the edges of three lobes against the blackness of the void. “The golden earring. It’s mine. Give it back.”
A shadow speaks. “What would you do with it?”
“It doesn’t matter. It would be mine again and I could forget about the past. I could forget about her.”
“It does matter. History repeats for those who don’t learn its lessons or who forget. You of all people should know that. What would you do different this time once you had it back?”
“Put it in a safe deposit box for safekeeping. Just in case.”
“Just in case what?”
“I don’t know. Something bad happens. They cut my pension. I don’t become a full professor or worse, I lose my job. Who knows? You can’t be too careful these days. You can’t rely on anyone. The only person you can rely on is yourself.”
“The golden earring is not mine to give, it is yours to retrieve. It is yours if you fulfill your mission.”
“Mission? What mission?”
“To change history.”
“Change history? How?”
“By keeping your promise to save the tribe from the brutality of the Spaniards in one year.”
“What? Oh, you mean my conversation with the curator? Come on. That was just a throwaway line in the heat of an argument. Of course, I would save them if I could.”
“You would help the poor children of La Gonave if you could. You would take the time to get to know young people if you could. You would save all the Tainos if you could.”
Your head hurts in the numb intermingling of pain and confusion. “What do you mean, save the Tainos if I could? It’s a little too late to be saving a tribe five centuries in the past, don’t you think?”
“It is your promise. You have the power to change history. You can be the hero you have always wanted to be.”
“Yes. I have already submitted an abstract to the journal and they rejected it. Maybe they will take a rewrite. Are you with them? It won’t change the history of the Tainos for sure and doubtful it will do much to change ours. I just want my golden earring back. I will give you a reward if you return it to me.”
“You won’t be able to buy it with money.”
“I don’t have to buy it, I own it.”
“You don’t own it. It owns you. It is the boundary between your strength and your weakness. When you prove worthy to receive it, it will return to you without asking.”
“It’s just an earring.”
“It is so much more. It transcends the material and the spiritual. It transcends the past and the future.”
“Well, what does it matter? It’s gone and it isn’t ever coming back, but how exactly would I prove myself?”
“In your mind, you believe yourself to be strong, wise, and creative. Demonstrate your strength and not your weakness.”
“How?”
“That is for you to choose.”
“What if I don’t choose?”
“You live with your irrelevance.”
“I’m perfectly happy with my irrelevance, but what happens if I don’t succeed?” Of course, you lie about that self-truth. Never show weakness. Your dad told you that.
“You will always be the man who never was.” the voice says fading into silence.
You don’t like mystical voices who speak in Zen riddles. The silhouette disappears and all you can see is the pulsating form of the golden earring. You reach for it, but it recedes. You chase after it into the black void. The faster you run the faster it moves away from you until it disappears into the far distance leaving you alone in the darkness of your mind.

Career Path

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Authors Note: This section introduces Professor Murphy. It gives his career aspirations and the motivation behind them. Alex Murphy is the narrator giving the story to a former student. When the professor narrates, he talks in the second person and in the present tense.

Idea

You are a tenured history associate professor at NYU. You have a love and hate relationship with your subject matter. You love telling the stories of history’s heroes but it makes your own life feel hollow. You’ve seen a statue of Columbus. The inscription says, “…testimonial of the values and virtues which the figure and enterprise of the great explorer has bestowed upon our people.” Why can’t you be a hero and have a nice statue of yourself in a public square somewhere? You could go for your own statue and you would be a deserving hero not a brutal conqueror like so many you’ve written about. You would make the phrase “values and virtues bestowed upon our people” to stand for something positive.
The problem with being a hero is typically you either have to kill or get killed. The only person you ever wanted to kill was your ex, so ruthless and calculating. You loved her once but she is the only person you genuinely hate. It burns you to the core that she is out there wearing your golden earrings given to her under her false pretenses. You can’t count the number of times you have fantasized about ripping them off her ears with one hand while the other hand chokes her neck beneath her gasping, redding face. Not that you care about the earrings themselves so much, it’s just the idea of it. She is out there flaunting her conquest at your expense. You want those earrings back more than anything, even the full professorship you have been fighting your whole career for.
The one silver lining out of all of this is that she has inspired an idea for a paper. You came across a line in an excerpt from an article in the “Journal of Modern Antiquities” about how trusting and open the Taino people were, the ultimate victims who swam out to greet Columbus with offers of cemi statues. In return, they were rewarded with torture and genocide. The imagery resonates with you. You feel a certain empathy towards the long-lost people. Your own cemi is the golden earrings given to your ex-wife. In return, you were rewarded with torture and humiliation. You wonder who had it worse.
The Tainos didn’t have it all bad, at least not before the Spaniards arrived. You wouldn’t mind moving to a tropical island and living near a beach with the natives. You like to camp on those rare weekends you can get away. You like DIY even though you never really have the time for it. You could live a simpler life with people who would admire you for your modern wisdom and skills. You would treat them right. You would be a god to them.
But life isn’t so simple. Their simplicity came with an awful price. If they hadn’t been so open and giving, maybe they wouldn’t have been so easy to kill. Maybe they would have given thought to defense and security. Perhaps there is a lesson for you to learn there.
They remind you of birds on remote islands nesting in the open leaving their eggs and chicks, that is to say, their gold, completely exposed on the ground for all to see, never developing any defenses other than their isolation, leaving themselves vulnerable to even small opportunistic predators like rats. A life without predators leaves one weak and defenseless. A life with unearned trust leaves one vulnerable and exposed.
A naive trust opened up the Tainos to conquest. As Columbus said in his journal, “…wishing them to look on us with friendship, I gave some of them red bonnets and glass beads, which they hung around their necks, and many other things of small value, at which they were so delighted and so eager to please us that we could not believe it.” Perhaps a little dose of reality on the motivations of men could have saved them. Perhaps a lesson on the value of things might have tipped them off. Perhaps there is a lesson for all to learn. That is your working hypothesis, anyway, for an article you have tentatively titled, “Case Study of the Tainos: What isolation in primitive societies teaches modern man about evaluating risk in modern times.” You submit an abstract and outline of the idea to the prestigious journal, “The Journal of Modern Antiquities”.

Rejection

You wait. You wait some more. You figure it would be nice if they could at least let you know if they received the damn abstract. Well, maybe they didn’t receive it.
Long after you give up on the submission, you walk out to the mailbox and find a letter from the journal. Nothing good comes in the mail. You don’t have to open it. You know what it is. You bring it inside unopened and place it on the coffee table in your living room and stare at it for a while not wanting to open it. You fight the urge to know but you have to confirm the obvious. You tear the letter open and read it. No surprise. Another rejection.
A rejection letter. A formal rejection letter. It says your idea isn’t sufficiently developed for publication. It says more research needed. It says your hypothesis is not a hypothesis but at best a conjecture with no discernible null hypothesis to measure against and at worst an unprovable supposition on your part.
You feel like you are a victim again. Who judged it? What was the basis of their assertion? What are you supposed to do, go back in time to teach the Tainos how to combat failure of imagination? History is extracting meaning from the experiences of those that lived before us. History isn’t an experiment to be re-run. What do they want?
You don’t know. Fuck them. Some wizard of oz behind a curtain screwing with your career. Lately, you are feeling more Tainos than Columbus, more victim than hero. You’ve studied the heroes of the past, the men who made a difference. It’s killing you that you don’t.
You throw out the letter and walk into the bathroom. You wash the frustration from your face. You look into the mirror. You see an old person you barely recognize. You see a person whose life is passing him by.
If the old man in front of you died of a heart attack at this moment, no one would be any the wiser. If you died right now, it would be months before anyone even missed you. You have to die for something, not for nothing. Is death what it takes for your life to have meaning? Would it kill someone to give you some real recognition in the here and now? To acknowledge your hard work? Your insights?
The face in the mirror turns from yours to your father’s. What’s the point he asks? You are irrelevant. Life has no meaning. Death has no meaning. It’s okay to let go. It’s okay to leave the rat race. Let it go.
Getting beaten down is one thing but you are not giving in. You are not giving up. You will not go out that way. You are not your father. He is an embarrassment to you. You tell the old man to fuck off. You leave the miserable old man behind.

Reset

Another late night at the office buried in a stack of books and the lonely night glow of a computer monitor. You have to work harder. Tenure is the only secure thing you have. They can’t take it away from you without you completely fucking up but you want to be a full professor, not just an associate professor.
You want the challenge. You want the feeling that you are still a vibrant and creative man. You want to prove that your mind is fertile with ideas worthy of great minds. You want to prove that you are more than just a claven sitting at a bar throwing out random and irrelevant history facts.
You want the security. You want the extra money. Associate professor provides more than enough for you to get by but it still feels like you are living hand to mouth. Someday you would actually like to retire well enough off to enjoy it. You work for a living to pay the mortgage on your home and the endless stream of bills. After your divorce and the last stock market crash, you figure you are going to be stuck working until you are ninety years old.
You want the status. Your academic clock is ticking. Your life clock is ticking. You are over 50 years old. It’s not so late in the typical career to become a full professor. But there are a couple of hot-shot, younger associates breathing down your back with more publications than you. Publish or perish, that is always the mantra. With all the shit that has been going on in your life with your family, you haven’t been able to keep pace.
You could submit to the other journals, the ones desperate enough for the material to publish your work. The ones aspiring to the status of the journal. Perhaps an abstract to the “Journal of Caribbean Culture.” It would keep the NYU administration at bay. But the “Journal of Modern Antiquities” would put you in line for a full professorship and better standing in the community.
If the journal wants hard evidence, you need hard data. You plan to visit the museum in San Juan and a few archaeological sites in Puerto Rico to baseline the gulf between Spanish and pre-Columbian societies in values and technology.
Normally, you would look forward to spending time on a placid tropical island, soaking up the sunlight, finding a nice isolated beach, and observing the culture, where the culture to you mostly means rum tasting (and you have the t-shirt to prove it). You would love to take the time to snorkel with a manatee, kayak the coast, or hop on a fishing boat. You’ve worked hard for NYU for over two decades, and wouldn’t mind taking advantage of the few perks the job has to offer. But if you nail this paper, you can resubmit to the “The Journal of Modern Antiquities,” and finally lift yourself out of obscurity. You don’t have time for play. You don’t have the time for the pleasures of modern life. You book your flight on the day after the last day of finals in December for San Juan.

Prepping for Alien Invasion

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Author’s Note: A presentation called “An Alien Invasion from History” under the category of “Prepping for Alien Invasion” given by Alex Murphy at the “Prep Tech” conference.

Neology Note: New word: godifying. The opposite of demonizing.

“Why does our planet insist on either demonizing or godifying aliens? Aliens are either a parasitic infestation interested in pilfering our resources or have superhero superpowers in relation to our paramecium abilities. What if aliens are actually interested in us, for who we are?
“If aliens are capable of interstellar travel, their technology will be, quite literally, light years ahead of our own. Our technology will be Stone Age at best by comparison. If they are hell-bent on burning our species at the stake, their will be done. You will not be able to prevent it. You cannot control it. We all want to be the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls. It terrifies us to think otherwise.
“I kept my notes from my college courses some thirty years ago. Do you know what was interesting after all these years?
“The little notes I made in the margins about the teacher, the other students in the classroom, stuff that was going on with me at the time, ideas expressed as questions.
“So what you ask? And I answer.
“If they have an interest in us, the interest will be in our humanities, not our science. It will not be in the physics notes we copied off the blackboard from the professor, it will be in the notes that reveal something about us, in the decisions we make, in the relationships we engage in, in how we live, in who we are.
“If we are decent, they might learn something from our deep ocean when they get lost in the complex seas of their technical civilization when they define themselves by their technical accomplishments instead of who they are or what they could be.
“They may be here already. Watching us. Studying us. Testing us. Testing us to determine if our species has matured beyond the paranoia of invasion, beyond the surrender of deification, to the point where they trust us to give the best of ourselves in a reciprocal, mutually beneficial relationship.
“So what course of action do you choose? When they come, how will you react to them? Will you shoot on-site or run for your barracks? Will you fall to your knees and kowtow? I think you better have something interesting to say. You better have something worthy to offer them.
“There is something you can do to prep. There is a way to move beyond fear. If you fear an alien invasion, look that fear in the eye, know you are going to die if they choose it, and understand how that fear drives you. Then ask yourself am I the person fear is making me be, or am I the person I want to be? Do you aspire to save the world? Or do you aspire to make the world worth saving? And then choose. This is the only true freedom you have in this life. And if you realize this power, you might have something of interest for the alien race to consider,” he pauses, “before they decide to eat you.
He pauses again waiting for the mild laughter to subside before continuing, “Heki bo-buya. It means don’t let fear stop you from giving the best of yourself. Thank you.”

A Setback

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Well, back in March I finally had what I thought was a ready draft of my latest story written. So I submitted it to my editor for review. She had lavish praise for the world-building including the Guacuno language and lots of favorable comments on some of the subplot stories and characters, but two almost obscure comments stopped me from opening the parachute on my happy landing. Paraphrasing, they are:
> I don’t believe the conclusions your main character reached in his closing speech. This is not the man we know.
> The language lessons would be okay if they showed the story progressing.

If the main character doesn’t work and the story drags because the stakes for the protagonist are unclear, basically the story is a failure. You don’t have to split my head open with an ax for me to pick up on the message. (Okay, you do. This is my third book and it took that many to finally realize why the books aren’t cutting it. But I do like the ax imagery).

My takeaway is this. What I’ve learned to do is to tell a plot and not a story. I really think I have some interesting ideas, characters, and scenes, but they all drift at the mercy of the plot. The protagonist and the response to the protagonist aren’t driving the plot. If they were, then it would be a story.

I picked up and read the book “Story Genius” which I hope will be really helpful. She describes a blueprinting methodology for sequencing scenes together and describing a technique for coordinating the inner world of the protagonist, the so-called third rail that powers the story, with the external plot within each scene, and much more. All based on the cognitive science of developing the empathy of the reader for the protagonist.

So I’ve been backtracking trying to blueprint my story for the last two months. I suppose it would be easier to start another story from scratch with this methodology, but I believe in my concept, the world-building, the language, all the characters I have created except the protagonist, and the structure of the book. I really like “Story Genius” idea of not only stating the misbelief but developing the history to support it. Every scene in the blueprint has to answer the question of why. It’s been painful and I don’t have much to show for all the effort, but I do think I have some promising ideas.

Some things that I am committed to:
> The point of a sci-fi book should be a great twist on a concept:
– Bluffdale: AI isn’t going to hunt us to death, it’s going to love us to death.
– Property of Nature: Gods have an obligation to make their sentient creations fit for a world without them
– Golden Earring: Meaning comes from the survival of those that cooperate the best in the present; not from the history of those that survived as the fittest.
> Great science fiction works in the seams between indifferent technology and deep meaning. This is the space I want to write in.
> While I agree that the inner world is important, I am turned off by excessive displays of emotion to reveal inner state. You can overwrite a scene in a book just as easily as you can overact in a movie.
> I will never resolve a plot with romantic love as the resolution of meaning or conflict. In science fiction, I think it is a sign of weak writing (unless the technology has something specifically to do with that).

So this is a lead-in for future posts I will try out in print on this blog and see how they feel. If you happen to read and have a comment on any of them, feel free to drop me a line at author.mike.angel@gmail.com.

Photo Finish

Reading Time: 2 minutes

The two racing rocks rush towards the finish, nose-to-nose, bump-to-bump, head-to-head, toe-to-toe, or whatever feature one ascribes to bowling ball size rocks engaged in a heated race over a temporarily undry, ice-glazed lake. All that we spectators get to see is the final moment frozen in time in the wind-eroded tracks in the rehardened and now dried mud, stretching back to the starting point seemingly out of nowhere. Not every rock at the race track is hell-bent on winning. Some have an artistic bent painting lazy loops or perhaps engaging in the calligraphy of secret rock words.

The excitement of the events takes place largely in my mind, which is in stark contrast to the rest of the sights of Death Valley. The ruggedness of the mountains expresses itself in folded contours of chocolate brown, rust red, sandy tans, lava blacks, and bruised purples. The ruggedness of the valley expresses itself in a snowfield of salt flats, a lone creosote bush defying every effort to squelch its life, a naked caldera reminding us that Death Valley can add injury to insult at its whim and ever-shifting sand dunes that quickly erase all traces of its visitors.

A man tells me the racetrack is the most overrated attraction in the park, hardly worth the sixty-mile off-road trip (on motorcycles battling loose scree and dehydrating ninety-degree temps. I added that last part.) Barely visible rock tracks might not have the glamor of the artist palette, or the excitement of finding pupfish in a spring-fed stream, or the challenge of summitting a dune, or the admiration for carpets of defiant flowers, but the racetrack has the challenge of the trip, the rocks have the mystery of their movement even knowing the explanation, and it doesn’t hurt to indulge your imagination in a place that absolutely inspires it.

Life in the Death Star

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Dear Mom,

I’ve been deployed to the Death Star and will serve out my tour of duty here. Of course, our location is always top secret, so I couldn’t tell you where I am even if I knew.

Life here is pretty good. One doesn’t really appreciate the fact that the Death Star, really more of a Death Moon in size, is one of the largest cruise ships ever created. It’s so big, it creates its own gravity. At about the size of the Earth’s moon, it has a land surface about as big as all of Asia. It has five billion cubic miles of interior. To give perspective on this, imagine people inhabited the entire surface of the Earth to about seven miles deep. That’s a big cruise ship.

Only the first couple of levels at the surface of the ship are dedicated to Defense, uniforms mandatory. Sure, the stormtroopers get all the glamour pinging about with their laser blasters and zooming about in their TIE fighters, but they have to suffer the rigors of a hierarchical command structure and some of those leaders aren’t so pleasant. It mostly looks boring, marching around all the time on the deck and patrolling the hallways. Like, who is going to attack a Death Moon?

The interior is much different. Behind every trooper is ten more support people. The logistics of feeding, housing, caring, and entertaining for a cruise ship of ten billion people staggers the imagination. Of course, a lot of that space is dedicated to infrastructure and most of the processes are automated, but there is plenty of work to do for both man and machine. I am very busy and down here, I don’t have to worry about anyone shooting at me.

The Death Moon as habitat is amazing. It is one of the largest closed systems ever created. Nothing goes to waste. Not one drop of water, not one plop of waste, not one piece of material, not one molecule of air. A lot of terratrashed planets could learn a lesson, the Earth included.

And it’s not all business. You can’t move about intergalactic space, even at hyper velocities, in a day. It takes months to move from one location to another. In the meantime, you have to live. One of the most fun things we do is tube jumping in those huge hollow tubes that go from one side of the moon to the other. The gravity is only about a tenth of that of the Earth’s and the acceleration is about a tenth as fast. The atmosphere gets thick pretty fast so it’s more like swimming through soup than skydiving. Because the air pressure is so intense toward the center, you can’t leap much more than a couple of miles from the surface, even with a suit, before the heat will boil your blood or the air pressure will miniaturize you to the size of a marble. More than a few macho corpses that tried to test their limits are floating down at the center of the moon.

Well anyway, we’re off on another mission ensuring peace through force. Rebel scum can’t be allowed to terrorize the galaxy, can they? I suppose it’s not always a pleasant business but it’s a decent life. What could go wrong?

I hope this letter finds you well.

May the Peace of Force be with you, Your Son