Winter Tour FAQ

March 9, 2012

My first blog tour was in winter of 2008/2009. I traveled through rideshares and bus and train tickets, stayed with readers who invited me, and stopped in Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Cruces, Albuquerque, Southwest Missouri, St Louis, Springfield IL, Yellow Springs OH, Asheville, Durham, Boston, and Minneapolis. I spent most of that tour sick, and had to skip a lot of places near the end.

In winter of 2011/2012 I did another tour, staying in Portland, Eugene, Pasadena, San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Atlanta, Gainesville GA, Knoxville, New York City, Plymouth MA, Plainfield and Burlington VT, Montreal, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, St Louis, Ypsilanti MI, Naperville IL, and St Paul. This time I traveled on a Greyhound discovery pass, which cost $560 for 60 days, and at the end I got a ride and then took the train home.

These are some common questions I was asked, a few I made up, and my answers.

Where are you from?

Washington State. I've lived in Seattle, but now I live in Spokane. Spokane rhymes with "no plan", not "no pain".

Why are you traveling?

Because I can. I had three months with no obligations, lots of people to stay with, and enough money for a bus pass and food. Who wouldn't travel?

Are you having fun?

If I wanted to have fun I would have stayed home and played video games. I'm traveling to stretch myself, to meet people, and to have experiences that will seem valuable when I look back at them.

Have you ever traveled to other countries?

I've been to Europe and Mexico, but it felt like something I was supposed to do. Traveling around America is something I feel like doing.

What food did you bring, and what did you buy along the way?

I brought three gallon ziploc bags of sweet potato chips, two bags of raw flax crackers, one bag of coconut bars, and some jerky and pemmican, all homemade. At the beginning my travel bag was mostly food. I should have brought some quinoa, but ended up buying it as I went. I picked up butter, flour, and apples almost everywhere to make apple pies, and often I would buy a dozen eggs. My hosts also fed me. Usually I would try to save or make some food at the end of a stay to take on the bus.

This is the first long trip I've ever taken where I did not lose weight, and I credit the apple pies. For every full day I stayed with someone, I would typically make a pie with a full stick of butter and eat half of it myself. My favorite butter is Organic Valley Pastured with the green label.

What kind of apples did you use?

I make my pies without sugar, just flour, butter, apples, and cinnamon. The apples that are supposedly good for pies are high in acid, so you can smother them with sugar and still taste them. For an unsweetened pie you need an apple that can carry a pie on its own, and most common sweet apples will work. My favorite is Fuji, because they hold their texture well and they're cheap.

How did you make your road food?

Sweet potato chips: slice them raw, lightly coat them with olive oil and salt, and bake them slightly overlapping on cookie sheets at 300°F. They should shrink so they're not overlapping. Then turn the temperature down to 250, watch them carefully, and pull them when they're fully dry but not yet burnt. This is difficult, and requires sorting out the ones that are more and less done. It helps if you use a convection oven.

Flax crackers: fill a jar halfway with flax and the rest of the way with water, soak overnight or longer, then add some nut butter, salt, spices, and maybe some garlic or olives or sun dried tomatoes mashed up in some kind of food processor or grinder. Mix it well, roll it out between parchment paper, and stick it in a dehydrator. My flax crackers are mediocre and you should really figure out your own recipe. The Excalibur dehydrator is by far the easiest to use, but the Nesco is cheaper and dehydrates just as well.

Coconut bars: in an oven on its lowest setting, warm up a bunch of shredded coconut and some brown rice syrup or barley malt syrup. Mix it all together with your hands in a giant bowl. Toasted nuts are a nice thing to add. Press it into cookie sheets, roll it flat, and cut it into bars. Easy! These ended up being too sweet for me and I gave most of them away.

Pemmican is basically powdered beef jerky mixed with rendered beef fat. For details, put pemmican recipe into your favorite search engine. It keeps for years and is densely nourishing, but tastes terrible. It would taste better if you added dried berries, but then it would not keep as long.

What did you do differently to not get sick on the second tour?

I had already changed my diet to not eat anything sweet other than whole fruits. Also I declined more invitations to go out and see stuff, and spent more time relaxing. But I still got a little sick. I had a 24 hour flu in Georgia, and spent the next few weeks with a runny nose and just on the edge of getting sicker. I think it helped to take bitter herbs.

What was the best place you stayed?

The most productive place was New York City. I had four meetings with readers, spoke to two classes, and saw a lot of Manhattan. The funnest place was Austin, where I played board games, walked up a beautiful dry creek bed, and ate such a large dose of cannabis that I approached the total bliss of ego death. I don't smoke pot because I don't like being stupid, but I find it's worthwhile, once or twice a year, to eat a giant dose and be really stupid.

The most relevant places I visited were decayed neighborhoods in Atlanta, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and St Louis, where people were squatting houses and/or growing food in vacant lots.

My 2009 tour was more rural. I stayed on two farms, butchered a chicken, and stayed in several houses heated only by wood stoves.

What was the worst place you stayed?

Cape Cod. I'm sure there are worse places I didn't visit in Mississippi or Oklahoma, and my hosts in Cape Cod were great, but from their stories, they live in a dark place. The culture is fearful and selfish, there's a wide gap between rich and poor, high rates of alcoholism and prescription drug abuse, almost everyone gets Lyme disease, the cape is washing away, and a failure at any of several nuclear plants would trap everyone downwind. One of my hosts took me for a walk in the woods and told me that he hides from other people on the trails, because there's too great a chance they'll be angry thugs.

What kinds of things do you like to see on your travels?

My hosts and their friends, the inside of a food co-op, the kitchen, the internet, and sometimes a good nature walk. I'm not much interested in tourist sights, and I'm burned out on museums. The best art I saw was on the sides of boxcars, and also along the trails of Constitution Lakes Park in Atlanta, where someone has been making art out of garbage. There was a pile of broken toilet pieces with an inscription that said "Ancient porcelain. Thrones of the gods?"

How does Greyhound compare to Amtrak?

On the train you have a lot more room, the toilets are better, the scenery is better, the stations are better, passengers are treated better, the atmosphere is more cheerful, and the sound and feel of a train is better than a bus. And for individual trips, the cost is roughly the same. But an Amtrak pass costs twice as much per day as a Greyhound pass and has a limited number of trips. Amtrak doesn't go nearly as many places, is not any faster, and is more late more often.

Any tips for riding Greyhound?

If you're using a pass, the website says you take it to the ticket window and they print you a ticket. The way it really works is that you show the pass to the driver when you get on. Except sometimes, when you're riding a different bus line that accepts the pass, you do have to take it to the window.

Use the online trip finder to plan your trips. Travel during the day whenever possible -- for some reason the night buses are fuller. Try to get to the station an hour before the bus leaves to get a good place in line. I like to get a window seat near the front. If there are not enough seats, they will give the last people in line the choice between refunding their ticket and standing in the aisle.

The buses are always quieter and cleaner than the stations. Passengers are mostly poor and patient. Expect to be treated like cattle. It will be much easier if you can pack light enough to carry your bag on instead of checking it under the bus. Bring all your own food! You'll be lucky if the bus stops at a McDonald's, and I've never seen one stop at a Subway. Usually they stop at gas stations where there is nothing but candy bars and chips.

The worst thing about Greyhound is that they make everyone get off the bus and get back on every time they fill the gas tank or change drivers. They would find a way around this if the passengers were higher class. Even on a trip with no transfers, you have to go through the same shit as a transfer, often in the middle of the night.

What did you do on the long bus rides?

Right before my trip I bought a used Kindle and loaded it up with ebooks from the now-defunct Mostly I was reading sci-fi classics.

What's a useful thing you brought that most people wouldn't think of?

1) A small monocular for seeing things at a distance. 2) My old Microsoft optical mouse. Most people just use the touch pad on laptops, but I like the precision of a real mouse, and also the middle button and scroll wheel. 3) Duct tape wrapped around my water bottle, which I used on the inside of my jeans to patch holes in the knees.

Is there anything you didn't bring and wish you had brought?

1) A thumb drive with my music collection, not for listening but to share with people. 2) One of those little things that converts a 120v outlet to USB, to recharge my phone and Kindle. 3) A second stocking cap, because I inevitably lose the first one.

Why are you focusing on your house in the city instead of homesteading your primitive land?

Questions about my house and land are answered in the Land FAQ.

What are some things you have learned on your travels (not from personal experience)?

Arguably, if you can take only one manufactured item into the woods with you, a plastic five gallon bucket is better than a knife.

Take a five gallon bucket, drill half inch holes all around the bottom of the side, put a road killed animal in, and cover it with straw. Maggots will eat the animal and fall out the holes. Hang it up over your chickens.

If you live in the city, and need to get tannin out of acorns, put them in a mesh bag in your toilet tank!

The best colors for nighttime urban camouflage are grey and brown, not black.

The nutritional profile of cow milk is better at growing the body, but worse at growing the brain. So kids raised on cow milk are bigger and less smart than kids raised on human milk.

The phrase "a dime a dozen" comes from eggs, which used to cost that much. But even now, an old silver dime is worth about the same as a dozen eggs from a small farm.

The Burj Khalifa in Dubai could stand for tens of thousands of years, because it is built so far from earthquake fault lines and the climate there is so dry. Only human activity is likely to bring it down sooner.

What are some things you have learned on your travels (from personal experience)?

The best hosts are group houses, and low-income people who eat well.

If you're a guest in someone's house, and you start washing their dishes, they will almost never stop you.

A surprising number of smart people are still using antibacterial soap, which is no better than regular soap and probably harmful.

A great way to prepare cauliflower: cut it up, coat it generously with olive oil, add salt and optional garlic, and bake it on a cookie sheet until it starts to brown.

Most Americans feel sorry for Obama. They think he's trying hard to fix the country and failing because it's an impossible job. Nobody believes the economy will fully recover.

The most visible sign of increasing wealth inequality is housing: Rich people are building bigger and more ridiculous houses, while poor people are moving in together to make up for not having jobs.

Money is bad for people.

My new favorite scotch is Bunnahabhain.

My new favorite small kitchen knife is the Wusthof 4002.

My new favorite band is Carissa's Wierd, and also Weinland.

My new favorite tea mix is dandelion, astragalus, licorice, cinnamon, ginger, and cardamom.