Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Of Mice and Ken (Part II)

It smelled sour, sweaty, moist, kinda like a sopping bag of hockey equipment.

It was time that I discovered the source of the smell before things got worse. I had been in denial for too long; I knew there was a good chance that it may have been the remains of the mouse I frying-panned several weeks before. I palmed my ceiling, worried about feeling a "bump," which I sure enough did.

"Fucking disgusting," I muttered to myself upon feeling its body.

After donning a pair of gloves, I pulled out the flattened carcass, snapped a picture, and threw it into the lawn where the birds and insects would make good use of it. Good riddance. Easily the most revolting aspect of vandwelling thus far.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

An AT expedition

What: A five-day, 57-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail
Where: Daleville to Big Island, Virginia
When: Two weeks ago; spring break
Why: The tentacles of civilization had tightened their chokehold. Drawn were we to the hills to escape the schedules, appointments, and duties that make day’s feel full, but lives empty.
Who: See below

Name: Josh Pruyn
Trail Name: “Trailrunner” (When morale was low, Josh would bellow “Traillllrunnner!!” from behind, get down in a three-point stance, sprint for approximately ten paces with his pack still on, then double over, wheezing asthmatically.)
Born: Tonawanda, NY
Current residence: Denver, CO
Age: 26
Bio: My hetero-lifemate and best friend since the eighth grade, Josh had his fifteen minutes of fame when he won the World Series of Euchre and was featured on ABC National News for blowing the whistle on his evil ex-employer, Westwood College. We’ve lived together on four different occasions in four different states and have—as odd as it may sound—maintained an almost daily email correspondence for the past decade. He now has a girlfriend, two dogs, and a fairly-domesticated existence working for a non-profit in Denver.

Name: Luke Matthews
Trail Name: “Squidfingers” (Supposedly his fingers, on occasion, resemble squid tentacles when playing bass with his band, Sweet tooth.)
Born: Texas
Current residence: Columbia, S.C
Age: 26
Bio: Josh and I met Luke in Coldfoot, Alaska where he worked as a guide and cook years ago. He later conducted dog-mushing tours on a glacier near Seward, AK. Now a grad student in the engineering department at U of South Carolina, Luke bemoans how seldom he’s able to visit his beloved mountains, streams, and woods.

Name: Ken Ilgunas
Trail Name: “Highlander” (In reference to my Scottish heritage, not the cheesy sci-fi series.)
Born: Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Current residence: Durham, North Carolina
Age: 26
Bio: Vandweller, hitchhiker, voyageur, cheap-son-of-a-bitch.

Name: Rimsky
Trail Name: “Mousehunter” (Due to her abnormally small appetite, we had good reason to believe she’d been eating the mice that lived at the shelters.)
Born: Joy, Alaska
Current residence: Columbia, S.C
Age: 3
Bio: Lover of campfires, strange smells, cuddling in tents and eating snow, Rimsky—an Alaskan husky and former sled dog—impressed her trailmates with a vigor and tenacity that—if not for her compact size—would win her a spot on any Iditarod sled-dog team. Like a good ascetic, she took a vow of silence before the trip, not once—to our amazement—uttering a whimper, growl or bark for all 57 miles.

Some random observations:

- Seeing the stars for the first time in a year hit me hard. Atop a ground tarp, I laid beneath them each night, noting how out-of-the-ordinary it was to see them (and how out-of-the-ordinary that should seem.) We must be among the first generations in the great history of our species to be stripped of this natural right. Just another consequence of convenience, I thought. Fast transportation, air-conditioning, heat, bananas from Ecuador, and light switches in every room. We thoughtlessly enjoy these comforts, rarely pausing to consider the costs. But who’s left to consider the loss when so few, today, remember what a sky full of stars looks like (and how they can make us wonder and think and feel)? How can we preserve the wild when so few know its value? How can we retrieve a natural right stripped from us when no one realizes that it’s been seized?

- At scenic overlooks on the trail—at points often criss-crossing the Blue Ridge Parkway—the smog depixelated what should have been crystal-clear vistas of bucolic farms and rolling Appalachian hills. The sky looked diseased, like swarms of some prophetical pestilence augured the beginning of the end.

- Forty-five percent of our nation’s energy comes from a coal industry that shears off holy pinnacles, pollutes pristine waters, and clouds my views that now inspire hatred instead of just inspiring. Say what you will about the lack of alternatives and the “realities” of our age, but I’ve yet to visit a home whose inhabitants would be no worse off if they cut their energy consumption by forty-five percent.

- Josh, Luke, and I certainly weren’t expecting anything tough on the AT. Each of us was familiar with the unforgiving terrain of the arctic, so ten miles or so a day on a well-blazed trail in central Virginia—we thought—would be a lazy walk up and down gentle gradients. But due to some severely inept pre-trip planning on my part, we expressed surprise—and some worry—upon seeing the taller mountains ahead of us glazed with a thick snow covering.

- We began an uphill climb where the trail, soon, would be caked with over a foot and a half of snow. For the next 15 miles, we’d learn—for the first time—what it was like to lust for a pair of snowshoes. Sometimes our feet would slice through slush as if our feet were made of hot coals. Other times the snow was topped with a hard icy crust that needed the full force of our pack-laden bodies to push down. Sometimes our legs, knee deep, had to plow through drifts as if we were kicking over hillocks of dirty laundry.

- Each night we’d embrace the routine of eating, sitting around the fire, passing a bottle of rum, and laughing about old times and our day’s trials. Coyotes would howl and Rimsky would eye the walls of the shelter, eager to get her jaws on the mice we couldn’t hear.

- There’s something to be said for shared suffering. Leisurely strolls evaporate from memories like sweat stolen by a desert breeze. The miserable, though, are carried longer, like mucus helixed into a frozen beard. The price of memories can be steep, but numbed feet, slashed ankles, and wobbly knees—however discomforting the purchase may be at the time—are always worth it in the end. In suffering side-by-side, the bonds between us are pulled taut. Old memories inspire the crafting of new ones. The gifts of our suffering will goad us on to suffer more. On our next expedition the bonds will be pulled even tighter, a bottle of rum will orbit a campfire, and we'll laugh about old times and our day’s trials.

- An honest day’s work is a natural sedative; sleep comes easy after a hard hike.

- Josh spoke of his girlfriend and home life; Luke of his new girlfriend who’s a single mom. The change of seasons seemed to wash over their lives like warm air over snow covered hills. No longer were our conversations—like the ones of old—dominated with thoughts of the future. An infusion of words like marriage, children, and careers entered the fold, as well as the creeping presence of the present. Their lives seemed like they might be on the brink of some momentous change, while mine—as far as my sight stretches—remains happily mired in the muck of an everlasting spring—a season devoid of the domestic.

- Home is less a place and more a feeling. Each time I visit my old home in New York, I’m greeted with the unsettling and starling blow of culture shock. Now, that yellow house in front of the street I daily played hockey on feels less like home and more a place where I feel I don’t belong. Stepping on this trail, rather, is like rubbing my feet on a welcome mat. While I’m barely acquainted with these Appalachian hills, each time I come back I feel what I once did as a boy walking home from school; these trees and mountains and a ceiling dotted with stars beckon me to come in and stay just how the smell of my mom’s cooking and the glow of my father’s TV set used to.

Josh bedding down in the van with me for a night.

Finest AT Shelter we've seen yet.

Josh resting his knees and ankles.

The guillotine.

Spaghetti stew with pork/chicken sausage. Yum.

The final leg: walking bridge over the James River.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Gear Review: Selk sleeping bag

I’ve gotten a few things from my published article:

1. A measly $150 check from Salon (whose editors clearly didn’t take pity on my impecuniousness)
2. A potential book deal (more on this in the future)
3. Lots of messages from interesting people (more on this in the future, too)
4. A Selk sleeping bag

I’m reluctant to advertise a product on a blog on which I habitually complain about the consequences of consumerism, but I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take a ridiculous picture of myself.

A rep for Selk messaged me over Facebook asking if I wanted a bag for free. While it was implicit that he hoped to use my newfound popularity to his company’s advantage, I took special note that he didn’t disguise his offer in a facade of generosity or overtly request that I review, discuss, or advertise the bag. Since nothing was expected of me from the transaction, I thought, sure, why the hell not?

I should, first, discuss my sleeping bag, who, I’m sure, didn’t enjoy seeing a rival for my attention join us in bed.

I’ve had my Sierra Designs bag since May of 07. I bought it secondhand for $40 from a friend in Coldfoot right before I left on my epic Alaska-to-New York hitchhike. Supposedly it’s rated to -20 degrees Fahrenheit--a claim exaggerating the bag’s actual capacities since I need to put thermals on when it gets down into the teens. Apart from a rip that I’ve thoroughly duct-taped, it’s served me well and has kept me sufficiently warm through two North Carolinian winters.

As you can see, the Selk provides mobility and plenty of freedom. Admittedly, it has been nice to wake up and be able to eat my cereal in my sleeping bag, instead of shiveringly gulping down spoonfuls in a pair of boxers. The pants zip open for ventilation, there’s a zipper by the hands, and they’ve sewn in some sturdy material by the feet so you can walk outside in it.

Unfortunately, they’ve compromised the bag’s ability to maintain body heat. On a couple of nights in the thirties, I needed to drape myself under my other sleeping bag in addition to wearing the Selk. It’s 4.35 lbs and the listed temperature limit is 36 degrees Fahrenheit, which is good for late fall and early spring nights, but won’t do me much good in winter when it’s gotten as low as 10 degrees.

I recommend it to vandwellers seeking a little more convenience or to those camping in mild climes, but the cost, weight, and relatively high temperature limit should be enough to deter the cheap and the rugged. While I would have been fine with my old bag, I’ve made good use of the new one, and it’s worth the little space it takes up.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Ridiculous Idea #1: The Forest Cemetery

[In some ways, I think I was meant to be a capitalist. Like Seinfeld’s Kramer, I come up with a new idea or invention on an almost weekly basis. The problem is that my ideas are all implausible, inane, and downright ridiculous. And without the time, energy, and entrepreneurial spirit, these ideas will never realize their potential. Nevertheless—with no other forum to showcase them other than this blog—I present to you my first of several ridiculous ideas: The Forest Cemetery.]

So grandpa was as sturdy as an oak? Maybe he should become one…

I view nearly everything with a skeptical eye. It’s a tiresome way to live and, in some ways, a curse that I, and those close to me, will forever have to deal with. I can’t help but question everything: how we live, eat, travel, raise our children. Everything. Customs like sweaters on dogs, the phrase “god bless you” after a sneeze, giant inflatable grinches on lawns, boob jobs, and metrosexuals befuddle me beyond measure.

Our burial rituals are no exception. To me, it’s amazing how few of us deviate from the traditional way of doing things even when they make little sense. The custom of burying loved ones in sealed, air-tight caskets wearing their Sunday best is just—I’m sorry—insane. Same goes for turning someone into ash and displaying their remains in a glorified Tupperware container surrounded by Christmas cards.

Tapping into our society’s newfound love for all-things eco-friendly and revitalizing the age-old myth that with death comes life, I have another way of doing things. Instead of plopping a stone atop the deceased, why not plant a tree? As the body decomposes, the tree’s roots, soil, and what’s left of grandpa will become one. Instead of placing fake flowers around an immutable stone, families and friends can spread mulch and admire the tree’s (and grandpa’s) growth.

The body will be lowered in a bio-degradable wooden casket packed with rich, nutritious soil. Trees to be planted atop the grave will be selected either by the family or by the person-to-be-buried who can make arrangements beforehand. You want to be a maple, you get to be a maple. (Of course there will be regional limitations since a palm wouldn’t survive in New York, or a spruce in Hawaii.)

All parties involved will be welcomed to visit the tree and watch its growth. But it should be understood that the tree—like any life form—will not last forever. There will be floods, forest fires and disease. It must be emphasized that the tree is no longer just a tree, but a part of an ever-revitalizing ecosystem. It’s now part of a continuous life and death cycle—a natural process ignored by current rituals. Our current rituals seem to imply that death is the end; that whatever afterlife there may be certainly does not exist (on this planet, at least). Even the most casual observer of nature knows that this isn’t the case. A fallen tree becomes home to bugs, rodents, animals, fungi. Its bark breaks down and becomes soil for future trees. Just the same: when a human passes, a door is opened for new life to enter.

The Forest Cemetery could be instituted in many places. Perhaps a farm gone fallow or a vacant city lot. Eventually the trees will grow long and healthy and thick and begin competing for sunlight. It will be impossible to protect each and every tree, but the forest will be protected as a sacred grove—a place to celebrate life and death; a place that will give solace to the bereaved who now can see the beautiful processes that govern our mortality unfurl, blooming, withering, growing, dying, but always continuing.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Of Mice and Ken

Thou saw the fields laid bare an' waste,
An' weary winter comin fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro' thy cell.
-From “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns

It was the coldest night of the year. The van rocked as cold, howling gusts battered its starboard side. Despite the two pairs of wool socks I was wearing and the thermals I feverishly hurried into, I was still shivering inside my sleeping bag.

This was three months ago. I was in a YMCA camp in Greenville, NC, enrolled in a nine-day Wilderness First Responder course. There was a male barracks that I had the option of sleeping in, but I favored a solitary slumber away from the snores and smells of fellow students.

Leaves rustled and branches snapped. Beneath the din of the elements, I heard something else: a tinkling of silverware; a crinkling of plastic bags. These sounds were coming from the inside of the van, not the outside. I understood what this meant.

I have mice in my van.

I turned my headlamp on and sketched figure-eights onto the floor like one of those prison spotlights shone onto brick walls in search of escaped detainees.

While I never saw a mouse, I noticed little black pellets—a third the size of a tic-tac—scattered everywhere: across my floor, atop my storage container, and—in more concentrated quantities—inside my waste basket and unwashed pots.

I should have noticed the pellets the previous day, but I likely dismissed them as remnants of other foods I’d eaten, unworried about the tiny meteor showers of rye bread and cracker crumbs that sprinkled from lips to floor.

Exhausted, I determined to forget about my intruders. I thought: Hell, I'm no foreigner to squalor and I've had my share of face-to-face encounters with much larger and far more intimidating mammals. So why should I let a few harmless rodents ruin my night?

My imagination, however—when confronted with the ridiculous—tends to take a turn for the wildly absurd.

I imagined how one of the bolder members of the colony would slink into my sleeping bag and tour my body like an explorer charting an exotic peninsula. Perhaps I’d come back the next day to see that—upon making use of my food—they’d multiplied tenfold. Swarms, several layers thick, would be writhing libidinously. There’d be unrestrained fornication, mothers would be eating their babies, and several of the more acrobatically-inclined would twirl on coat hooks and scamper up my hanging partition.

With each new sound—inside and out—I’d snap my headlamp on hoping to catch them red-handed. But each time, they’d slip into the many cavernous corners of my lair.

After an hour, I had had enough. I removed my pots and pans from the van for cleaning and threw out all my unpackaged food.

I tried one last time to fall asleep. And that’s when it hit me. I had cereal the previous morning. Were those cracker seeds at the bottom of my cereal bowl or were they… Oh no.

I think I ate mouse shit.

The next day I cleaned the van like I’d never cleaned it before. I threw out bags of beans, rice, and boxes of cereal. I bought several mouse traps and slathered them in peanut butter. But none of the mice were caught. Without food, they likely emigrated to other vehicles.

I never took pictures of the episode. I figured this would be the one story I’d keep to myself. Something I’d tell nobody. It was embarrassing and shameful. Plus, my article had just published and I had gotten flak from people criticizing vandwelling for its squalid nature. The last thing I wanted was to write an entry about sharing such tight quarters with animals responsible for the plague.

But because I’ve determined that my shame is less important than an honest portrayal of vandwelling, I'm compelled to now tell the mouse story. Also, I, uh...

...have another mouse.

It came in at night. Though it left no evidence of eating my food, there was no question that there was a mouse in my van. I could hear it scurrying in my walls and ceiling. It was past midnight. Since it was too late to do anything about it, I laid there listening, nervously oscillating my eyes towards each rustle, click, chip and scrape.

In the morning, as I laid in my sleeping bag—with all possible entry points tightly sealed—I could see the impression of its feet in my ceiling upholstery. It was everywhere. Running back and forth, front and back, side to side. What the hell was it doing? Its assiduousness terrified me. What grand schemes did it have in mind?

I cleaned out the van again and bought more mousetraps. But it was never interested in my food, it seemed. Just my ceiling.

I thought about thwacking it with my boot, but then I’d have a dead mouse in my ceiling and neither the time nor the ambition to remove the carcass.

Perhaps I should just let it live, I thought. Maybe I ought to grant it this temporary respite from the unforgiving natural world. Or I could just look upon it as a pet. Soon it and its friends would convene in the van. I’d lecture my congregants about the fine art of a street hockey slapshot, the films of Stanley Kubrick, and the virtues of squalor. I’d become the “mouse man” at Duke. I’d walk around campus with my friends nestled in my underwear and coat pockets. I’d command them to attack my foes, and they’d protect the van from intruders, dropping like poop from the cracks of the ceiling onto unsuspecting masked heads.

These fantasies were scuttled after several more sleep-deprived nights. At one point, in a fit of anger, I stomped my boot against the ceiling—from end-to-end—in hopes of tormenting the poor bastard (or bastards). Then I got out my frying pan and did the same.

This time it was beneath me. I saw a dart of fur; brown lightning shoot up from the ground into the ceiling. I had him cornered. The ceiling upholstery fluttered desperately. I whacked away with my frying pan until it stopped.

It’s been a couple days and I haven’t heard another noise. Did it escape? Is it dead? Have I committed murder? Was the little guy just looking for an escape from the “blast” of “weary winter”?

These questions bothered me at first. But now I doze easily at night, unperturbed with what might still be above.

Monday, March 1, 2010

A picture tour

Ever since my article published, I've been giving lots of tours. For those of you unable to make it to Durham to see the van for yourself, this picture tour will have to suffice. I published my first "tour entry" way back in January of 2009.

Here's the dash. The van was bought a little over a year ago for $1,500. I've put about 1,000-2,000 miles on it (about 122,000 overall). Unbelievably, I haven't had a problem with it yet. Even the cruise control still works.

This is the area in front of the passenger seat. I'm not sure what was in the hollow space before.

This is my 12-disc CD changer under the passenger seat. I didn't realize it came with the van until I conducted a thorough inspection after my purchase. Some musicians therein: Tallest Man on Earth, Arcade Fire, Pearl Jam, Bob Seger, Iron and Wine, Eddie Vedder, Gordon Lightfoot, and my beloved Neil Young.

The van came with Alan Jackson's "Superhits" that was found in one of the front door storage pockets. I've yet to give it a listen.

Automatic and fully-functioning doors and locks.

This is a shot of the van's rear. I use this space to store cereal boxes, camping equipment, extra books, laundry detergent, etc.

I also have a "hitch" feature, and some electrical socket that I assume I could use at campgrounds.

I wear my gray sweatpants (pushing 10 years old) and long-sleeve-tee to bed. If it gets really cold, I'll put on my gloves and a hat, though I've only had to do that once or twice this winter. I also have two pairs of thermal underwear. I've only had to use them a couple times this winter as well.

I use a bag of spare winter clothes (thermal underwear, extra gloves, etc.) for my pillow.

Windows are tinted and have shades. I have three large windows that I can open like this one below.

I bought this cutting board from the salvation army for $1.50 to tie the room together.

My tupperware. Sometimes I cook extra food to take to campus.

Here's my TV and VCR. I've turned it on once just to see if it works. It does.

I splurged about $45 for this headlamp. It was an excellent investment. When I turn it onto its "low" setting, I can read and cook in the van with little threat of people noticing the light from the outside. Three triple-A batteries last a ridiculous amount of time; something like 250-300 hours. Why fill a room with light when you can only see in front of you?

A knife I got from a skilled knifemaker in Ontario, Canada when I went on a canoe voyage across the province. I keep it with me for protection from car thieves who I've yet to have a problem with.

I lost my old waterbottle so I bought this one from Rite-Aid for $3. I fill it up every 4 or 5 days.

Here's the suitcase I brought to Durham with me. It now houses all my clothes, except for those that I hang up.

This is a converter I can plug into the cigarette lighter. Only works when I have the car running, so I've rarely used it.

Feel free to visit for a real tour!