Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Fall 2018 Speaking Schedule

(This will be updated with links and new events as they come.)

Thur. Oct. 4, 7 p.m. - New England College (Henniker, NH) in the Great Room

Fri. Oct. 5, 4:15 p.m. - Bates College (Lewiston, ME)

Tue. Oct. 9 - Colby College (Waterville, ME)

Wed, Oct. 10, 5:30 p.m. - University of Southern Maine (Portland, ME) in 165 Science Bldg 

Thur. Oct. 11, Noon - Tufts (Boston, MA) 

Sat. Oct. 13, 4:00 p.m. - Haystack Book Festival (Norfolk, CT)

Mon. Oct. 15, 4:00 p.m. - The New School (NYC)

Tue. Oct. 23 - Paul Smith’s College (Paul Smith, NY)

Wed. Oct. 24 - Colgate University (Hamilton, NY)

Fri. Oct. 26 - Proctor Academy (Andover, NH)

Sun. Oct 28, 4 p.m. - Narberth book shop (Narberth, PA) 

Mon. Oct. 29 - Rosemont College (Bryn Mawr, PA)

Thur. Nov. 1 - Rider University (Lawrence Township, NJ)

Mon. Nov. 5 - Susquehanna University (Selinsgrove, PA)

Wed. Nov. 7 - Rutgers (New Brunswick, NJ)

Thur. Nov. 8 - Salve Regina (Newport, RI)

Mon. Nov. 12 - Smith College (Northhampton, MA)

Wed. Nov. 14 - College of the Holy Cross (Worcester, MA)

Thur Nov. 15 - Franklin Pierce (Rindge, NH)

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The McCandless Mecca, now in paperback

In 2013, I self-published a 15,000-word tiny book called The McCandless Mecca. It's about my hike to the magic bus of Alaska's Stampede Trail, where Chris McCandless from Into the Wild died. It's one of my favorite pieces of writing, and I'm happy to announce that it's just been re-released in paperback form, with a new cover from artist Astrid Jaekel, eighteen B&W photos from Josh Spice, interior design by David Dalton of Acorn Abbey Books, and an afterword from me, with which I reflect on Carine McCandless's The Wild Truth, a recent tell-all memoir about the McCandless family that had me rethinking who Chris was and what motivated him. The Kindle is $3 and the paperback is $7.

Here's an excerpt: 

There is something telling about Alaskans’ disgust with McCandless. It’s true that, because of McCandless, Alaskans have had to pay for costly rescues (and their disgust, in this regard, seems justifiable), but there’s more to their disgust than the mere waste of taxpayer dollars and the annoyance of having to deal with all these so-called idiots. It’s a disgust that’s too angry, too bitter, too borderline violent. There is something about McCandless’s story that challenges the locals’ identity, their self-image, their very “Alaskanness.” 

Despite the popular perception of Alaska as virgin country inhabited by flat-stomached Jeremiah Johnsons who hunt animals on foot and live in sod-roofed log cabins, the real Alaska and the real Alaskan are actually quite ordinary: airport-sized Walmarts, vast grids of suburban sprawl, appalling obesity and all.

They are a people plagued with paradox. Alaskans pride themselves for their independence, yet 93 percent of the labor force hold full-time nine-to-five jobs. They have fierce relationships with nature, yet two-thirds of them live in urban environments. They’re expert outdoorsmen and women, yet on most of their outdoor excursions they’re straddling some smelly motorized machine. They’re anti-government, yet Alaska receives the most federal funding per capita than all other states ($20,351.13 per resident, which is more than twice the national average, according to a 2010 New York Times article). They’re radically self-sufficient, yet they pay the lowest state and local tax rates in the nation largely because of revenue from the oil industry. And because Alaska has the highest turnover rate, most Alaskans are hardly Alaskan (only 41 percent having actually been born in the state, according to a 2018 report). Born in the state or not, they consider Alaska “their” land, ardently guarding it from the federal government and meddling environmentalists who try to curb the state’s exploitative policies. Yet their “possession” of the state and all of its resources is arguable since their family roots in the state run, at the very most, a couple of generations deep (excepting, of course, the Native and Inuit populations, who, as it turns out, do not seem to be at all bothered by the whole McCandless dilemma and aren’t incredibly enthusiastic about industrial development).

Into the Wild works as a book because it is, by all standards, a tragedy. McCandless’s death was so fraught with symbolism, significance, and — in an abstract sort of way — sacrifice, that it was a work of literature even before Krakauer put it to page. It works as a tragedy because there is great meaning in the protagonist’s misfortune, a bright glitter of beauty in the black gloom of death. McCandless, when he went to live in that bus at the age of twenty-four, was the epitome of youthful spontaneity and adventurousness and idealism, almost to the point of allegory. He died before he could go to grad school, before he could get a job, before he could buy a home, marry a pretty wife, remodel his basement, subscribe to The Wall Street Journal, and question if his quest for money and things lent his life as much meaning as the adventures he’d lived out as a younger man. The best tragedies — like Into the Wild — are actually quite un-tragic. If Romeo and Juliet hadn’t died in the name of love, they surely would have been subjected to the unforeseen unpleasantries of matrimony: pubic hairs left on bars of soap, spiteful toilet lid policy infractions, insufferable in-laws, etc. Instead, they died in a moment of extreme devotion and passion and belief—at the very height of human existence. Because they died before they could fall out of love, their death isn’t a tragedy; it’s a mercy.

When McCandless died, he, too, died with his idealism. His death was unfortunate — obviously — but it’s also a mercy that McCandless wouldn’t come back to civilization to be jaded by age, corrupted by money, and bothered by an enlarged prostate. And from his death, a symbol is born. As Romeo and Juliet are to love, Chris McCandless is to absolute freedom, to principled self-reliance, to uncompromised individuality, to chasing your dream with everything you’ve got, even at the risk of death.

Many people move to Alaska to reinvent themselves in a rugged landscape. Some might live in a dry cabin for a couple of years, but most will end up either leaving the state, seizing a well-paying job opportunity, or buying a home in Fairbanks or Anchorage so they can again savor the comforts and conveniences they’d momentarily done without. There’s nothing wrong with any of this, as comfort and security and domesticity seem to be human longings as natural as the desire to leave it all and take to the open road. Yet McCandless’s story pricks a sensitive nerve. Alaskans call McCandless stupid and suicidal and feel something close to hatred for him because he went into the wilderness unprepared. But they don’t really hate him because of his unpreparedness. (Who could hate anyone for being unprepared?) They hate him, rather, because he lived alone, off the grid, killed his moose, and almost made it out alive. They hate McCandless because his uncompromised nature reminds them of their compromised lives. Because he out-Alaskaned the Alaskans.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

What I'm consuming #3


The Wilderness - Jon Favreau the former speechwriter for President Obama, gives a history of the Democratic party, a diagnosis of what went wrong in 2016, and, with the help of experts, voters, and politicians, a plan of action. As an analysis and a history, I think the podcast does a really good job. But as we run through the Democratic party's laundry list of problems, not to mention the varied interests of the different groups that make up the Democratic coalition, I find myself growing increasingly worried, and I'm not seeing a clear way out of the wilderness. But that's why it's called "The Wilderness": I suppose the goal of the podcast is to bring in lots of different perspectives and reflect on the party's issues. Something tells me, though, that I may leave the podcast with more worries than I came in with. 
The Democratic party 
has problems that are many and deep: in branding itself; in dealing with a stupid electorate (who wants universal healthcare yet doesn't); and in dealing with an intransigent Republican party that does a good job at making the Democrats look bad. Right now, going into the 2018 elections, all they have to work with is anti-Trump fervor and the reputation of being the less corrupt party. I’d be surprised if they have a unified message going into 2020. 

Longform Podcast interview with Nathaniel Rich - This podcast interview compelled me to read Rich’s New York Times Magazine piece on climate change, which took up the whole issue, and which I initially put to the side because climate change stories depress the hell out of me. I thought about this a good deal: Here I am, someone who wrote a book partly about climate change, and I'm not at all eager to read an important story on climate change. This got me thinking of the average reader, who is probably even less willing to the read this story. Climate change is, I think, increasingly something we try to keep out of sight and out of mind. I think if we had a more proactive approach to the problem, we'd do better to face our fears in the face, but so long as our government does next to nothing, we have cause to sweep our shame, fear, and disappointment under a rug of apathy.  

Anyhow, I liked how Rich handles his subject with care (both in the podcast and article), but also with unwavering moral clarity. In the interview, he dutifully condemns the modern-day Republican party and fossil fuel companies for their self-interested and unforgivable distortion of the truth.

Revisionist History - I binge-listened to seasons two and three, which are remarkable. Gladwell has a knack for finding one interesting story or character and then zooming out to tell a broader story about the country. 

The Rewatchables (Silence of the Lambs, Jerry Maguire, and Any Given Sunday) - I really enjoy listening to Bill Simmons and his smart friends break down popular nineties movies.


Who Is America?, Showtime - I have a weakness for Sacha Baron Cohen. My favorite character is Dr. Nira Cain-N'Degeocello, a self-hating cisgender gender studies professor at Reed College, whose function is to expose the ridiculous extremes of the far left and the out-of-touchness of his gullible right-leaning subjects. I’m not sure if I get much out of his Billy Wayne Ruddick Jr. character. The utility of Cohen's movies and shows is in exposing the ridiculousness of our thought leaders; with Billy Wayne, Cohen makes them look reasonable. (i.e. Corey Lewandowski)  

Death of Stalin - As a big fan of Veep, The Thick of It, and In The Loop, I was really looking forward to Iannucci's latest, but the laughs didn’t come often enough, and the movie's plot never caught my interest.

Wild, Wild Country, Netflix - Sheela is a mostly-likable psychopath and gurus always let you down. I enjoyed every minute of this.


Bear, by Marian Engel - I'm thinking about writing an essay about the bear in the North American imagination, so how could I not read this award-winning Canadian novel about a woman's sexual relationship with a pet black bear? It was a hugely enjoyable and page-turning read, and I adored Engel's spare prose. 

Bullshit Jobs, by David Graeber - This is a seriously good book about bullshit jobs, useless work, and how the pervading meaninglessness that comes from such work leaves scars on the soul of both the individual and his/her greater society.

It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in Politics - I love big, crazy ideas of any sort, and this book is full of them. A few ideas: 
  • The next Democrat-controlled Congress should increase the number of Supreme Court justices to be selected by a Democratic president. 
  • Adding eight new senators by splitting California into three states, and adding Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico as states. Some even say that if we break Texas up into several states, we'd add a few more left-leaning senators. 
  • Increase the size of the House of Representatives to 870. 
  • A constitutional amendment to end lifetime tenure for judges.
  • Create automatic voter registration; no registration required. 
  • A national election holiday to boost turnout.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Op-Ed in High Country News

Yesterday, my Op-Ed, about a ridiculous Idaho trespass law, published in High Country News.

Here's the text:

Woody Guthrie’s most famous song contains a stirring sentiment in its refrain — “This land was made for you and me.” Unfortunately, that sort of thinking could get you shot in Idaho.

Idaho’s new trespass law went into effect July 1. Combined with a new “stand your ground” law, it could make it easier for landowners to get away with shooting trespassers.

“Trespassers will be deemed to have nefarious intent upon entry into real property,” wrote Kristina Schindele, then Idaho’s deputy attorney general, in an email to the public. “Such presumed intent would permit unreasonable uses of force against such trespassers by landowners while limiting the landowners’ civil and criminal liability.”

The law, written without any consultation with sportsmen and recreationists, raises the trespassing fine to $500 and makes civil trespass a strict liability offense. Kahle Becker, former deputy attorney general for Idaho, says that trespassers who challenge the law and then lose in court will be responsible for the plaintiff’s attorney fees. This could cost anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000.

“You could bankrupt someone for innocently stepping on some undelineated sagebrush,” says Becker. The Idaho Sheriffs’ Association and the Idaho Prosecuting Attorneys Association noted that the bill was vague and contradictory and difficult to enforce. But it easily passed in a Republican-dominated Legislature, and the governor opted to neither sign nor veto, which meant that the bill, as a quirk of Idaho law, automatically became law.

The bill was sponsored by House Republican Rep. Judy Boyle, a Bundy family supporter who made two trips to the illegal Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation in Oregon. The bill was supported by a coalition of agricultural groups and big landowners, including lobbyists for the Wilks brothers, Texas billionaires whose combined holdings make them the 13th largest landowners in America. They own 702,000 acres and pay private security guards to patrol their property boundaries. In 2016, they bought and closed off 172,000 acres of land in Idaho, parts of which had been open under the previous owners.

This new Idaho law makes me think of Georgian England as I’ve just finished researching and writing a book about land-access rights and how we’re losing them today. In the 18th and 19th centuries, English aristocrats got Parliament to pass laws to make the land their own — a process known as “enclosure.” Aristocrats pushed people off the land and hired armed gamekeepers. They excluded whomever they wished and enjoyed exclusive access to deer and grouse. What were once common lands that supported the livelihoods of many people became personal playgrounds and new sources of wealth for the already rich.

This sounds like the West in 21st century America: billionaire landowners who get what they want from legislatures. Vast areas of land closed off. Privatized wildlife. Armed security guards. This trend extends well beyond Idaho; in Montana and New Mexico, wealthy outsiders can close off access to streams.

Today, frustrated sportsmen and recreationists don’t really challenge the status quo. They advocate for amendments, such as the freedom to cross checkerboard corners of public land or for the privilege to retrieve a downed animal on private land. These do little more than loosen the handcuffs.
We should be looking at the bigger picture. We should be arguing for a full-on right to roam.

The English began to reverse centuries of aristocratic rule in 2000, when Parliament passed the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, which opened up privately owned mountains and unimproved grasslands for responsible public recreation.

There is no reason why the people of Idaho can’t have a similar right to roam. For hunters, anglers and hikers, this would mean being able to legally cross private lands to get to public lands and waters. For landowners, it would mean privacy in and around your home, immunity from frivolous lawsuits, and the right to sue for damages. But it also would mean no more unnecessary “no trespassing” signs, no more hoarding game, no more draconian trespass laws.

When Europeans are freer than Americans, when the moors of England are more open than the plains of Wyoming, and when our laws are crafted for the sole benefit of the landed gentry, we Americans have clearly lost our way. So let’s stop putting up with enclosure for the few and reclaim our old rights, the rights of the many. It’s not their right to exclude, fine and shoot us. It’s our right to roam.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Co-presenting with Bill McKibben

In May of this year, I had the honor of co-presenting with one of my environmental heroes, Bill McKibben, the author/editor of seventeen books, the founder of 350.org, and arguably the principal figure in the worldwide climate justice movement. Bill was an altogether kind and down-to-earth guy.

[Note: It may sound like the audience was being rude by talking in the background (they weren't); that's just people in the lobby of the movie theatre, close to where our talk was held.] Special thanks to the Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury, VT, for organizing everything.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Book review from Adventure Journal

Roaming in Scotland near town of North Berwick.
Some book-review love for This Land Is Our Land from Adventure Journal:
"My dad, a law-abiding rural county detective, always surprised me with his frequent humming of ‘Signs’ by Five Man Electrical Band: ‘Hey! What gives you the right? To put up a fence to keep me out or to keep Mother Nature in.’ The urge to roam freely might be universal, but the U.S. is veering sharply toward a fenced-in future. Ken Ilgunas earned a following with his 2013 Walden on Wheels, and thank goodness he's back with This Land Is Our Land: part polemic, part American travelogue, and part primer on the history of land use laws. The Swedes call it allemansrätten and in Great Britain it’s the ‘right to roam’—an average citizen’s license to wander on publicly or privately owned land. How often do you encounter ‘No Trespassing’ signs while camping, hiking, or just walking around the block? Before Americans need a membership card to get outside, everyone who moves should read this book.”

Thursday, July 19, 2018

What I’m consuming #2


Esther Perel’s Where Should We Begin? Seasons 1 & 2 - This podcast is full of good, practical relationship advice. (One helpful tip from Perel: When discussing a problem with your partner, put your partner’s complaint into your own words and ask her if you got it right. This way, everyone stays on the same page.) Also, her intimate therapy sessions with couples are extremely entertaining.

WBEZ Chicago, Making Obama - This series — about Obama’s meteoric rise — is riveting. If I have any criticism, it’s that the show should have followed Obama all the way to 2008, when he gets elected. Instead, it ends somewhat anticlimactically when he announces his candidacy for the presidency. (It was so good, I wanted more, so this is hardly a criticism.)

The young Obama is someone with great ambition. He was always thinking big. He was thinking years ahead. He was thinking of how he could apply his unique talents to the world. He was brilliant and tactical, but he was also lucky. In different circumstances he could have just been a successful lawyer, professor, or state politician in Illinois. What if he never met Michelle? What if Carol Moseley Braun had blocked his path to the Senate? A few unlucky events could have made the Obama story unfold in a different way. But ultimately his gifts, tactics, and luck worked together, and he got to live life as optimally as a human could.

I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever live a more optimal life. Is this the most I'll ever be—a modestly successful and never-exactly-satisfied writer? I wonder: If I was raised somewhere else, was better educated, was born in a different century, or was just really lucky here and there, could I be something bigger, something that suits me more? Perhaps a colonel in a war, a revolutionary, a politician, a business leader, a South Pole adventurer? I don’t know who I might be under different circumstances, but I do sense that, right now, my qualities as a human being aren’t being optimally utilized, perhaps because nothing is calling for them to be properly drawn out and put into action. Obama likely would have been perpetually dissatisfied if he sensed his qualities weren't being fully utilized, but he lucked out and made it happen.

This podcast made me think of other historic figures who were lousy in ordinary life but amazing in a specific set of circumstances. I thought of Ernest Shackleton and how many people thought that he, in ordinary life in the British Isles, was immature and irresponsible. But Shackleton’s journey to the South Pole provided him with a task that was so enormous and demanding that it became “a touchstone for his monstrous ego and implacable drive,” writes biographer Alfred Lansing. Suddenly Shackleton’s qualities — his ego, his drive, his physical stamina, his leadership — had opportunities to fully express themselves. And Shackleton thrived. We see the same thing with Ulysses S. Grant—an amazing human being who probably would have led an unexceptional life if it wasn’t for the Civil War. 

What is your Civil War? What is my South Pole? I speak of the circumstances that would ask the most of you, that would make you the most necessary and useful and effective human being you could possibly be.

Many of us may never get our South Pole, or even imagine our South Pole. I’m guessing most people never get a chance to realize their full potential. They never get to live the life they were ideally born to live. Instead, they get stuck in a cubicle when they should be a colonel, or they’re gathering nuts with their forest tribe when they should be computer programming. This is the Grant who never gets to fight his war and ends up living an undemanding family life. This is the Shackleton who never gets the funding for his expedition and rots away, resentful, in his rocking chair. Think about all the would-be presidents and doctors and writers and architects who never had the chance to achieve because they died young in wars. Or all the women, who, up until recently, weren't allowed to study alongside men in colleges. Or think about the millions who grow up in poverty, who get a lousy education, who never meet the right people, or who don’t get the right breaks. 

I have a vague, and perhaps mistaken, sense that I could be uniquely useful for something more, but I’m just not sure exactly what, and I have no idea if I’ll ever happen upon my own “South Pole.” Obama found his South Pole in the presidency. Ideally, I’ll find mine (as I am visited with strong callings here and there), but given the good chances of never hearing another clear calling, I think it’s okay to set up for yourself a good secondary life — the life Obama might have had if he’d never risen above a respectable professor or state politician — centered on family, community, and respectable work.


Netflix, Mindhunter - I enjoyed the first few episodes, but I gradually lost interest and quit. The fun was in the psychology. The serial killers oftentimes had illuminating things to say. And I suppose I liked how the overall story was about the creation of an academic discipline. I quit because of all the window dressing—the boring romance, the sterile setting, the so-so dialogue, the not-so-great chemistry between the two leads.

Annihilation - I gave up about halfway through. Perhaps I’m missing out, but I like sci-fi that grapples with big questions and makes me think (Ex Machina, Black Mirror, Arrival, Interstellar) or that at least thrills (Gravity). Annihilation seemed like a cheaply made, poorly acted, and badly conceived B-movie that did neither.


Hunter S. Thompson’s The Great Shark Hunt - Even though this book of essays is set in the ’70s and even though it's largely about out-of-date Nixonian politics, the writing, surprisingly, retains its readability and humor. It’s just rough and raw. His prose has an aggressive nature—it’s as if his words are bullets flying out of the barrel. Thompson does not dither or play word games—he is always on the attack, and it’s hard to look away.

The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations - I just finished The Best American Essays and Travel Writing series for 2016, and Coates’s piece was one of my favorites. I love big, radical, progressive ideas of any sort, and I admired Coates’s approach, which was more history than Op-Ed. By the end, I felt pretty convinced that the idea of issuing reparations to those affected by the legacies of slavery and systemic racism is actually quite reasonable. But I’m also reading Ramp Hollow, about how the Scotch-Irish were run out of their countries, and then their homes in America, and then their jobs in West Virginian coal country, and many are still suffering from generations of poverty today, and it makes me wonder: Don’t they deserve reparations too? The same could be said for any number of groups (regardless of race) who’ve experienced generations of inequality and injustice, even if their struggles were comparatively less severe than African Americans’. 

Practically speaking, I wonder how reparations would go over with the angry white percentage of the population. Will reparations end in more equality, or will it end in more racism, more anger, and more Trumps that will spark a blowback that will lead to even more inequality? Whites already (wrongly) claim that blacks are getting the bulk of the social benefits. What happens to the state of race relations when blacks do indeed get more when the reparation checks are cashed? Overall, I sense that reparations wouldn't help the country, even if reparations are indeed right and just. I suppose that probably means I lean conservative on the issue, though I’m all for pouring resources into disadvantaged communities, which is a vague, though weaker, form of reparation. These, though, are just initial thoughts to a big idea. I’m still openminded on the issue and could be talked into it with the right facts and nuances.

Monday, July 2, 2018

What I’m consuming #1

If I can find the self-discipline, I’m hoping this will become a regular blog series that'll give me a place to record, reflect on, and digest the various media I’m consuming, whether it be in the form of podcasts, TV, film, or reading material.


This American Life: It’s my party and I’ll try if I want to - Fine show that shows the rift between the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic party, and that gives a behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of modern politics.

Joe Rogan Podcast: Interview with Adam Frank - In a talk largely about climate change, one of Frank’s most fascinating reminders is that things that we commonly deem “unnatural” — cities, fossil fuel emissions, trash — is in fact the biosphere. From his recent NYT column: “What, for example is nature? From the biosphere’s perspective, a city is fundamentally no different from a forest. Both are the result of life’s endless evolutionary experiments. And forests, like grasslands, insects and oxygen-producing microbes, were once a evolutionary innovation. In that sense we, and our project of civilization, are not a plague on the planet. We are just what the biosphere is doing now.”

Bundyville - I’m currently on episode six (of seven) of Bundyville, a podcast about the Bundy family, who are known for their occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016. I wrote about the Bundys in my book This Land Is Our Land, and I feared that an in-depth portrait of their family might provoke me to reverse my opinion of people for whom I have a strong and long-established dislike. (Enlightenment is never a bad thing, but no one likes to undergo the emotional gymnastics of softening a firm opinion.) 
Will I feel a measure of sympathy for the Bundys? Might there be something legitimate behind their views to seize public land? 

The town of Bunkerville, Nevada — where Cliven Bundy grew up — received fallout from a nearby atomic bomb test, causing widespread illness for the townspeople. That's certainly good reason to be upset with the government. Also, Cliven and his sons are Mormon, and perhaps some anti-government mistrust is baked into the fringes of that religion, which can be expected since the Mormons were so ill treated in the early stages of the religion. These helped me understand where Bundy's anti-government ideology came from 
— and I might have followed a similar ideological path if the government had given me a radiation shower  but my sympathy ends there. Cliven and his family seem corrupted by rotten religion, harebrained ideologies, and asinine conspiracy theories. The Bundys recruit angry riff-raff by telling cherry-picked sob stories about how the government is ruining their lives, giving their recruits grand “hero’s journey” narratives to live out, where they get to slay oppressors or sacrifice themselves as martyrs for a cause that would benefit no one apart from a few ranchers who want unrestricted use of sensitive and mostly unproductive land. 

Host Leah Sottile approaches her subject with an open mind, but she fact-checks the Bundys and doesn’t hold back from delivering clear-eyed, pull-no-punches denunciations when they’re needed. This is exactly the approach we need from journalists when subjects think their version of the truth is good enough.

Long Now Seminar: “Has the West Lost It? Can Asia Save It?: - Kishore Mahbubani, a Singaporean diplomat and author, is a marvelous speaker who looks at Western values from an easterner’s perspective. He speaks mostly glowingly about the West’s impact on the rest of the world, but worries we’ve begun to screw it all up.


The Staircase, a 13-part Netflix murder mystery documentary series - (Spoilers) I basically went from 1). Michael definitely did it because he's kind of a creep (and so are his lawyers). 2). I sort of like him and his lawyers, but I still think he’s guilty. 3). Whoa, lots of malfeasance on the part of the prosecutors—maybe he didn't do it? 4). Michael’s actually a really likable guy—the show ends. 5). I google for conspiracy theories, read about the “owl theory,” and everything makes sense. The owl did it.

Showtime: Just Another Immigrant - Very funny show. Romesh Ranganathan reminds me of Karl Pilkington from Idiot Abroad. Like Karl, Romesh is a grumpy, insightful, and deeply funny guy. My only criticism might be that some of the scenarios seem a bit too set up for a "documentary" (like the Navy Seal training or the graffiti scenes), but I’m willing to suspend disbelief.


Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work - One of the best books I’ve read in the past few years. I thought this was merely a call to reclaim the manual arts, but it was so much more: a polemic against consumerist culture, against planned obsolesce and the need for “esoteric screwdrivers,” and against how office work creates “vague feelings of unreality, diminished autonomy, and a fragmented sense of self that [are] especially acute among the professional classes.”

Into the Woods blog - My friend David’s blog is the only blog I regularly read. His last three are a good taste of his style and typical content: one a prose-poem of a browsing deer, another a review of a book about the Scottish Enlightenment, and another with some lovely philosophy on the topic of purity and chaos.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The 'right to roam' on 99% Invisible

Today I'm featured in an episode of the podcast 99% Invisible. The subject is the right to roam in the U.K., with special focus on the 1932 Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout, which was a forbidden mountain in what is now the Peak District of Northern England. The Kinder Scout trespass is the main narrative in Chapter Three of This Land is Our Land, so I know my history pretty well. All in all, it was a fine episode from a podcast I greatly respect. I love how shows like these normalize what is, for us, a radical concept. 

P.S.: British filmmakers are renowned for their period pieces. Can one of y'all please make a movie about the trespass? It has all the ingredients for a great movie: a small-statured and charismatic leader (Benny Rothman, less than 5 feet tall), grimy Manchester juxtaposed with beautiful English countryside, a great struggle, a great message, and a great ending. Plus, there's even a folk ballad: 

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Cost of Camping

In many parts of North America, the cost of camping has become outrageously expensive. 

I got a fresh reminder of this on a recent two-week road trip across a few Northeastern states (NY, Vermont, and Maine, plus Quebec). My girlfriend and I figured we’d set up our tent in cheap campgrounds along the way and find cheap airbnbs in the cities.

In New York and Vermont, we managed to camp in free spaces (like in the Adirondacks) or on a patch of grass on new friends' lawns. In Canada, we'd finally have to pay. 

Quebec is a beautiful, wild province. For hours we drove through pristine forest and past the occasional country town. Despite miles and miles of forestland, there were no obvious opportunities to camp. There was nowhere to pull off and set up my tent--nowhere, at least, where I’d feel we were doing something safe, legal, and unintrusive. Posted on trees everywhere were No Trespassing signs. 

Just before dusk, I happened upon Mont-Mégantic National Park. I thought about setting my tent up in the park’s woods, but a sign said backcountry camping was prohibited. The park campground was filled to the max, except for an extra non-electrical spot for cyclists. The ranger kindly offered the spot because she said it was likely that no cyclist would arrive at this late hour. 

Quebec Province
Mont-Mégantic National Park

It was a simple spot: there was a fire pit, a picnic table, and a gravel patch to set up a tent. That’s it. No electrical hookup, no sewage service, no private water, and all of this was okay because all we wanted was a cheap place to sleep. But this spot wasn’t glamor camping, either. The ground wasn’t level. There was plastic trash in the fire pit. And because the spot was for a cyclist, it didn’t come with a parking spot, requiring long walks to and from the trunk of my car. I didn’t mind the inconveniences. What I did mind was the $25.50 USD price. I was outraged. $25.50! Just to set up a tent on a weekday night! The ranger offered a few logs of firewood for another $8.

Next was the state of Maine. Over the Internet, I looked up the campground costs of Maine’s state parks, and the prices were just as bad. For a non-resident in Maine, it typically costs $30 a night, plus a $5 reservation fee, plus a 9 percent lodging tax. That’s $38 just to pitch a tent! ($38 x 30 days = $1,140/month. I could probably find cheaper rent in NYC and only have to share a toilet with a roommate or two.)

This all seems so absurd when you drive across these states and provinces and see nothing but wild forestland—there are literally millions of places to camp, but because it’s all private land, we’re only allowed to camp in a few select spots where we’ll be charged an arm and a leg.

I looked up the camping fees of surrounding states for non-residents:

Pennsylvania - $20 a night
New York - $15 + $9 reservation
Connecticut - $27 + many state parks have $15 entrance fees
Massachusetts - $27 + $9 reservation
Vermont - $20

(It should be said that none of the above prices include all the taxes and fees that nickel and dime us to death. $20 a night could very well end up being $30.)

With these camping prices in mind, let's compare them to the airbnbs I stayed at, which were all nice rooms in a shared apartment that came with all the features of convenient living: Wi-Fi, bathroom, electricity, kitchen, etc. (All special fees and taxes are included in the following prices, and these dollars are in USD…)

Toronto - $32 a night
Montreal - $28.50
Quebec City - $53

You can see where I’m going with this… A typical camping spot is as expensive as a decent room in a fancy city.

The Maine campgrounds were too pricy, so I looked up airbnbs and found a person’s backyard lawn for $15 (taxes included), where I had a bathroom, Wi-Fi, and a giant lawn. 

This isn’t just a Northeast issue. Just as I was stewing over this, I got an email from a friend in Colorado:

One of my goals for the summer was to take my son camping. That has proven far more difficult than one could reasonably expect. I looked through dozens of campsites in the surrounding national forests and state parks and found virtually nothing available for a single Saturday. They all required longer stays or were completely booked. I eventually found one that isn't even in the woods (it’s next to a lake).

That stay was supposed to be tomorrow night. Unfortunately there are going to be heavy rains all weekend so we'd be driving 100 minutes to set up a tent and sleep in the rain. I then figured out I could change my reservation to a new date at the same campsite. There was exactly one weekend night at one site available for the entire summer. I then had to pay an extra $10 for that luxury. All in all the $22.45 campsite is up to $44 assuming the weather holds next time and I actually use it.
Of course it’s not like this everywhere. In North Carolina, Hanging Rock State Park is $17 a night, which is borderline reasonable. I remember traveling through small towns in the Great Plains states in my car and finding camping spots for $10-$15. And then there are of course free places to pitch a tent in our national parks, national forests, and BLM lands, but, for most people, these places are hard to find and difficult to access.

Nature has become expensive. A seven-day pass for Yellowstone costs $35 for a car, plus at least another $15 a night for a campsite. If you decide to visit the adjacent Grand Teton National Park, that’s another $35 entrance fee, plus $24 a night for a campsite. And let’s not forget the expense of driving hundreds or thousands of miles to get to the park in the first place.

I can’t find any studies that support my position, but I believe the high price of these places deters people from experiencing our parks and nature. Let’s say you’re driving across country and you want to see a park. (Let’s say Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota). You get to the park’s entrance and discover that you have to pay a fee. Think about this question: What’s the price that’ll make you turn around? 

For me, if I learned about the price beforehand, it’s probably $25. I’ll find somewhere cheaper, some state park without entrance fees. If I learned about it at the entrance gate (after all that driving), it’s around $35—which is the fee at 17 of the most popular parks. (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, by the way, has a $30 entrance fee.)

Any price higher than that, for me, is unreasonable, since all I probably want to do is go on a day-hike and camp for a night, for which I expect to pay at least another $15.

Reserve America

All of this is made worse by “Reserve America,” which is a call center owned by the corporation, Aspira. If you look up the price of a campground online and call the campground, you’re actually probably calling someone at an out-of-state Reserve America call center. They probably can’t give you any good information about the campground, park, trails, and rules of the place you’re visiting because they have never been there and they have to handle calls for thousands of campsites across the country.

In the end, you'll have to pay for the campsite and a series of special Reserve America fees:

  • $9 to make a reservation 
  • $9 to make a cancellation 
  • $9 to make a change to your reservation 
Why are these fees so high?! Let’s say you reserve an affordable state campground in Wisconsin for $15 (plus the $9 reservation fee). And then let’s say that your son gets sick and you want to cancel. Between the reservation and cancellation fee, the cost is $18, which is more than the actual $15 camping spot! And you didn't even get to camp!!!

Reserve America has eight offices worldwide and 1,000 employees. They manage reservations for 32 of 60 North American parks and 75 percent of our state parks. This involves 150,000 campsites, 4,500 public and private parks, 17.5 million campsite seekers, and 50 million annual transactions. (All numbers come from Aspira's website.) You’d think that a company that is this big and that has been in the business for so long (30 years) would have learned by now how to streamline their process, create good apps and software, and bring costs down to a minimum.

Instead, what you get are unconscionable fees and lots of horror stories like the one my friend above wrote about.* 

And it’s not like the bulk of this money is going toward maintaining these campgrounds or financially assisting campground hosts (who are usually volunteer retirees). From what I can tell, most of this money stays with Reserve America. According to this Marshfield News Herald, a paper in Wisconsin, “Of the $9.70 reservation fee, the [Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources] keeps $1 and the rest goes to ReserveAmerica.”

If Reserve America gets approximately $8 per transaction, and there are 50 million annual transactions (as they claim on their website), that’s roughly $400 million a year. To me, that seems like a lot of money for a company that provides a relatively simple service that functions entirely over the phone and Internet. On top of that, Reserve America got a 10-year $97 million contract from the Forest Service in 2005.

Why does it cost so much to reserve a space? Why is Reserve America so bad at it? Why can’t campgrounds handle their own reservations? (Or why can't, perhaps, a state’s department of natural resources handle the reservations?) Why do we have to outsource this work to a pricy, incompetent private corporation? Our state and national parks are our places—yet a company like Reserve America deters us from visiting them. I don’t pretend to understand the particulars of government contracting work and Reserve America may very well have good explanations for the high cost. I can say for sure, though, that both the campsite and the reservation fee are too high.

I asked all the people on my Facebook page what they thought a fair price would be for a basic campsite. Their dollar amounts were actually lower than mine. Typically they said around $5-$8 for a night. I agree, and I think $15 (with no hidden taxes or fees) is justifiable if it’s an especially nice campground. $25 is outrageous. Over $30 is unconscionable. Reserve America's costs are baffling.

We need to encourage people to spend time in nature. Prices like these are prohibitive and only easily affordable to the reasonably well-off. Easy and affordable access to the outdoors, I believe, is a fundamental human right. Having a relationship with the natural world is good for individuals, society, and nature itself. Camping, therefore, should be encouraged as an activity, and we should make it available and affordable for all.


Ideas of action 

1. I searched online, and couldn't find any dissertation, research paper, or in-depth article on the high cost of camping, so this inadequate blog post may be the best there is on the Internet. Someone needs to study camping costs in all 50 states and someone needs to study how the high costs of nature tourism may deter visitors. 

2. Someone needs to properly investigate Reserve America. My treatment, here, is admittedly makeshift, entailing little more than an hour of googling. Someone who understands government contracts and who might be able to visit one of these call centers and expose the Reserve America racket is very much needed. 

3. Perhaps private enterprise could compete with the public parks on quality and price. There are so many unused lawns in America that could be utilized. Sites like airbnb and hipcamp could provide camping places for affordable rates (though the prices on hipcamp sites in Vermont appear to be just as bad as the parks). 

4. My favorite subject: The right to roam. Countries like Scotland and Sweden permit responsible overnight camping on private land. If we opened up the private area of the Lower-48 states (which makes up 75% of the land area), we'd have so much more camping opportunities, and people wouldn't have to funnel into a few select parks. The right to roam could alleviate visitation pressure on our state and national parks and give people places to camp closer to home. 

5. De-privatize camping reservations. An inept company like Reserve America shouldn't be able to have a monopoly over camping registration, allowing them to charge unconscionable fees. Our public agencies can handle it.  

*If you want to see how clunky Reserve America's website is, go to their FAQ page. Where are the FAQs? Click on one of the select states and see if the link takes you anywhere worthwhile. And then where’s the “back” button to get you back to the previous page?

Camping on a new friend's lawn in Middlebury, Vermont. 

Camping on the Long Trail. There were shelters on the trail that asked for $5 a night per camper, but there was no one to collect the money.



From the Long Trail in Vermont

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Walden on Wheels, the photographed edition

In my last post, for the fifth anniversary of my first book, I did a little reflecting on the sales history of Walden on Wheels. This got me thinking about the book and decisions I made when publishing it. If there were two things I could do over, I might have requested a hardback edition and I might have included a photo insert. I never gave a photo insert a thought, perhaps because, back then, I had neither a good camera nor magazine-quality photos of my journey.

But having just gone through my old photo files, I see that I do indeed have a few worthwhile images that would have put faces to names. It's arguable whether photos help or hurt a book (I'm not sure where I stand, though I lean toward featuring photos), but if I did have a photo insert, the following photos would be included. Consider this the "photo insert" that never was:

Chapter Two: Cheechako

Paul and I at beginning of New York to Coldfoot, AK, roadtrip

Life-long dream achieved: Drove to Alaska

Chapter Three: Applicant

Graduating from SUNY at Buffalo with $32K in debt

Chapter Four: Tour Guide 

Tour guide in Coldfoot, rafting down Koyukuk River

Coldfoot Camp trucker's cafe

 Chapter Five: Garbage Picker 

Friend Josh comes up to Alaska for work. Here we are cleaning trash at Yukon River Camp

Josh dominating Twelve-Mile Mountain in the Brooks Mountain Range

 Chapter Six: Night Cook 

Doing some aurora guiding in Wiseman, Alaska. Photo credit: Ed 

 Chapter Seven: Maintenance Worker

1980 Chevy Suburban, home to the James character

Jack Reakoff, Wiseman, Alaska, photo taken a few years later in 2011

 Chapter Eight: Hitchhiker

Coldfoot, AK. Photo credit: Josh Pruyn

Guy who drove me across British Columbia

British Columbian teens

Mexican immigrant who picked me up in Washington state

Oregon to Salt Lake City ride

 Chapter Nine: Voyageur

 Chapter Ten: Corpsmember

 Chapter Eleven: Son

Hitchhiking from Mississippi to NY

D.C. FDR Memorial

  Chapter Twelve: Ranger

 Chapter Fourteen: Purchase

1994 Ford Econoline featured on Craigslist for $1,500

 Chapter Fifteen: Renovation

 Chapter Sixteen: Acclimitization

  Chapter Eighteen: My First Guest

Friend Chuck visits the van

  Chapter Twenty: Ranger

Gates of the Arctic NP. Photo Credit: Whitney Root.

Gates of the Arctic NP. Photo Credit: Whitney Root.

Gates of the Arctic NP. Photo Credit: Whitney Root.

Gates of the Arctic NP. Photo Credit: Whitney Root.

Gates of the Arctic NP. Photo Credit: Whitney Root.

Gates of the Arctic NP. Photo Credit: Whitney Root.

  Chapter Twenty-One: Pilgrim

Walden Pond, MA. Photo Credit: Chuck Johnston

  Chapter Twenty-Two: Graduate