Monday, May 15, 2017

TRIPS END....Found the Elephant!

Almost two years ago, we came up with the plan to make this journey around the country, documenting environmental issues as we went.  How'd we do?  I guess you are the judge of that. Honestly, like with all trips, we really didn't know how it would go until we went.

Here are the cold, impersonal statistics:  On our trip, my wife Karin and I traveled 15,426 miles through 28 states and two provinces of Canada, touching the four corners of the United States.  I can't count how many different sites we visited or what all we just saw from the truck window, but we wrote some 95 blog entries, most of them quite in-depth.  As I write this, we've had about 6,600 blog page views so far, from around 16 countries.  

But statistics don't really tell this story.  If you've been reading the blog, you'll know I've spent a lot of time trying to see the elephant.  Maybe you don't know what that means.  I first heard of the elephant in James Michener's book Centennial.  It's a term that originated in the 1800's, especially in regards to pioneers' westward expansion to goldmines, California, and Oregon.  Wikipedia sums it up nicely:  "The phrase seeing the elephant is an Americanism which refers to gaining experience of the world at a significant cost."

I certainly can't claim that my cost - riding on a comfortable truck seat while towing our Airstream camper and eating my wife's delicious cooking - compares to the experience many others that went before me have had.  But, it was a very, very, very long trip with hundreds of hours behind the wheel.  There was a lot to see, a lot to experience, and a lot to think about - from both inside and out.

In his book Travels With Charley, John Steinbeck had an extra chapter that didn't get published with the book.  In it, he summarized his experience traveling around the country with his poodle, Charley:  "My travels with Charley were a simple, almost humble undertaking.  They caused no flurry and piled up a limited heap of information.  Thinking back, I don't know what, if anything, I learned."  Steinbeck was being satirical of course, but its hard to look deep enough inside to know the relevance of the "experience of the world." 

For me, this trip was an affirmation that America is an amazing place.  It's incredibly huge, and incredibly varied in the environment - biologically and geographically - but also in human culture and condition.  I think candidates considering national political office would do well to make a similar trip.  

We saw examples of incredible thoughtfulness to protect, preserve, and restore habitats and species; and thoughtlessness of greedy development, resource extraction, and agriculture that make these efforts necessary.  We saw endangered species and expanding invasive species.  We saw the positive impact of well-thought-out environmental management. 

We again confirmed our conviction that the preservation of open spaces and public access to those open spaces is incredibly important and vital. If they are not protected, they will be closed off, developed, and lost forever.  Please support your state and national parks and organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and The Trustees of Reservation that work towards preserving these places.

But, the most important thing we saw was that humans can fix the problems they cause - if they have the will.

I hope this blog has helped a little bit to further the creative will to protect, repair, and nurture the environment.


Like all big undertakings, this amazing journey was a team effort.  I want to acknowledge some of the people that helped make it possible:

  • Dr. Liz Preston, Interim President and Dr. Marsha Marotta, Interim Vice President at Westfield State University, for approving this sabbatical adventure.
  • Dr. John McDonald, for taking over my chair duties of the Environmental Science Department
  • Mrs. Mary Masse, our department's incomparable administrative assistant
  • My colleagues Dr.s Tim Parshall,  Emily Cole, Bob Thompson,  and Carsten Braun, for covering classes, advising, and the myriad of other duties I walked away from during this trip
  • Eli Jameson, for keeping the home front
  • Jules Sobon, for minding the plants and the department
  • Kit Woof, for making one cat incredibly happy
  • Our kids Erik and Kristine, who took time out of their busy lives to join in on some of the adventure
  • The taxpayers of Massachusetts, who keep paying my salary
And mostly, my phenomenal wife, life partner, and soulmate Karin, who was with me every step of the way.


Michael Vorwerk, Huntington, May 2017

PS  Here's the elephant:

Sunday, May 14, 2017


Hi Everyone,

We MADE IT!  The fourth and final corner of the United States, in Madawaska, Maine.  We didn't want to drive in the traffic of 90 and Boston, so we drove up I-91 to Canada, and took the Trans-Canada Highway across to enter Madawaska from the Canadian side.  This is an awesome drive up through Vermont, and we loved it.  Beautiful country.  Because we are out of time, we drove it up in day, about 580 miles to Madawaska, then we drove home yesterday.

Here's the border crossing over the St. John River.

Here I am with the sign at the Four Corners Park in Madawaska, Maine.

Notice the smug grin of satisfaction.

Here's the view.  The near houses are the US, the far ones are Canada.

And here's the border between the US and Canada, the big, beautiful Saint John River, which was in flood stage.

We spent the night at the Day's Inn in Edmunston Canada (a cool inn, where they renovated an old 1930's inn, instead of tearing it down to build a ubiquitous "modern" motel), and drove the 580 miles back home yesterday.  We're a little road weary....

Stay tuned for the final blog entry that wraps up our amazing trip around the United States!

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The trip across the top....

Like all good things in life, this trip is coming to an end and draws short on time.  We had to scurry across the top of the US, picking up our son from college in Minnesota, and getting back to Massachusetts for other of life's responsibilities.  Here's some of what we saw on the 2,000 miles across...

We stopped at the Minute Man Missile National Historic Site in Philip, South Dakota.  One interesting thing we learned is that with our treaties with Russia, we've gotten rid of 450 of the damn things.  But we still have 450 left, buried in Silos in the ground, ready to take off for any target around the world.  Each is about 20 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.  

My dad spent his professional life working for Lockheed in Charleston, S.C., who made (make) the submarine-based Polaris and Poseidon missiles.  During the cold war, there were no doubts that our town was heavily targeted by the Soviets.  I don't like the things.

Anyhow, here's a bit of humor from one of the Minute Man Missile Silos:

We briefly visited the Corn Palace in Mitchell South Dakota, because we were camped there.  I thought it would be really silly, and maybe it was.  However...

They did have some AMAZING graphics made out of corn ears.  Here's my all-time favorite singer, player, and song writer, Willy Nelson, out of corn.  All that black is ears of black corn, and the yellow, obviously, yellow corn.  To the sides you can see tufts of corn rush.  They had a lot more images of  pop stars around the corner....

Eastern South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin were farm country, and the big agricultural chemical giants advertised heavily.  Their goal is to get farmers to buy "Roundup Ready" seeds.  These seeds have been genetically modified to make them resistant to the Roundup Herbicide.  You're supposed to plant the seeds, and then hose your field down with Roundup, which kills all the other plants except your genetically resistant plant, increasing your crop yield.  

So first, you pay them for the seed, then you pay them for the Roundup.  Most of these seeds are what are called terminator seeds, which means that they are not genetically viable.  So, you can't just take the seeds from your crops and use them to plant the next year's crops.  In essence, you're trapped into buying more seeds from the agro-chemical company every year...and more Roundup.

The problem, of course, being that spreading poison out in the ecosystem is never a good thing.  Recent news reports have included a lot of law suits against the makers of Roundup, alleging that it is a carcinogen.  Others think that there's a direct correlation between the increased use of Roundup and colony collapse in bee populations.

Near my son's college in Mankato, MN, is a small herd of  Buffalo that are in a Prairie Restoration effort.  Conservationists think that having a large herbivore is necessary to maintain the natural prairie conditions that would have historically existed here.  This is kind of cool, because when my son first looked at the college, this restoration effort had not started.  Since then, they've fenced a huge tract of land, introduced the buffalo, and done controlled management of undesirable plant species.  Apparently, there's one male and 14 females here.  They all look youngish and much smaller than the wild ones we saw in South Dakota.

I like septic truck humor.  You gotta appreciate someone that has that tough job and can still joke about it.  This sewage sucking service truck is a little hard to read, it says "Yesterday's...Meals On Wheels."  I've seen others that said "My Wife Keeps Her Nose Out of My Business," and one with a couple playing cards shown that said "A Straight Flush Beats a Full House Any Day."

We camped in western New York at Evangola State Park by Lake Erie.  There was a huge windstorm with big waves.

It was wicked cold.

But none-the-less beautiful

Sunset over Lake Erie

This was part of a series of cool long granite mountains, oriented Northeast along the St. Lawrence River - leftover from the period of glaciation that scoured out the St. Lawrence.

Looking across the St. Lawrence in Quebec.

Please follow these instructions.

An amazing hillside of yellow Coltsfoot flowers.  We have never seen so many so densely growing.

Trans-Canada highway in Quebec.

Well now, here's a sign you don't see every day...

That's just one more place that we didn't have time to visit and take photographs :-)

Crazy Horse

Coming across the Black Hills of South Dakota, you might see views like these mountains.

And you might come around the corner and see the sculpture of Crazy Horse, the largest sculpture in the world.  A lot of people have never even heard of this sculpture.  Begun in 1948 by Korczak Ziolkowski, the sculpture was commissioned by Lakota Indian Elders after Mt. Rushmore was completed to "show that the red men have heores, too".  Korczak learned mountain carving while working with Gutzon Borglum, sculptor of Mt. Rushmore.

The Crazy Horse carving will be about 641 feet wide and 563 feet high.  To give you an idea of the size, the carvings of the presidents at Mt. Rushmore will fit into the head area of the Crazy Horse Monument.  In the picture below, you can just see two huge excavators in front of Crazy Horse's chin for scale.

Here's a "small-scale" carving to show the goal, me, and in the background, the mountain carving itself.

It's slow going, carving a mountain.  Here's what it looked like when Korczak started.

This picture is especially meaningful, since Karin and I first visited the Crazy Horse monument in 1987.

Here's 11 years later, after the face was completed.

It takes a lot of vision to make something like this.

To give you an idea of scale - working on an eye.

And the face...

And a message from Korczak to his children, many of which have taken up the task after Korczak died.


Now, here's the part that really struck me.  The monument is run by a non-profit foundation which has never accepted public funding, and there are several goals.  The carving is one, but two other equally important ones are creating a national museum of Native American History, and to create a university and educational facility for Native Americans.  The museum was exceptionally well done, and honestly, it was quite a pleasure to see the amazing collection of historical and contemporary art and artifacts. We talked with one of the (native American) staffers at one of the exhibits, his pride and knowledge were obvious.

Contrast that with our usual experience travelling around the country on this trip.  First you see signs that you're entering an Indian Reservation, next you see ads for the casino.  It pretty much never failed.  If you're in a reservation, more often than not there will be a casino, and a place to buy cheap liquor, cigarettes, and gasoline tax-free. If this seems like a gross generalization to you, try it.  Drive around the country and see if you find different.  It's disheartening

In the April 29th issue of the Economist, they did a piece on alcoholism in the Pine Ridge Indian reservation of South Dakota.  These people are the remnants of Crazy Horse's proud tribe, the Oglala Lakota Sioux.  The article says that "two-thirds of adults on the reservation are alcoholics; alcohol-fueled domestic violence is rampant; and one in four babies born on the reservation is irreversibly damaged by fetal-alcohol syndrome, a range of neurological defects caused by mothers drinking alcohol during pregnancy."  To try to control this, alcohol sales on the reservation were banned.

This resulted in the Lakota Sioux walking across the reservation boundary to the nearby town of Whiteclay, Nebraska, "a tiny hamlet of 11 residents just a short walk away across the state line in Nebraska.  Whiteclay, which has no school and no grocery shop, seems to exist solely to sell booze."  The article says that last year, the four liquor stores in the 11 person town sold 3.6 million cans of beer.  Here are some other statistics: "More than half-perhaps 80%- of its adults are unemployed.  About half live below the federal poverty line.  Almost one-third are homeless.  Men die, on average, at 47 and women at 55.  (compare this to the US average of 76 men, 81 women) Almost half the population older than 40 is diabetic.  In infant mortality rate is triple the national average, the suicide rate of teenagers is more than double and obesity is an even bigger problem than in the rest of the Midwest."

They had a very nice exhibit of prints by Edward Curtis, a photographer that managed to be in the right place at the last instant - the tiny intersection of after cameras were invented and before the world changed.  He spent his career recording images of the west - while it was still what we think of as "the west."  His images of Native Americans capture the lost spirit of the people, and maybe show some of the sorrow associated with the inevitability of the future.  I wish my photographs of the prints were a little easier to see - sorry.

I like this one, because it reminds me of my own Grandma, who descended from the Cherokee.

And this one, because it shows pride.

And tenderness.

And love.

And sorrow.

If you go a little further through the Black Hills...

You'll come to Mount Rushmore.  I want to say something nice about this, but honestly, I hate it.  The whole area around Mount Rushmore is one of the most touristy places we went on our whole trip around the country.  Simply put, it is awful. They have built a parking garage adjacent to the monument.  It was like going to the airport.  There's a huge gift shop filled with cheap, imported plastic crap to sell to tourists.

This sculpture was designed and created by Gutzon Borglum.  The monument was never completed, with work stopping in 1941 when Borglum died.  There's supposed to be the rest of the busts of the presidents down below the heads.  Contrast that to the Crazy Horse monument, where work goes on.  It's hard for me to come to grips of spending your life working on something, as Korczak did, well knowing that you will never see it finished.

None-the-less, Mt. Rushmore is one of the three classic US parks you need to see, alongside Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon.  There it is.  We saw it, again.

Crazy Horse left me a little bit uplifted, in a lot of ways, and I highly recommend going to see it.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

A Short Pause.....

Hi Everyone,

We're having a short break to do family things.  We'll be heading up to Maine at the end of the week to top out the fourth corner of our round the US Environmental Journey.  Meanwhile, you can check out this cool picture Mrs. Dr. V spotted, the reflection of the sunset across Lake Erie on the Airstream :-)

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Buffalo / Bison and other BIG and small Mammals

Deer were a dime a dozen.  I guess these are White Tailed, and I don't think we saw any Mule Deer.  Dr. McDonald probably can provide a lot more detail on all these big mammals.

These pronghorn antelope are on their way to play, I guess.  Poker, monopoly, boccie ball, and other antelope games.  They often play with the deer, or so the song goes.

Cows, and an antelope walking the fence line.  He just jumped right over the 5' high fence.

More antelope, these were in the badlands of South Dakota.

Beautiful Pinto Ponies.  We saw some pretty Appaloosa's too, when we went through their home, the Paloose area of eastern Washington.  Oddly enough, on the entire trip we never, ever saw anyone actually riding horses.  We did see a lot of folks riding quads, though.

This Mountain Goat was grazing by the Mt. Rushmore Memorial, right in the parking lot.

Bighorn sheep in the SD badlands. As far as we could see, these are ewes and 1-2 year olds. We did not observe any rams with the typicaL curved round horns.

As you can see, these Bighorn Sheep are loosing their winter fur.

Mrs. Dr. V's absolute all-time favorite are the prairie dogs.  She just laughed and laughed and laughed at their antics.  Their prairie dog town intersected the Sage Creek primitive campground we stayed at in South Dakota.  It was interesting to see how the prairie dogs have devastated the grass around the town, and have range a few hundred yards to graze.  They are VERY fast, and their communication network protects them from predators.

In the Badlands National Park, there were many, many Buffalo.  Originally, scientists estimate there were about 60,000,000 buffalo in the US.  Now, after a century of strong and difficult conservation efforts, the number has been brought back up from an estimated low of just 300 in the US in 1900 to about 400,000 today.

Where did the 59,999,700 go?  In large part, they were shot and killed.  The reasons are numerous, but important factors were sport shooting and shooting to take away the food and resource base Native Americans relied on (thus eliminating the Native Americans' way of life).  There's a lot to talk about there, but instead, let's just look at some pictures of this unbelievably magnificent ikon of America.

Just standing in the road.  Why?  Because he can stand where ever he wants, that's why.  This one was actually licking the salt off the road.  You could hear the coarse rasping of his tongue.

They don't much care about snow or cold weather.

And this herd is just hanging out grazing.  They eat about 50 pounds of grass a day - the equivalent of a bale of hay.

This one walked right up to the camper and....

Pawed at the ground....

Started peeing.... (note that he's on our side of the camping limits sign.  There wasn't any Buffalo limits sign to tell him which side to stay on :-)  Actually, there was a sign at the campground that warned campers that Buffaloes may walk through the campground.  The sign was right.)

Rubbed his head in the dirt while peeing...

Rubbed his chest in the dirt while still peeing (obviously feels good)...

And then rolled, rolled, rolled in the mess....


And finally mustering great dignity, walked off feeling better.

Typical view in the grasslands portion of the Badlands, South Dakota.  This is near Sage Creek Primitive Campground, probably the most significant stop we made on the entire trip around the country.

Note the winter fur coming off.  We picked up some that had gotten caught in the grass and brambles, and brought it home.

If this one dozes off, he's going to fall in...

 Finally, in the evening they wandered along past the campsite until....

They were all gone.

If I was poetic, I'd say "and the ephemeral spirit of the American West disappeared into the setting sun, as if they never existed."  In truth, the whole area is littered with Buffalo poop, prairie dog poop, coyote poop, and the like.  It's so dry the stuff just doesn't go away.  One thing we read spoke of Native Americans using the Buffalo poop for fires (there's no wood to speak of), as a Frisbee-like toy, and as something to fill diapers with.  Truly an all-purpose material :-)

And the requisite sunset over Badlands National Park photograph.