Out of the Suburbs and Into the Desert

I grew up in a little box of a house in an Indiana suburb.  There were houses on either side of us and one across the street.  As far as the eye could see was a flat landscape littered with driveways and asphalt.  So when I moved West after college, I was in awe of the mountains and deserts.  I still am: all this empty space and rugged beauty.  It never grows old.  Every year when May rolls around and the weather warms up, I feel compelled, like the great explorers of the West, John Muir and John Wesley Powell, to take a look around.

The month of May I call Desert Appreciation Month. The temperatures are still cool enough to make hiking pleasant–and all the wildflowers are in bloom. 

May, with its warmer weather, not only beckons people, but other creatures too. Yesterday, hiking the Wilson Creek Trail I came across a long, patterned bull snake gliding peacefully through the grasses.  The Wilson Creek Trail climbs the Owyhee Mountain front in Idaho.  When I saw the snake of course, I jumped back, startled.

Bull snakes look similar to rattlesnakes and I’ve come across enough rattlesnakes in my desert wanderings that I try not to repeat that experience.

A couple of years ago I was walking in sneakers and shorts along the side of a dirt road when I heard a distinct rattle sound warning me away.  I froze, aware of my exposed legs, and looked down to find a rattlesnake coiled not three feet from me under a sagebrush.  I softly stepped back thinking I really needed to wear boots and long pants hiking around in snake season.

trailhead

On the Wilson Creek hike I crossed several bends in the little ribbon of a stream known as Wilson Creek. 

Apparently, the snow melt coming off the peaks of the 8,000 foot Owyhee Mountains formed the headwaters.  Two hundred or so head of cattle drifted in and around the creek bed blocking my path.  I walked through them keenly aware of bawling and nervous cows worried about their calves.  Cows are generally docile animals but have been known to charge if they think their calves are being threatened.  It was difficult to ignore the damage done to little Wilson Creek by this big herd of cattle.  The banks of the stream were all caved in and the vegetation around stomped down, flattened, and covered with cow pies.  I wondered what this oasis in the high desert would look like minus cows—or at least with fewer cattle feeding from such a fragile stream.

Above me, on the hillside, I saw neat planted rows of crested wheat grass.  No doubt the Bureau of Land Management had tractors drill seeds into the soil, probably hoping to restore such a heavily grazed area.  It always makes me shake my head when I hear ranchers complain about the federal government infringing on their rights.  The government supports ranching in so many ways: including keeping grazing fees phenomenally low ($1.69 a month per cow/calf pair —this as opposed to approximately $25 a month to feed a cow/calf pair on private land).   They not only plant hearty grasses to ensure better pasturing for cattle herds, they also fence miles and miles of pasture—free of charge.

Fortunately, away from the stream bed I noticed plenty of undisturbed native wheat and rye grasses.  I watched their leaves blow gently in the breeze.

“Multiple Use” is a phrase, a paradigm for public lands today.  Multiple use was everywhere evident on the Wilson Creek Trail.  I saw hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders on the trail.

Off in the distance an RZR (a Razor, a crazy-fast, steep-climbing recreational vehicle) drove, dust billowing behind. Still, for all the uses made of the Owyhee Mountain Front that day, it was blissfully quiet the farther I hiked up into the mountains.  I didn’t see a street sign or hear a car honk.  I almost pinched my arm to remind myself I wasn’t dreaming, I wasn’t still living in a dreary Indiana suburb.  No, I was happily awake, enjoying the mountains and deserts of the American West.

 

Image Credits:  Diana Hooley on the Wilson Creek Trail, southwest Idaho

 

To Fly or Not to Fly

When I read the tragic news about another crash of a Boeing Max 737 jetliner, this time in Ethiopia, and how the pilots fought the programming and the automatic controls to keep the plane in the air, I remembered a sci-fi movie I watched about a coming war between man and machines.  This movie might have been a “flight” of some screen writer’s imagination except that the imminent astrophysicist Stephen Hawking worried about the peril of intelligent machines. Hawking believed AI or artificial intelligence had the potential to threaten mankind.  Still, I doubt he ever considered malevolent autopilots becoming a problem.

Nervous flyers might be hesitant to fly after hearing about the Max 737 crashes.  I get it.  I’m not a fan of flying either.  I’ve fought irrational fears of flying for several years.  In fact, one time I boarded a one-hour flight to Portland, Oregon, and in a martini fog (acquired at the airport bar trying to bolster my courage) I staggered up from my aisle seat and blew alcohol fumes into the stewardess’s face when I begged, “Miz?  Hey miz?  I wanna get off the plane.  Can I?  Pleeze?”

There are other, more rational reasons to reconsider flying as your form of transportation, which have nothing to do with machines running amok or phobias.  According to Sciencefocus.com the amount of CO2 spewed by one jumbo jet traveling a distance of 400 miles is the same as 336 cars driving that same distance.

So, the approximately 20,000 flights taking place daily across our planet emit a tremendous amount of destructive greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

That’s why, despite having largely conquered my flying phobia, I decided on a recent trip to New York City to fly one way—and take the train home.

I felt very good about taking the train back from NYC—noble even. After all, rail transportation accounts for only 2% of total transportation greenhouse gases.  I could rest easy riding the rails—and I did.  I took numerous naps in my deluxe sleeper, lulled by the gentle rocking of the train on the tracks.  Due to the research I’d done I knew taking the train meant my carbon “shoe” was a modest size 2 instead of a clown flipper size 14.  I was relaxed until our train slowed down coming into the Philadelphia rail yard.  Then I blinked my eyelids open and gazed out the window to see dozens of CSX rail cars loaded with coal.

The thing about taking a train is that you share tracks and rail yards with other trains, especially freight trains.  Coal is primarily moved by freight trains.  For some reason, pure black carbon in the form of coal seems much more threatening to me than the nebulous greenhouse gases blown out of a jumbo jet.  Our train passed one coal car after another in Pittsburg, Chicago, Omaha, Denver, and Salt Lake.  I finally stopped seeing coal cars when the train dropped me off in the middle of the night at a lonely passenger shelter in Elko, Nevada.

Traveling green can be challenging no matter what form of transportation you choose to take.

The good news about flying is, there are ways to go greener. Check the airplane statistics when you book.  Many jets now use biofuels.  Also, most major airlines offer carbon credits you can purchase to support various green initiatives.  Of course, if you really want to lessen your carbon footprint, nothing beats staying home.  But then you’d miss out on a chance to see the Statue of Liberty and who wants to do that?

image credit: airplane