November 7, 2020•3090 words
I spent the first part of Saturday puttering around camp. I started a batch of honey locust hooch, borrowing two quart mason jars, filling them with torn up pods, and pouring boiling water over them. The fermentation got off to a slow start because of the cold but there have been bubbles so I assume wild yeasts are doing their thing in there. I made a rack for drying clothes out of some bamboo I found in the back of the garden. I talked to my mom while filling a huge box with sticks that had come down in the wind. In the afternoon I carpooled with JH to an outdoor Samhain party hosted by RW up in Cedar Grove. She and her ex started a little homestead there three and half years ago, with a big barn and rainwater collector, an elevated outdoor kitchen, and a yome. The party involved an elaborate performance art walk in the pine woods and a DJ'd dance party, but what I really came for was the meals, the conversation, the fire, and the camping, and they did not disappoint. I guess I'm missing the group camping experience of the Haw River Learning Celebration, which was a very formative experience for me as a kid when my family and I started volunteering for it nearly 30 years ago, and unfortunately like so much else it's "virtual" this year.
I spent some time talking to RW's woofer D, who reminds me a lot of 20-something me, with stars in his eyes about returning to a simpler life. He's started on building a wattle-and-daub meditation hut to RW's design, so we geeked out about natural building, traditional heating methods, living out of vehicles, and the thoughtful incorporation of industrial technology into one's life. Dinner was a potluck feast at scattered tables around the fire, and JH and I had a table to ourselves. There was a part of the meal where we were encouraged to talk about the dead with our table mates, and I felt a lot of grief come up about the passing of PF. I think when he died, my estrangement from my family and my own emotions stopped me from grieving for him properly. I thought of a picture in my parents' house of my dad kissing him on the cheek and regretted not having said goodbye as well as I wanted to. If you're somehow reading this, I really miss you old friend.
Costumes were mandatory, and not having easy access to my wardrobe or sewing machine, I improvised by sticking a crown of yellow leaves into my hat, daubing my cheeks with some mud from the bottom of a puddle, and wearing my camouflage army poncho. People seemed to interpret this as "the spirit of the forest" and I got quite a few complements which I hadn't expected given how little thought and effort I'd put into it. The hostess was dressed as a sexy vulture and D was a construction worker. Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera arrived carrying "Ruth Baby Ginsberg" complete with robes and a gavel in her tiny fist. There was a very appropriate plague doctor and a pair of murder hornets. Tony Nader and an acolyte showed up in full regalia. A Mexican belly dancer and a lanky red-headed skeleton started an impromptu rhythm and dance jam by the fire, and I joined in with my Vargan. The plague doctor extolled the virtues of Amanita Muscaria infusions. Altogether the most satisfying celebration of the holiday I've spent in years, hard as I'd tried to get into the spirit of the watered-down version that is the neighborhood trick or treat. I enjoyed some more conversation around the campfire and headed off to bed just as the dance party was really getting started. Despite, or perhaps because of, the bass thumping through the woods and the temperature dropping quickly to near 40, I fell asleep quickly and deeply under my tarp.
It started raining around 5:30 in the morning, and I spent some cozy time reading Walt Whitman, looking up at the leaves, and listening to the raindrops. I love how Whitman is so eloquent about nature, but also about every aspect of the human world: industry, agriculture, work, religion, the social sphere, the sick as well as the healthy. He just embraces everything enthusiastically and when I get onto his wavelength the whole world feels charged with energy and perfection. If I were looking for an authoritative text to start a new religion, I think Song of Myself would be a great choice, and yet something tells me that wouldn't be in the spirit of the poem at all. Forget these dusty words, Whitman would say, and go experience the world I'm talking about! He was very much a "finger pointing at the moon" kind of person.
In the outdoor kitchen there was cowboy coffee with whipped cream and a pancake breakfast. One of the murder hornets shared a jar of the elderberry syrup she makes with local honey, and we geeked out about herbs. An ER doctor from Florida, no longer dressed as a walrus, told medical horror stories and showed me pictures of his encounters with big fish, sharks, manatees, and dolphins. I talked with D some more and felt the consistency of the mud he was planning to use for the hut. But eventually it was time to say goodbye to new friends and acquaintances. On the way back, JH and I continued our meandering conversation about relationships and our explorations of comfort and discomfort. In a previous blog post I may have given the impression of dismissing the value of comfort, but on further reflection I think it's more about valuing the movement between the two extremes rather than pursuing one or the other. As D pointed out, comfort is all about contrasts, and in my experience a hot shower after getting soaked in the cold rain can feel transcendent even though the same shower after sitting around the house all day usually doesn't.
Coming back from a nascent homestead to the debris of my own homesteading dreams got me reflecting about that trajectory. Like RW, I think I used to expect and maybe even wish for the collapse of the industrial ecosystem. Then I kind of stopped caring, then for a while I experimented with being one of the techno-optimists. But now I find myself focused more on the spiritual dimension, seeking what Bruce Tift calls "a good experience regardless of circumstances", and from that viewpoint how the world changes isn't something I need to control or constantly watch like a gambler hoping for good luck. I'm not saying it's easy but I'm working on it. Back on the land, I gleaned the last of the windfall tomatoes nestled in the garden mulch, drank some mulled wine with the whole family in the last of the afternoon light, and then we went out to cover the greens against the coming frost. Miraculously, an Amazon truck arrived a day early with my new 20-degree sleeping bag and hot water bottle, which dialed the coziness up to eleven just when it was really getting cold at night. Industrial goods are pretty amazing!
I finally figured out how to light the new stove, once I stopped trying to fight it and just built a truly upside-down fire. The genius of this method is that instead of sending the flames through the cold, damp fuel, which reduces burn temperature and creates smoke, the insulated firebox slowly cooks the fuel from the top and sides until it's ready to light on its own. I could now make large batches of hot water to fill the hot water bottle and make tea, oatmeal, and soup. In the cold mornings I worked half inside my sleeping bag, and in the warm afternoons I worked in the sunbeams. AP and A came to visit and look around my "little village". During my lunch breaks I walked around the land, and on one of my rambles decided to poke around in what we used to call the "white bus", but has since lost all its paint to rust. Inside I found the old Aladdin brand kerosene lamps that my family used to use when I was a toddler, before they got solar power. I picked out the prettiest one, with a cut-glass reservoir, and took it to pieces, finding that everything was in good order except that the delicate mantle had disintegrated and the wick adjustment knob was stuck. I took it back to my parents' house and my mom went upstairs into a closet and immediately found two spare wicks and two spare mantles in mint condition, which had been sitting up there for thirty years! This kicked off a purge of all the other stuff in that box, like spare parts for stoves long since gotten rid of, which was still ongoing when I left to get back to work. Daylight savings had moved sunset back to near 5:00 pm, and it's only going to get worse until the solstice. I'm hoping to get the old lamp working again to make heat and light in the long dark evenings.
Kiddo has been suffering from what I'll call, as long as we're anthropomorphising, some heart trouble. Mostly needing extra help to start and an intermittent loss of power while accelerating, and also the gas mileage hasn't been what it should be. On top of this, the 5000 mile service calls for an inspection of the brake shoes which I didn't have the tools to take on, so I made an appointment at a shop in Durham to get it looked at. Deciding to make a town day of it and do some laundry and shopping as well, I got on the road at 7:30, and the damp cold was intense. My thin gloves with the mesh backs that are so nice in summer did not serve me well, and my fingers were intensely painful after just a few miles. When I couldn't stand it I would pull over and warm my hands on my belly, but it didn't last long once back on the road. So I pulled into a country store shivering and aching, the backs of my hands a worrying dark purple, and was delighted to find that they sold five kinds of gloves, one of which was thin and fit under my motorcycle ones. I had a transcendent experience watching the sun come up through the trees and eating a snickers bar with my fingers wrapped around a hot cup of coffee... there's that contrast for you.
I realized I had no idea how the election went, unless the church sign saying "I spoke and God heard my voice" meant something. I decided it would be Schrödinger's election for me until I happened to hear news that would collapse the superposition. I stopped at a hardware store to get some odds and ends like kerosene and a rain cap for my tent chimney. I also got some more plastic storage bins... so I've gone from a two-bin person to a four-bin person but I swear I can stop! Then on to my storage unit to drop off the bins and then to the shop, where I dropped off Kiddo and switched to being on foot. I did laundry at the laundromat, ate Chinese takeout for lunch, and shopped at Beauty World, which amazingly had a $2 florescent orange beanie that will come in handy for keeping me from getting shot while walking in the woods during hunting season. How such a thing gets to be in a fashion store is beyond me, but maybe with the right accessories? I worked in a shady corner of the shopping center, then outside the bike shop once the laundry was done. Several hours later I paid a bill for $240 and got Kiddo back. They had replaced the clutch shoes and variator rollers but the problem was still there. They suspected an ignition problem and would be happy to do more diagnostics another day. Well.
On the way home I stopped at Li Ming's to get a few food items, a pot for boiling water, and some other housewares. I wound up selecting a big steamer pot, which actually turned out to be too big for the stove and I'll need to exchange it for a smaller one when I get time (for the moment the pot I borrowed from my parents is working fine). Kiddo's acceleration problem seemed worse if anything, or maybe the clutch repair was just making it more obvious. But clearly the repairs had helped in some way, since I could now hit 40 mph on the level which had been impossible before. After I got home, I was a bit worried about Kiddo's health, especially since I had a trip to Virginia planned for Friday. And it could be a safety issue if I couldn't accelerate into a left turn fast enough. After some research online I decided the next most likely problem that fit the history and symptoms was a clogged idle jet in the carburetor. In the morning I texted my friend RM to see if I could use his garage to do the repair, and he said "help yourself". I felt a huge amount of anxiety about doing this type of mechanical job, sure that I would screw something up one way or another. On the other hand, it was something I wanted very much to learn how to do, so despite my anxiety-induced headache I stuck it out and took Kiddo into the shop in the late afternoon. Getting the carb out was a rough sort of surgery, requiring a lot more force pulling on hoses than I'd expected, but I got it out and open on the table with some much-needed advice and encouragement from RM. Sure enough, although all the other parts were squeaky clean, the idle jet had something in it, which was soon got out with some sprays of carb cleaner. We put everything back together, the engine miraculously started and ran, and a test ride in the driveway felt promising. I thanked RM, headed back to my tent (with a stop at APs to see the work on the custom MIDI mixing board he's building), and crawled into my sleeping bag feeling better but too exhausted and strung out from all the mechanical anxiety to even brush my teeth.
But waking up Friday at sunrise I felt optimistic about the trip ahead. I packed and was on the road around 8, this time insulated enough to be a little cold but not painfully so. The farms and woodlots of rural Chatham and Orange counties were lovely in the morning light and I crossed into Virginia quite early in the trip. I always forget that the border isn't that far away. I stopped for lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Keysville, and when I tried to get back onto highway 360, a sign at the on-ramp told me that pedestrians, horses, tractors, and mopeds were all forbidden. I decided to take this more in the spirit of travel advice than prohibition, and indeed the alternate route Google came up with was stunningly beautiful, with flame-colored trees, blue skies, rolling fields, and slanting afternoon light. Although Kiddo was still a little shy when accelerating, the problem was nowhere near as bad as before, and my second gas stop of the day showed that I had gotten 115 miles per gallon! Of course this is around what Honda claims you're supposed to get, but I'd assumed it was one of those little white lies manufacturers tend to engage in. The mechanical work had paid off, and I was excited to do more of it myself, especially since the $80/hour mechanics had messed up the threads on a bolt and two bolt holes, which I had to clean up with RM's well-loved vintage tap and die set. Heck I might even try to fix up an old Honda Super Cub another friend of RM's has sitting around. At least I can worry less about mistakes with a bike that doesn't run in the first place. Also wrenching on and riding an aged Super Cub would make me more like one of my heroes.
Anyway, I got to my Airbnb outside Fredericksburg around 5:30 pm, very cold but still energetic. The house was warm and the hosts were so relaxed and welcoming that it felt like staying with old friends. There were three cats and the two dogs Harvey and Brew'dis (later three when one of the host's parents came over for dinner and brought Brew'dis's brother Tuna). They offered my dinner but I had leftovers that needed eating, although I couldn't resist a piece of the apple crisp. Which I think, along with the heat after being so cold on the road, caused me to start nodding off while starting the first paragraph of this blog post. So I went to bed at the late hour of 7:30 pm!
Things I Learned
- Because of the neoclassical revival during the little ice age, some Europeans took to wearing togas even though it was really cold. Apparently they carried around little metal balls with embers in them to keep warm.
- The dish I've been making with dehydrated potatoes and fresh greens could be seen as a type of colcannon, a traditional Irish dish made with potatoes and cabbage. You can't escape your ancestry apparently.
- D3O, a magical polymer used for motorcycle armor that's nice and soft until it experiences an impact, is also rock hard when it's cold.
- Virginia has a lot of road signs that explain basic traffic law like "don't pass school buses unloading children" and "the solid yellow line on your side means no passing". It strikes me as kind of condescending but there's probably some good reason for it. However this is totally balanced out for me by the "share the road" signs with a silhouette of a horse and buggy instead of a bicycle.
- Zipperless sleeping bags. Their geometry is hard to explain but I was an instant fan.
- The smell of burning paper as a wood stove is being lit.
- The moon setting over a frosty field.
- The very particular smell of a deciduous forest breathing as the weather alternates between warm and cold.