At work the other day we were doing some kind of icebreaker—the usual kind of introduce yourself to people, the unusual aspect of it being people you've never met, although I suppose that's also usual more—and I mentioned I'd like to go back to the Guadalupe Mountains. Now the thought is rattling around in my head.
That's the place I wanted to be for my fortieth birthday. Guadalupe Peak is one of my... I don't know... call it a power center, although that sounds like essential oils and crystals. But in December 2020, Texas was full of COVID so I didn't even honestly consider going.
Now, with a second vaccine shot in my arm today, it's close enough to touch, it's close enough to see—in my mind, at least, but even it was far away quite recently. But there it is now. Like that lonely highway TX-54 north out of Van Horn where the Guadalupe Mountains begin to coalesce as a rock lump in the distance, growing slowly as you merge into US-62 to roll around the east side of the old reef, El Capitán resolving into its own dominating forward-thrusting feature, the road gaining small altitude until you can ditch that infernal machine at Pine Springs, take a few steps up the trail, then a few steps more, and let the mountain hold you in its dry limestone arms.
It doesn't sound like much—and it isn't—but the thought is enough. For now.
Now that we're back to work—mentally, if not physically, and not all that mentally yet—our trips-without-going-anywhere are less frequent, perhaps once per month. Our next stop is Baja California. We've been down to San José del Cabo twice before. (And we'd like to actually go back, so wear your mask, etc.)
For Christmas I got Chen a copy of The Baja California Cookbook by David Castro Hussong and Jay Porter. Granted, it seems to be about the northern state of Baja California near to Tijuana, not Cabo and Baja California del Sur where we've been, but it's good enough for now. An idea comes to mind: maybe we can drive the length of the peninsula some day, stitch that north part to the south part with experience. Who knows.
Taking a quick cruise through the book, I've found the thing I'm most interested in: corn. In December we were making some food with thick, soft cornmeal wrappers—sort of like spherical dumplings—but the wrappers were not easy to work with. The corn meal dough never really cohered. They wouldn't really break when we steamed them, but they would crack, or a weak spot would become a hole. I couldn't understand how corn could be made into tortillas or other kinds of bread that I associated with Mexican food. I just hate not being able to figure out something basic like that.
Halfway through the book is a page: "On masa". It describes a process called nixtamalization, which prepares the corn to be ground and, apparently, to be made into a proper dough. For me, that's the missing link. And bonus points for the word deriving from the original Nahuatl (nixtamalli) instead of Spanish.
Another thing that caught my eye was something about "sourcing good maize". I'd never thought of that before. Basically all the corn we eat now is some kind of sweet corn. What kind of corn—maize, sorry, but I don't know what the difference is—are they talking about. What kind of corn would be "local" to whichever place we were trying to model our food? Where does one get different types of corn seeds to plant (in small doses), and would it even work here? Are there types of corn that would have been native to our current area that we might be able to work with instead? I don't have anything against the types of corn we have now, but it's interesting to think about everyday things in a different way—about what the options are, what the options were, how things became the way they did.
The final stop on our winter break pseudo-vacation was Cambodia. This time, there's nothing much to talk about except the food. Unlike the previous trips, we didn't have time to cover much information about Cambodia itself because we spent so many hours shopping (first time paying attention to the Southeast Asia section at Pan-Asia) and cooking. Maybe we'll come back around and watch some videos on the weekend, but we'll see how this first week back at work treats us. (It might be time to discover what Cambodians drink.) In the meantime, there is a bit of info back in the prep post: Next stop: Cambodia.
Saying we "only" made some food sells the entire enterprise short. We did a pretty good job with this one (with the usual caveat that we don't know how it all compares to the real thing). In fact, I think we might do it again this weekend. Here's how it went down:
Now that work has started up again, we won't be able to fake travel again for a little while. (Actually we might try these recipes again this weekend—why not?) But we will take a fake trip about once a month this year. It was too much fun to leave it alone. Later this month we'll go to Baja California in our kitchen, though we'd certainly like to go there in person.
Our last stop on this winter break vacation is Cambodia.
Cambodia is a kind of lost opportunity for me. When I lived in Lowell, Massachusetts, for whatever reason there was a huge Cambodian population living there—the second largest Cambodian population in the US, if I remember correctly. I don't know why. I wish I would have been more curious about it at the time, outside of watching the occasional show at the Lowell Folk Festival. So, don't be surprised to see a little bit of Lowell sprinkled in here with Cambodia.
Cambodia is the first of our three stops whose capital city I knew. But, again: I don't know much outside of that. The food, the music—those are blank spots. When I've read or learned anything about Cambodia, it always seemed to be in the context of war, of the Khmer Rouge, of US bombing in the 1960s and 1970s—important, clearly, but also clearly missing just about everything about the place.
So: we'll dive in for a day. Food, music, history. And then it's back to work on Monday.
I see Anthony Bourdain filmed an episode of No Reservations there in 2011: Season 10, Episode 2: Cambodia. We're going to watch that. I think that any time I'm going to travel somewhere, in person or virtually, I'm always going to search "Anthony Bourdain [LOCATION]" while planning.
There doesn't seem to be much advice out there about traveling to Paraguay—compared to its neighbors like Brazil and Argentina, or compared to other places I've considered traveling in my life. That's worth +10 points on my scorecard.
We picked Paraguay's name out of a hat, albeit a hat that only contained South America and Asia this time (so: random, but not random). Terra incognito—for me, at least, although it's home for millions. Here are just a few small things that I learned while filling in that part of my map. It's just a game—one day of doing, maybe one day of preparing—and the best part of the game, since it is impossible to learn very much in such a short time, is the occasional "oh that's very interesting" insight that plants itself like a small seed in your mind, perhaps bearing some kind of fruit later, perhaps not.
But yes—the "trip" itself.
This time I was in charge of doing the grocery shopping, and a good deal of the food and recipe finding (as if my Spanish is remotely functional anymore), so I didn't even really get the chance to learn much about Paraguay itself in addition to the pre-trip post. Instead, we outsourced that work to the late Anthony Bourdain, from his trip to Paraguay in 2014 (it's a full episode on YouTube, you'll have to buy it to see it):
That's a weak effort for learning about history and culture, so I'll pass along here a few unfinished notes:
Listen: I have been converted. I never would have thought to myself, when thinking of a place to go, that I should try to make dishes from the place I'm going to go. Eat? Sure. Make? How? But the act of looking up what some of the essential dishes are, and trying to figure out how to acquire the odd ("odd") ingredients, and trying to find recipes and videos and advice, and then actually making the dish is, I think, a great way to gain some insight into the place, and to earn the interest that you've gained. What we make will never, ever be right, especially since we've never had any of these things before making them (aside from the empanadas, but I've never had any explicitly Paraguayan empanadas, whatever that might actually mean). The act of thinking and planning and searching and cooking—there's something more there than just consuming, even if it's wrong. (I sort of remember, while visiting Udaipur ages ago, that there were cooking classes that you could sign up for, and I never really thought about it at the time. I would certainly do that now.) Anyway, the point is: don't worry, make food.
We made four dishes:
Sopa paraguaya - called a "soup", but it's a cornbread with eggs that give it a most non-cornbread texture.
On Wednesday, the next stop of our tour-around-the-world-without-actually-going-anywhere-game is Paraguay. Again: selected at random. Again: another country that I don't know anything about (didn't even know the capital city of Paraguay). I could tell you a little about all of the surrounding countries but nothing about Paraguay itself. So: a lucky pick, a good opportunity to learn about a place that I otherwise wouldn't think about.
I'm looking for information in the usual places I'd look if I were actually traveling somewhere (and I've also been trying to codify that approach, because someday we'll go somewhere: Travel approach). If you've got any knowledge or experience about Paraguay—food, music, places to go, etc.—let me know and we'll add it to our itinerary.
Things that have immediately caught my eye that seem worth looking up:
90% of the population can speak an indigenous language, Guarani
The Gran Chaco is a dry, wild area in the northwest, consisting of 60% of the land area of Paraguay but 10% of the population
Haven't found much yet about which dishes, etc., are essential to Paraguay, but Recetas de Paraguay seems promising so far. I have discovered sopa paraguayo, but I don't understand it because sopa is soup but sopa paraguaya is some kind of bread (?).
Not literally—or even close, really—but we did the best we could from home.
My wife had an idea that we should play a game: pick a country, at random, and then take a trip there—sort of take a trip there. We could cook the food, find music and movies and pictures, learn about the place—do whatever we could do without, well, taking a trip there.
I picked a number (47). She compared it to a list of countries. 47 turned out to be Ghana. OK. I don't know anything about Ghana. Really—nothing.
Honestly, I wasn't sure how it was going to work out. This kind of game could have been really cheesy or shallow. But with the right balance—believing that you could find some meaningful information about a place without believing that what you found was totally representative of the place, or even marginally representative, or maybe even right because how can you tell without any real insight?—it could be a chance to learn a little something.
Here's what we cooked:
Here's how it turned out for us:
(What "we" cooked... my job was to look up history and culture, but I only ate the food, I didn't cook it.)
And so: a bullet list of small things I collected while learning more about Ghana:
High point: 885m (Mt. Afadja)
Low point: half of Ghana under 150m
Lake Bosumtwi is a large lake in an old meteor crater (W)
Khofi Annan – UN Secretary General (1997-2006), 2001 Nobel Peace Prize
11 government sponsored: Akuapem Twi, Asante Twi, Fante, Dagaare, Dagbanli, Dangme, Ga, Nzema, Gonja, and Kasem
(That's a quick list. I was asked to make slides... yikes. Next time I'm going to get in front of it and make a quick web page.)
Look at this list of Ghana history at BBC: Ghana country profile. You might think that Ghana's history mostly consisted of European countries. Even at first glance that seems wrong. Given only an hour to dig around, I modified it to be something like this:
~1000-2000 BCE – Kintampo Complex, migrants from western Sudan
300 BCE – Ghana empire (unrelated namesake, northwest of current country)
1000s – Dagomba states (Northern region)
1482 - Portuguese arrive and begin trading in gold, ivory and timber with various Akan states.
~1500 - Gã people arrive in Accra
1500s - Slave trade: Slavery overtakes gold as the main export in the region.
1600s - Dutch, English, Danish, and Swedish settlers arrive
1670s – Asante Empire
1874 - The Gold Coast is officially proclaimed a British crown colony.
6 March 1957 - Independence: Ghana becomes first sub-Saharan African colony to declare independence (video of the ceremony)
(That's not great, or complete, but if you're going to do a historical timeline about Ghana, or anywhere, you really should pay attention to the lens that you look at it through.)
And a few videos:
Ghana vs. USA in the 2010 World Cup
Deutsche Welle: People, trading, and markets in Ghana
I've been trying to make sense out of days 8 to 10. I remember staying in Missoula for one night, but I know it was two nights—and apparently it was three nights. Time has a way of mashing itself together—what was once a a number of distinct layers of time events compresses into a dense blob of time spans as more time events are heaped onto the pile, or maybe it is that each subsequent time event just represents a smaller and smaller percentage of your life as you get further down the road so that the relief becomes smaller and smaller and smaller. 
The memories I wish that got captured and held are conversations and small things and perhaps-meaningless details about where Aunt Sandy and I went out to eat, for example, or if we just ate lunch at her house, or if we ate dinner together at all. Those kinds of things blur—maybe after a week of traveling, see new things, seeing just so many things passing by, that given an opportunity to relax into the comfortable banal there is also an opportunity to turn off the internal recording device that captures and holds. Maybe mindfulness is the mechanism  that lets you keep running the tape, but that explanation seems off, and I've been searching for some reason to justify being always-on but none has been forthcoming, so I think I can comfortably relax back into my baseline thought, however padded with anxiety that it is, that you can just miss some of the details.
Minor detail that did stick for whatever reason: I remember buying two books on this day. One would have been a hiking guide to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness area, which I've since purged. The other was a paperback copy of Henry David Thoreau's Walden, bundled up nicely and neatly with Civil Disobedience. That copy I gave away in summer 2006 to Natalie R. while in Strasbourg.
Another detail is talking to someone on the phone on the road back into Missoula later that afternoon. A hillside cutout for the highway remains stamped in my memory at the point of picking up the call—again, for whatever reason—although I can feel the dimensions of the highway and the road stretching themselves like soft plastic in my memory.
The main part of the day was a hike to—or at least toward St. Mary Peak.  I didn't make it to the top of this one. As a native cornlander, again, the idea of snow in June is roughly equivalent to the idea of pigs with wings. Pigs exist, wings exist—but together? Seems unlikely. But the main trailhead is up over 2000m, and it wasn't too far in before the trail started to accumulate wet packed snow, and then snow, and then as I entered the clouds the snow came down from above as well. There is no concept of this in the flatlands. You might get some variation of it where there are some limestone formations underground, and the air passing through the hollows  is much colder than the air in the rest of the environment. Otherwise, that old saw about "if you don't like the weather just wait 15 minutes" aligns the change in weather along the time axis as compared to the vertical axis which, of course, we don't even have a vertical axis at home. So I've found it easy to get caught off guard by an obvious but unexpected change—which isn't even proper to call it a change because the environment was already there, I just walked into it.
Suffice it to say that postholing through snow is no bueno and I made it as far as the wilderness boundary before calling it Good Enough and turning around. The clouds had already packed the scenery away and I didn't have any bearings about how far I had gone. Looking at the map recently while geotagging pictures, I was not that far away from the top—but "not that far away" is relative, an exercise in useless stubbornness to keep going but a pinprick in the ego balloon to quit.
One other memory: Montana is bear country—the western half up in the mountains, at least. I do remember tying something (a spoon? a pen?) to a metal cup and hanging it on my daypack for the hike to make a little noise for the bears. Bears and humans agree: surprises are nice, but not all surprises.
When I landed in Idaho on 30 May, I stayed at my grad school thesis advisor's house in Lake Fork, Idaho. Oof. I was a horrible grad student—no focus. Every time I think of it, I get a little embarrassed. Some people get into grad school with a plan to go and do something with it (e.g., be a professor), some of us get into it because it's an available next step. To compress the whole thing down to one sentence before floating on, that job in the COIL lab in grad school taught me more about practical things like using a lathe, soldering, solid modeling, etc., than any other thing I've done. Anyway, we're halfway home here, and I'm going to hide behind that to not think about my utilization of grad school as a parking lot instead of a runway. Selah.
What's in Idaho?
I don't remember as many specific things about this day as the previous day, but for a few things.
The first is stopping off at the White Bird Battlesite on US-12 on the way from Idaho to Missoula. I didn't seek it out, it was just at the right place at the right time when I needed to stop driving. This was where a bit of the Nez Perce nation turned back the US Army I had never really heard of the Nez Perce nation, but I vaguely remember knowing vaguely about Chief Joseph, if only for the coda, "from where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever". But that's all. The rest of indigenous America is Dances with Wolves and Chief Illiniwek and Custer and it's all grating on my nerves a little bit here in the long shadow of George Floyd.
Obviously on 31 May 2005 George Floyd was just some dude wherever, and now he's dead and everything feels like it's running amok, like a game of nuclear dominos.
None of that was obvious in 2005. But I do remember the feeling of standing in that memorial field. Some open spaces are like that—ostensibly just a bunch of grass, but heavy with memories. You can feel Pickett's Charge if you stand there long enough. I suspect the beaches of Normandy are like that as well. At White Bird, the historical sign says something to the effect of "here the Nez Perce turned back the US Army and then whipped them back up the canyon". And what is that feeling where you can root for the underdog when they're whipping your team?
I remember visiting Custer Last Stand when we went on a family vacation to Montana in 1988—I really still remember that. (I don't think I'm misremembering that it was called ungramatically "Custer Last Stand" instead of "Custer's Last Stand".) Every fallen US soldier had his own grave marker, wherever it was in that open field where they fell. And there was something about the openness of that grassland and the sheer number of the grave markers that leaves a question on your heart: why? Who really remembers anything directly from when they were younger, I don't know, but I don't feel like I walked away from that place feeling like my team had done the right thing. There's a nasty dose of dissonance in store for anyone who tries to square their everyday lives in the Midwest with the everyday lives of someone else out on some prairie being squared up at the end of the barrel of a gun. Maybe your mind can't give words to it, at whatever age, but something is off.
So is it a heavy feeling or a light feeling as you walk the battlefield—so much smaller than the battlefields that you think of in your mind, some Civil War or World War II slaughterhouse mayhem—but the small size and the isolation get to you if you take a quiet moment to think about it.
Really, that's all you're going to give it, at most—a quiet moment. Then you're going to get back into your car and drive somewhere else far far away. And if you get hot you'll turn on the air conditioner. And if you get bored you'll turn on the radio. And if the cavalry rides into your backyard to oust you from your home you'll do what needs to be done. These are the rules. We don't write them. We got here after thousands and thousands of years of accidents and hard work and we might not know everything, but we know what needs to be done to survive, even if it kills us.
Later I ended up in Missoula and stayed with my Aunt Sandy. It was nice. Really. I'm just lacking, for the moment, the will to think about it.
To this day, the most memorable part of this particular day is a near miss. 
Forest service roads are mostly empty on even the busiest days—especially in the middle of Central Oregon. Driving through the meadows and trees by yourself at daybreak, you start to get the feeling that you're the only person in the universe, cruising through time and space in a way that suggested that the place was mine and mine alone.  Forgive me. I was 24. I haven't kicked the habit but it was so much more concentrated then.
Anyway: the point.
Coming around a turn that I can still see very clearly in my mind—a 90-degree-or-so bend cut into a small ridge—sliding around that gravel bend because that's what you do when you grow up with access to gravel roads that bend—seeing the grill of that truck stamped like the aftermath of a red hot brand in my memory.
Probably I'm just overdramatizing it in my memory. Probably it was routine. Probably I wasn't speeding as much as I thought I was. Probably I didn't get that ass end out around the front end and then grab traction just in time to slide in between the truck and the ditch on my side of the road. But. But but but. In memory. In that solemn memory vault where the lies and the truths spend their time shooting the breeze until they're called into action, that's how I remember it—a pound-your-fist-on-the-car-ceiling-and-keep-pushing-it kind of moment. I can't even imagine what the actual consequence of sideswiping a local in the middle of nowhere with no reception and no recourse would have resulted in. Utter catastrophe. Needle pricks in the hands and forearms even now. 
And I remember the next problem, maybe not connected to the first, but maybe borne out of the same bit of karma.
What do you do, when you're in the middle of nowhere, and you're out of gas?
Dunh dunh DUNH.
This specific detail eludes me: did I try to drive to John Day Fossil Beds National Monument (Painted Hills section) and then blanche and decide to get gas, or did I figure out, when I popped out of NF-12 (I think) onto US-26, that I was basically out of gas and needed to sort that out pronto? I don't quite remember. I remember the white-knuckle-but-slow-motion-and-neutral-on-the-downhills drive east on US-26 hoping that there was a gas station within range. I remember the single pump tiny-ass gas station that saved my ass. South Fork Mini Market. With that weird Oregon requirement of not being allowed to pump your own gas. I hope my younger self tipped the hell out of that guy. I don't think they're even allowed to take tips. What does it matter? Survive and advance.
These shouldn't be the memories that I retain but they're still there, and they're still fresh.
The rest of the day is still there in my memory in fresh relief as well. I wonder: is that the result of the early morning adrenaline?
John Day is badlands: yellow and red and, if you go to the Turtle Cove formation, blue. Weird volcanic spew dumped from somewhere on the weird volcanic coast, then covered up, then slowly revealed after ages and ages of erosion—and it takes ages and ages because it doesn't look like it rains out there.
I don't even—I can't.
It's an interesting place, but the recall of the place still fades in comparison to dumb young adult car problems. It's too bad. But John Day is mostly imagination anyway. You can see with your eyes the colors. But you have to see with your mind the fossils and the lives of the pre-fossil animals and the non-lives of the pre-color vulcanism and so on. The really interesting stuff isn't there, it's in your mind. The thing itself in front of you on the trail is just an image, a what-is-now, a what-you-see, but it has many what-it-is's to it. You have to accordion the place out through time to get a good feel for it.
This is all strange talk but I'm not going to edit it—this is the record as it exists in what passes for my memory. Then US-26 east and then OR-7 east and northeast to cut cross-country to Baker City, and then OR-86 past the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretative Center (too late, closed) to cut through Hells Canyon to Idaho.
This day is the fulcrum of that trip—a tipping point from the left side to the right side, from the west side to the east side, from the cautious side to the aggressive side. Selah.
 George Carlin, it's not a near miss, it's a near hit, etc.
 Noble kings and princes would bow whene'er they came / Pirate ships would lower their flags when Puff roared out his name
 There's only one other turn in my memory, also a gravel road turn, that evokes this much ferocity and adrenaline on recall: Depler Springs Road, near Lewistown, morning, sophomore year high school, out to pick someone up for a morning run training for track, getting the station wagon I-swear-perpendicular to the gravel road in an induced fishtail before sliding it to a stop. But can that be Depler Springs Road? Wasn't that paved? How much of memory is totally paved over with falsehoods? Should you even read this post?