Author Archives: kirk.kittell

A few IPT case studies from Integrating PM/SE book

2020-07-02: Now reading: Integrating Program Management and Systems Engineering

I just finished Chapter 7 of this book, which used the F/A-18E/F program—from ol' McDonnell right here in St. Louis—as a case study for how to integrate project management and systems engineering via integrated product teams (IPTs). I've never really thought much about the whys and wherefores of IPTs. They're just part of the air that you breathe on large aerospace/defense programs, projects decomposed into functional teams and subteams and so on. I wasn't sure if IPTs are still in style or not—I think we're all agile now—but clearly aerospace companies are putting that in their job postings, so it must still have some currency.

Anyway. You either have access to that book or you don't. But it is drawn heavily from other references that are readily available. If F/A-18E/F is as good of an example of how to integrate systems engineering and program management as the book describes it—ahead of time, under budget, under weight (in a good way)—then it's something worth learning more about, to see how they did it.

  1. Bailey, E. (1998, April 9). The F/A‐18E/F: An Integrated Product Team (IPT) case study. Institute for Defense Analyses. IDA NS D‐8027.
  2. Bailey, E., Nash, S., & Woolsey, J. (1999, January). Integrated product and process development case study, Development of the F/A‐18E/F. Institute for Defense Analyses. IDA D‐2228.
  3. White, J. W. (1997). Application of new management concepts to the development of F/A‐18 aircraft. Johns Hopkins APL Technical Digest, 18(1), 21–32.
  4. Younossi, O., Stem, D., Lorell, M., & Lussier, F. (2005). Lessons learned from the F/A–22 and F/A–18E/F development programs. Rand Corporation. Report MG‐276. ISBN 0‐8330‐3749‐8.

Overabstraction of the Backyard Steps Project and Backyard Leveling Project

I'll tell you one of my personal hells:


"Ce qui vaut la peine d'être fait vaut la peine d'être bien fait". ("What is worth doing is worth doing well".) You've heard that one before. That's just a gateway drug, though. Doing something well leads to wanting to understand the patterns and causes and then, once you can start to get a grip on the classes and methods of that something it's only natural to want to start building a machine of some sort to do that something for you.

(I'm saying "you" but I know I'm thinking "me". Bear with me on this one. I need to talk about this like it's your problem. It's easier to deal with, etc.)

My big Home Project now is building some steps from the back door of the garage down to the back yard—the Backyard Steps Project. In isolation: it's not that difficult of a problem.

Plot twist.

My wife would also like the backyard to be leveled—the Backyard Leveling Project. In its current state (which I was tempted to call its "natural state", although this would be a casual lie because it was certainly modified during the installation of these suburbs in the ~1960s, and perhaps even before that, I don't know) there is a downslope from north-to-south and from west-to-east. As the proud owner of a shovel (a collection of shovels, really, don't judge), the solution to the leveling problem is simple: take a shovelful of dirt from the high side and put it on the low side. Repeat until there is no high side or low side.

Simple specification, simple implementation. I'd crawl on my knees and beg for a spec to be this easy to implement at work. However, there is some coupling between the Backyard Steps Project and the Backyard Leveling Project that is giving me a headache.

How many steps does one need? Assuming you care about your user (you should—I do), the steps should be an equal height—an obvious assumption, sure, but we're just building out the model here. Now you have h_step, and n_steps * h_step will be the total elevation change (h_total) from the landing at the top (z_top) to the landing at the bottom (z_bottom); or, in reverse, the total elevation change will give you n_steps, just divide h_total by h_step. z_top is fixed—the garage slab is not going anywhere. But z_bottom is z_backyard, and the value of z_backyard to use is its future value, after leveling. h_step—we'll limit the values for this one between 6 and 7.5 inches.

And, to some extent, since setting z_bottom affects the rise-over-run of the whole set of steps, z_bottom also affects d_step, the depth (or amount of run) of each step—and we'll also assume d_step to be equal for all steps. But this can be somewhat mitigated by changing the length of the top and bottom landing. (w_step, the width of the path, was fixed at 60 inches through what we might call stakeholder feedback.)

A diagram would be helpful, no?

[TBD: diagram]

I've also gathered measurements (good ol' stick, string, and bubble level) for the project. The measurements break down into two groups: (1) the ground leading from the garage door to the edge of the deck (a single arc); and (2) the back yard measured in 2-ft increments 32 feet south of each deck pier (so, basically, six arcs of data). Call it data_1 and data_2 for reference.

data_1 is easy because it is just measured from the deck (the top edge of the deck planks) down to the ground with a (large) ruler. It assumes that the deck level is fixed because otherwise why bother. It also assumes that the east-west slope here is zero, which is not accurate, but not far off—since this bit is not part of the yard leveling scheme, it doesn't need to be accurate, I'm not accounting for the volume of dirt to move.

data_2 was massively annoying to capture. I attached the string a clamp on the wood supports one inch above each of the concrete piers to provide a reference height for each series of measurements. But each pier has a different absolute height—so, essentially, there is a z_string for each series of measurements that defines the height of the fixed string above the ground to give the raw measurements.


This all needs to be adjusted so that the height measurements are taken from the same level—deck level.


There is one more transformation that I did, that might be overkill—but what the hell. As mentioned at the start: if it's worth doing, it's worth overdoing. The distance measured south of the deck is really the distance along the ground, not the distance measured along the north-south axis—so a little trigonometry needs to be done to pull out the y-axis (north-south axis) component.


Then add in the distance between the piers for x-axis (east-west axis):


Then, at this point, I've got the transformed (x,y,z) field data for leveling the backyard.

Independence Day 2020

My memories of July 4th—that's American Independence Day, don't you forget it—split into two categories.

The first, the old ones:

Sitting in the field near... (I have to go to the map to look this one up...) 4th Street and Birch Street in Canton, watching the fireworks. The Fireworks—a Tradition. The Fourth of July Fireworks were something you could count on—a stable point in the year that you knew would be there.

The later, but still old ones:

Driving across Illinois, from Champaign to Dawson or Mechanicsburg, leaving campus to go party with old (as in former, at the time, but now I guess we're getting closer to old as in Old) Scout Camp friends. I'll tell you what life is like growing up in the Flatlands: if you drive down the highway at the right time on July 4th, you can see the fireworks go up in a half dozen towns—no topographical aberrations in the way. Farmer City. Monticello. Decatur. Illiopolis. I don't even know, honestly—the specifics are lost to time and, more honestly, the July 4th party on the other side of the drive. But I'll tell you: there is nothing lonelier that that drive across the glaciated flatlands, seeing the pop-pop-pop fireworks of some small city, imagining a former you there watching, but you're a current you driving, driving driving driving, moving on somewhere else, experiencing your past selves while you transport your current self Onward.

Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car at night?

—Jack Kerouac, On The Road (1957)

Oh, hell. If we're going to break out On the Road and talk about fireworks, let's at least break this one out:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!'

That's alright, that's alright—I can sleep calmly now after that, I think.

I've seen so many fireworks from the road. (Presley's what I go by / Why don't you change the stations / Let's count the grain elevators as they go by in the rearview mirror.) A pop-pop here and a pop-pop there. I can hear the fireworks in the distance here in Ballwin, a pop-pop here and a pop-boom there. Blow it up—blow it all up. Fine. Scare 2020 all the way back into its hole and let's start afresh.

The fireworks in Canton, sitting in lawn chairs with my parents, are the ones I miss.

The rocket equation is obvious, but

This is from 2012. I've never read it before, but I picked it up as a reference in the Integrating PM and SE book that I'm reading: Andrew Chaikin, Is SpaceX Changing the Rocket Equation?, Air and Space Magazine (January 2012).

You read something like that and—you get a little jealous. The article itself, eight years later, is almost quaint. Falcon 9 works. Dragon just dropped off passengers at the International Space Station for the first time. The notes about rocket engine redundancy are now, hundreds of rocket engines later, obvious. Same thing with fasteners and stage diameters—it's so obvious that you should reduce the number of things that you (a) need to design or build and (b) that you need to design interfaces for and (c) have to learn how to use. Painfully obvious. I don't know about the economics of rocket stage reuse (I would be happy to believe—send references this way, etc.) but the economics of multi-application of components and equipment is just so obvious. And building things in-house? Yessir—obvious. In retrospect. For the rest of us.

How many things exist in your day-to-day life and your day-to-day work that are besotted with obvious things that should be abandoned or changed. There's nothing that is that needs to always be. Everything is contingent. Everyone is winging it. Even the best things were designed by people who did the best the could with the resources they had with the time that was available—nothing is optimal.

I remember having an interview with SpaceX sometime around the time of this article—something for a range safety job, I think, which would have been related to my very first gig at Orbital working on Kinetic Energy Interceptor, which means I was still listing... I have to look this up because I don't remember... AFSPCMAN 91-710 on my resume. I only remember talking to the recruiter because I had to step out of Brookline Booksmith into the freezingass cold of Massachusetts winter to answer classic interview questions such as "what was your GPA?", which I answered grumpily because it's a stupid question when you've been out of school for a few years, but also I didn't have a job at the time so maybe I should have just played the game. I don't know. Years later I had another interview where I was asked by the interviewer to explain why I was a rock star, which I also pointed out was a stupid question. It is a stupid question—hey, sorry, I played the bass guitar, you might confuse us for wallpaper—but, again, what happens if you play the game?

SpaceX didn't change the rocket equation. Delta-V is Delta-V—yesterday, today, tomorrow. Exit velocity, initial mass, final mass.

The physics is simple.


Here we are.

For now.

Articles like this one are an envypill for me—eat it up.

We invited Elon Musk to come to the University of Illinois for SpaceVision2005. He flew to Champaign, gave the talk, flew back out—bing bang boom. I didn't see the presentation. I fired all our conference staff for that hour and sent them into the talk, then watched the tables outside myself. I've got to bug people who went there, see if they remember, 15 years ago, what it was all about—see if any of their trajectories were altered by the event.

Now reading: Integrating Program Management and Systems Engineering

Eric Rebentisch (editor), Integrating Program Management and Systems Engineering: Methods, Tools, and Organizational Systems for Improving Performance

I've had this one on my reading list since sitting in on a meeting of the INCOSE PM-SE Integration Working Group at a conference last year. (PM = program management, SE = systems engineering.) The topic is right there on a bridge that I'd like to build... or cross... depending on the day. But now I've bumped it up to the top of my reading list while working with the local PMI chapter to do a joint PM/SE online meeting in September. What topics to cover? I don't quite know yet—so let's start with the topics in the book, fan out on the references, and go from there. I'm thinking about how to get one SE and one PM and have them go at topics from their side of the fence, giving a little bit of perspective for the other side to consider. Stakeholder management will certainly be one. Certification might be another. Or not—or more. There's time yet to figure it out.

No one wants to admit it, because there's professional pride involved, but these two disciplines ("disciplines") are mostly the same thing, but with one side focusing a little more on time and the other side focusing a little more on technical content. At a big organization, they are separated to suit the hierarchy of the organization—nerds go this way, suits go that way. Go to a smaller organization and you'll see what it's really about—time and money and technical content are managed by the people who are available to manage them. Oh you're a program manager? That's great. Hold this screwdriver. Oh you're a systems engineer? That's great. Why is this equipment late and expensive? There's no magic in the title—your product is either in the box or not in the box when it's time to ship. If you need something to make you feel good about your role, get a dog.

Op. En. Up. Your. Gol. Den. Gates.

I'll tell you the greatest trick the devil ever pulled, he said three or four or five months into social isolation in the year of our virus, 2020 AV.

Three or four or five months... who's even counting at this point?

I'm here, again, in front of the computer, listening to music. Again, again. When did this song come up, and why do I keep dredging it back up after it sinks back under the surface of the water where it might drown safely out of my consciousness.

But there it is, there it is.

There it is.

I don't even try to evangelize Tom Waits to anyone. What's the point? My wife just wants to know if he's OK. He's OK, baby, he's OK. His voice is an instrument—a strange instrument, but an instrument, His Instrument, and it makes sense in context, and, yes, OK, we can listen to something else. Fair enough.

And I have to retreat here to a corner of our fortified compound to listen to Mr. Waits do his thing.

It's fine. It's fine. It's Fine. It's FINE.

But those fists clench yet, don't they?

Yeah they do. They cut half moons in the palms of my hands.

Neal was singin' to the nurse, 'Underneath the Harlem Moon' /
And somehow you could just tell we'd be in California soon

You know... here within these four walls—of the room, of the house, of the yard—it doesn't take much anymore to feel a little crazy about wanting to burst through one of those walls at top speed and keep going, like an Energizer Bunny on speed, careening down the road and down the road and so on into Oblivion. And then this song comes up and

And then she lit the map on fire, Neal just had to guess
Should we try and find a bootleg route or a fillin' station open
The nurse was dumpin' out her purse and lookin' for an envelope
And Jack was out of cigarettes, and as we crossed the yellow line
The gas pumps looked like tombstones from here

and then you feel that tug—a manila rope bowlined right around your sternum—and you remember what it's like to be in That Car rolling down That Road into That Future. And hey, hey, hey—

And somehow you could just tell we'd be in California soon


I don't ever feel like I'm going to go crazy, really—it's just an affectation to offset the general boredom of the cycle of days, over and over again.

And somehow you could just tell we'd be in California soon

But that half moon fist clench isn't that far away.

And somehow you could just tell we'd be in California soon

There's a physical memory and a mental memory and a spiritual memory of moving on down the road—I don't know that it's unique to us Americans, but I think us Americans have it unique.

And Jack was out of cigarettes, and as we crossed the yellow line
The gas pumps looked like tombstones from here
And it felt lonelier than a parkin' lot when the last car pulls away

Anyway. That song taunts me. I haven't read any Kerouac in years, and On the Road in even more years, but to come of age in America as a male with a drivers license, as a human with the sight to see out the front windshield and hands to control the wheel and the will to move on down the road... oof. There's a pressure trapped there behind the rib cage, behind the forehead—in the fingers that rub together, knowing that it's just a car key and a credit card away from [rubs fingers] anywhere.

Countin' one eyed Jacks and whistlin' Dixie in the car
Neal was doin' least a hundred when we saw a fallin' star

[rubs fingers]

And somehow you could just tell we'd be in California soon

It's at this point that the song goes from maudlin to beautiful. Tom has been playing with Jack and Neal and the nurse for the entire song, hinting at the underlying melody, and then it rolls around the bend, like a car curving around a hill to reveal the bay below, unfolding Al Jolson unexpectedly, perfectly, expertly, necessarily, directly, correctly—

Open up your golden gates
California, here I come

2005, the way home: day 9

Original post: 2005-06-01: Return from Mojave, Day 9

Photos: Mojave to Illinois, May 2005

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. [1]

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 [2] 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. [3] 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 [4] 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.

edge of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness area

[1] For another time (unintentional pun, etc.): Bejan, Adrian. "Why the Days Seem Shorter as We Get Older." European Review 27.2 (2019): 187-194. (pdf) And a summary of the same: Ephrat Livni. "Physics explains why time passes faster as you age." Quartz (2019-01-08).

[2] "Mindfulness is a slick word, full of snake oil imagery, but awareness I can tolerate." Forget the brake (2020-05-09)

[3] Peakbagger:

[4] [sic] hollers

2005, the way home: day 8

Original post: 2005-05-31: Return from Mojave, Day 8

Photos: Mojave to Illinois, May 2005

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?


It's wonderful.

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.

2005, the way home: day 7

Original post: 2005-05-30: Return from Mojave, Day 7

Photos: Mojave to Illinois, May 2005

To this day, the most memorable part of this particular day is a near miss. [1]

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. [2] 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.

Holy shit.

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. [3]

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.

[1] George Carlin, it's not a near miss, it's a near hit, etc.

[2] Noble kings and princes would bow whene'er they came / Pirate ships would lower their flags when Puff roared out his name

[3] 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?

2005, the way home: day 6

Original post: 2005-05-29: Return from Mojave, Day 6

Photos: Mojave to Illinois, May 2005

Day 6: Seattle to Ochoco National Forest in Oregon

I like reading the old posts and old journals because it lifts up little details that had otherwise been forgotten. I was going to go back to Mt. St. Helens and hike around a bit but, apparently, the cloud cover was down too low that it would have been like looking at fog through fog from fog. So: no go.

I'll tell you what my superpower is, though: give me a map and I'll find you the most interesting route from Here to There. I don't know why, but I know why. When my mom worked at the ASCS office [1] back in the day, the fields and plots were printed out on paper for measurement, then we just had them at home as a neverending supply of scratch paper. Maps—black-and-white aerial or satellite images, really—were this everpresent baseline thing at home. No wonder I can see the world so easily like a map. I never thought about it before.

But, yes: give me a map, a point A, and a point B, and I'll find you the most interesting route in between. Not the shortest, not the fastest—the most interesting. Because, you see, we optimize for the wrong things. Short might make sense if you're out of gas, and fast might make sense if you need to make it to the hospital, but otherwise: why not optimize ("optimize") for something fuzzier like interest, stresslessness, novelty, etc. Oh ho: because you can't optimize for that. Or, maybe, you can, but you'd have to synthesize the variables in such a way that only the crackpots would deal with your math.

I've gone off the rails. But. No. There's an angle here.

Give me a map, a point A, and a point Z, and I'll find you points A-Y that show you something you've never seen before—in a good way.

And so, driving south past the Mt. St. Helens exit through Washington, that's what I did. Hey—can't do that, let's do something else instead. I cut south until I ran out of Washington, then I cut east along the Columbia River until it looked like a suitable place to cross. Along the way I saw an enormous group of kite surfers (at The Hatchery) taking advantage of the wind tunnel flow down the Columbia River Gorge to slalom around the whitecaps before taking flight.

Kitesurfing on a river? If the shoe fits.

From there: south. Past Mt. Hood. Back into the casual dry wilderness of Central Oregon—the high desert, the volcanic waste, the dry grass, the conspicuous lack of gas stations. (Foreshadowing.)


I wish I could give you what I get out of driving across these strange (to me) but unremarkable (to anyone) places.

Playing back all these memories, and remapping all these routes, and sorting through all these pictures... I can put myself back in the seat of the Grand Am [2] and remember what it was like to feel the river gorge, then the trees, then the absence of trees. I can remember the low and then increasing anxiety of looking for the Campground sign that I was expecting to see, letting me know that it was time to turn off the highway onto a forest service road (Ochoco National Forest), and then begin the slower business of finding the campsite which had no name on the map (Deep Creek Campground), then finding (hopefully) an open campsite (right by the creek—count yr blessings).

I wonder about people who are older than me. 10 years. 20 years. 40 years. How many boring details that don't mean anything to anyone can a person hold? Is there a reason I remember what certain trees look like at a place I once stopped a car? What it felt like to drive across the interminable dry grass and volcanic rock? Why do we hold the things we hold?

[1] ASCS = Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, part of the USDA (US Department of Agriculture), later the Farm Service Agency (FSA). I had no idea until now what ASCS stood for, though it is stamped in my memory. I vaguely remember the office being in downtown ("downtown") Lewistown at the edge of my memory, then later out by the high school. I still remember the phone number: 547-2233. Tell me... tell me why we retain the memories that we retain, it's so confusing...

[2] Coffin on Wheels, Coffin on Wheels.