Letters from the road: Nevada and California

I’m in a little restaurant-ish place in Baker, Nevada, just down the road from Great Basin National Park headquarters. I borrowed their wifi signal in the parking lot and felt bad about stealing it, so I came in here and got a root beer float. There’s a TV on in the background blaring a commercial for cheap life insurance that even the elderly can afford. I’m the only person in here — a small group walked in earlier, then turned around and left. Before that the owner was lecturing her son on the importance of trying harder. My new goal in life is not to be depressed by stuff like this. Of course the font of choice here is Papyrus.

Addendum: Man, the dates on this letter are all screwed up. Yesterday was the 25th, so yesterday’s entry [i.e., the part written in Colorado] should say Wednesday the 25th. And earlier today I thought it was the 27th, not the 26th. I really screwed up.

Here I am in the hospital. Yesterday a wild boar attacked me. It’s kind of a weird coincidence that I began this letter by gluing in the encyclopedia entry for wart hogs … I did that one month ago. I thought I could write right now, but I’m still too loopy on painkillers.

Monday morning in Santa Rosa, California! I’m in room 294 at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, recovering from injuries incurred during a rare and exciting form of human-pig communication known informally as “oh Jesus this wild animal is attacking me”. I’m rattled by the whole experience and making dumb jokes in what I suspect is a pretty transparent attempt to psych myself up.

I’m on one Percocet instead of two — two leaves me completely nonfunctional — and I’ve got an IV drip sending antibiotics into my arm, where my now no-longer-taken-for-granted circulatory system does a great job of sending those antibiotics down to my legs, where they’re fending off infection.

When I posted on Facebook that I was recovering here and invited Bay Area friends to visit me, a lot of people thought I was joking. Apparently I am like the boy who cried wolf, except instead I’ve been abusing people’s trust by shouting “wild boar” my whole life long. And now it occurs to me that I didn’t even explain what the hell happened, I just said “pig attack” and kind of left it there.

I’m still trying to figure out how to tell the story. I was talking to my friend Tom last night, and as much as I want to have a cool, macho-sounding story about fending off a wild pig, he still spent a lot of time listening to me cry while I tried to sort out how I feel.

What a weird summer. What a strange thing. A few days ago I was hiking through meadows in Nebraska Nevada watching clouds form and dissipate like I was a latter-day hippie vagabond, and now I have puncture wounds [lacerations is probably the more correct word] and staples in my legs and just enough meds in my system that I can write a letter but still confuse words that begin with the letter N. Thanks for backing my Kickstarter project.

Full page. Click to embiggen.

Random stuff from the back of the page. Click to embiggen.

Letters from the road: En route to California

It’s night and the moon was out early but now it’s sunk below the rock outcropping to the west. It’s lighting up clouds that are hanging just above the ridgeline, and the stars are out and the crickets are going crazy. I’m two miles from Utah, two miles from the Colorado River, and still within earshot of Interstate 70.

The sound of traffic is distant enough that it sounds soothing instead of annoying. It’s one thing to feel like you’re in the middle of a big wilderness, and another to feel like you’re on the edge of civilization. I like the former, but after time it can feel isolating. The latter feels sort of like you’ve pushed some boundary that no one particularly cares about.

It is a period of civil war. Rebel vans, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil galactic anti-van empire. During the battle, rebels managed to steal plans to the empire’s ultimate secret weapon, the death smokey, an armored space station capable of dispensing enough speeding tickets to destroy an entire roadtrip. Pursued by the empire’s plain-clothes agents, Princess Vanna races home aboard her van, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore maximum cruise potential to the galaxy…

I’m in a 7-Eleven parking lot in a tiny town in western Utah, one hundred miles from Great Basin National Park. I filled up on gas and I got a strawberry ice cream bar and store brand donuts because I guess I no longer value my health. Inside the store the manager and a rep from corporate were spitballin’ about how they could reorganize the snack foods. It was amazing, I’ve never seen that before.

Written in Colorado and Utah. Click to embiggen.

Collage from the reverse side of the page. The thin strips are leftover scraps of paper that were trimmed from pictures that went into other artwork. I like the textural feel I can get from this technique — which seems like a formulaic hack, to be honest — and which varies depending on the orderliness and amount of overlap among the individual elements.

Letters from the road: A Midwest retrospective

Hey folks — for the next couple of weeks I’ll be posting art and text taken from letters that I wrote as part of my Kickstarter project. I’m starting with a retrospective on the Midwest that I wrote to a Kickstarter backer named Todd. Page two of his letter, which describes travels in the Pacific Northwest, will run near the end of the series.

Full page excerpt from a letter about the Midwest. The “word bubbles” were formed by gluing down scraps of torn paper and tracing the outline. Click to embiggen.

This is a collage that I pasted onto the reverse side of the page above. Click to embiggen.

If you’d like to read through the text as originally presented, close-in crops on each of the word bubbles are below. An ordinary text transcription follows.

Transcription from letter:

  1. Hey Todd! It’s Mike. I’m doing a one-page retrospective on my travels through the Upper Midwest.
  2. I was mostly writing postcards — not letters — in that part of the country, so I thought some kind of summation would be nice.
  3. I started the trip in northeast Iowa. I spent a few days in a cabin on the Upper Mississippi. Then, camping.
  4. I slept in my van at Iowa’s Pike’s Peak State Park … A huge thunderstorm hit that night. Also, Iowa’s Pike’s Peak is not to be confused with Colorado’s Pike’s Peak. The latter is a real mountain. I  also visited Iowa’s Yellow River State Forest, part of the “Driftless Area”.
  5. Drift is what glaciers leave behind.
  6. So the Driftless Area is hilly … It avoided being smoothed over by ice age glaciers.
  7. The Driftless Area extends into Wisconsin. I drove through eastern Wisconsin, camping at some nice state parks along the way. The Ice Age National Scenic Trail meanders through Wisconsin and I hiked sections of it. And the shore of Lake Michigan was nice…
  8. The Great Lakes aren’t so much lakes as inland seas. I took a ferry from Manitowoc, Wisconsin to Ludington, Michigan. When I left Wisconsin there were only a few days to go before the big gubernatorial recall vote. The governor kept his job.
  9. When I got to Michigan I spent some time at Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness, which was beautiful. And then I visited Sleeping Bear Dunes. They each had this otherworldly quality to them — out of place and imposing, but not in an in-your-face way. More like a slam dunk grand slam of sublime beauty.
  10. Mackinac Island was a little weird. Lots of beautiful nature, no cars, but lots of cheesy tourist stuff and horse poop on all the roads. Fun ferry ride.
  11. Driving over the Mackinac Bridge — between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas in Michigan — that was cool. It’s a huge bridge. The Upper Peninsula was remote.
  12. Tahquamenon Falls, Pictured Rocks, the Porcupine Mountains. All neat places in the UP.
  13. In Duluth and Minneapolis I stayed with friends. After spending so much time camping, the cities were way more exciting than they had any right to be. In Duluth it rained cats and dogs, so my timing was especially good. Duluth is more easily enjoyed in the rain than, say, a random state park. Northern Minnesota feels as remote as the Upper Peninsula.
  14. Between Duluth and Minneapolis I visited the north shore of Lake Superior and also the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca State Park. I got chewed up by mosquitos and waded across the Mississippi River with my dog Skillet. I walked some sections of the North Country National Scenic Trail, which I’d also done in Michigan.
  15. After Minneapolis I visited my grandfather’s gravesite in a little town along the St. Croix River. It was around then that my transmission started slipping. I camped along the Mississippi on my way back to Iowa, and in Iowa I learned how to replace my busted-up transmission with a new one. Iowa Public Radio interviewed me, and I pulled up some dead trees with a tractor. Good times.

An interview with Lisa Monhoff, archivist at the Charles M. Schulz museum

After interviewing Jeannie Schulz, I sat down with Lisa Monhoff, archivist at the Charles M. Schulz museum archivist. We talked mostly about the museum’s archives and how they’re treated. There were also a couple of interesting tangents that I’ve posted below as separate clips.

The archives are really quite neat, and I’m hoping that this interview will prove interesting for Peanuts fans or anybody out there who’s interested in archives and library science.

Peanuts military patches

These are the military patches in the museum archives that Lisa showed me during the interview.

Charlie Brown "men's room" sign

This sign on the men’s room door is quite obviously inspired by the comic strip.

A little postscript here: If anyone’s interested, I dug up some more info on the braille “Twin Vision” version of Happiness is a Warm Puppy — scroll down to the “Happiness is Twin Vision” article on the page linked above.

An interview with Jeannie Schulz, widow of Peanuts artist Charles M. Schulz

I’ve always been a Peanuts fan. I loved reading Snoopy’s adventures when I was a kid. And I remember picking up a Peanuts anthology during a particularly tricky stretch of my adult life and feeling less lonely simply because I was reading about characters whose neuroses mirrored my own.

While recovering from my wild boar attack in California earlier this summer, I visited the Charles M. Schulz museum in Santa Rosa. Schulz is, of course, the artist who drew Peanuts during its fifty-year run. I was impressed with the museum, and thought that I might try my luck to see if I could interview someone there for my website. After a little bit of back and forth, I was able to set up interviews with Jeannie Schulz, Charles’ widow, and museum archivist Lisa Monhoff.

I think this interview will probably work best with minimal introduction, so here you go — I guess the only thing that you’d need to know going in is that Charles Schulz’s nickname is “Sparky”.

Jeannie Schulz in Charles' studio

Jeannie Schulz in Charles’ studio. August 10th, 2012.

Snoopy's doghouse, wrapped by Christo

The artist Christo presented Schulz with this version of Snoopy’s doghouse.

Charles Schulz's studio

Charles Schulz’s studio, where I interviewed his widow Jeannie.

Me in Charles Schulz's studio

Here I am looking like a gigantic goober in Charles Schulz’s studio.


Art by mail: Great Salt Lake

Postcard collage of Great Salt Lake and elaborate costume

Message on postcard:
Hi Sindre! Thanks for backing my Kickstarter project. I’ve had a great time traveling this summer, but since my wild boar attack the pace of things has slowed down while I recuperate in the Bay Area (the region around the San Francisco Bay). I was disappointed not to be able to send travel photos to all my project backers — snapshots of a friend’s apartment don’t compare well to the photos I took of the Badlands, for example — so I decided to work on a little mini-project while I’m convalescing.

Charles Schulz, the cartoonist who wrote and drew Peanuts, lived in nearby Santa Rosa for most of his career. After I got out of the hospital I visited the Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, and it was such a neat experience that I thought I would try to interview the museum archivist for my website. And tomorrow I’m interviewing not only the archivist, but also Jeannie Schulz, Charles Schulz’s widow. I’m super excited about this! I’m especially hoping that you enjoy it, because your avatar on the Kickstarter website is a very neat cartoon face.

I like Peanuts … I feel like Charlie Brown some days, and as the owner of two dogs I’m pretty much legally required to like Snoopy. Some of my friends don’t really care for the strip — not that they dislike it, rather they’re more neutral about it — which seems strange to me. I’m trying to segue into this story about the guest ledger at the museum, but I don’t know how to write a fluid transition, so I’ll just tell the story.

The guest ledger is this sketchbook with Charlie Brown on the cover, and inside people have written notes of appreciation and a few have drawn characters from Peanuts. On the cover, the smile on Charlie Brown’s face has a little downward dip at the end … it’s a little tiny pen movement that goes a long way. I think it shows some kind of anxiety or reservation in the character of Charlie Brown. And in a guest book entry, there’s an amateur attempt at Charlie Brown where he has a full-on smile, no hint of doubt to his happiness.

I think that particular amateur drawing is a great if unintentional interpretation of how Charlie Brown makes the artist feel. And it makes me happy that [an anxious, potentially depressed] character like Charlie Brown can make a person happier than Charlie Brown is.

Original and interpreted Charlie Brown

Charlie Brown as drawn by Charles Schulz, and Charlie Brown as drawn by a visitor to the Schultz Museum.


Art by mail: Barney Frank, King of the Pacific Salmon

Postcard collage of Barney Frank (king of the Pacific salmon) and the coastline

Message on postcard:
01. Hi Iona! You requested a postcard “the weirder the better”, so you get Congressman Barney Frank, King of Pacific Salmon. I recently had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Frank while camped near the beach on a windy and moonless night.

02. Around three in the morning I was awakened by an otherworldly noise that seemed to rise and fall with the waves. A sound like the cacophony of ten thousand voices warbling and gulping in unison. Through the trees I could see an eerie light glowing where I knew the beach to be. Of course I went to investigate.

03. The noise got louder and louder. As I approached the beach I worried that I’d made an unwise choice. In the wan light I could see beads of sweat on my forearms in spite of the chill wind. Soon I reached a bluff overlooking the shoreline, where I saw countless thousands of Pacific Salmon gathered ’round what must have been millions of glowing fish eggs. On the periphery of the gathering was an old boombox sucking down D-cell batteries and blasting Foghat.

04. That noise — the fish were trying to sing along to Foghat. And in the center of the gathering was Barney Frank, perched atop a wave-lapped throne before the majestic, glowing eggs. Lit from below by the bioluminescent gametes, Frank raised a bejeweled scepter and began to chant: “Slow ride… Take it easy…”

05. It was then that my footing gave way. One moment I was nodding along to the chant, the next I was tumbling down the sandy bluff. When I came to rest on the beach all I could hear was the wind and the surf and the boombox. The chanting had stopped, and all eyes were upon me, broadcasting  a mix of piscatorial terror and anger.

06. But then a voice thundered out of the night: “Leave the surface-man be!” It was Barney Frank! I recognized his voice from C-SPAN, but something was different. I later learned that Barney Frank’s gill protectors, which he wears in public life but had removed for the ceremony, have a slight but noticeable effect on his vocal chords. “This intruder means no harm,” Frank continued, “and so we will teach him the secrets of our fishy ways.” The King of the Pacific Salmon waved his scepter, and a black mechanical whale breached the surface of the ocean. “Come, surface-man, and follow me Jonah-like to the deep.” And so I did, but secrets are secrets and I have to leave it there.

If Americans found no clear answers, they at least asked the right questions.

Detail from reverse side: Related text that I glued in.

Art by mail: Empty jacket

Postcard collage of an empty but human-shaped jacked in front of the California coast

Ruthie and Stu (and mostly also Arlo) —

I got your request in time to dedicate this card to your first child, Arlo. Welcome to the world, Arlo! Trust me, there’s a lot of it out there to see. Ruthie and Stu, I’m honored that you would think to ask me to help commemorate such an important event in your lives.

Arlo, when you’re old enough to read and understand this I hope you’ll consider some of the advice I’ve taken the liberty of dispensing here:

1. Have a dog. Treat him or her well. Don’t skimp on walks. Have a bucket list for the dog, and remember that it’s your responsibility to help fulfill it.

2. Being a teenager is rough. I don’t think there are any complete answers to the things that bother you as a teenager, but the good news is that you’ll eventually learn that these things have an extremely finite ability to cause distress and/or pain.

3. If you’re walking down the street in a big city and someone tries to scam you, never tell the person that you don’t believe their story. It only escalates the situation. Instead, say you have no money. I’m not sure what the future economy will look like, but from our perspective in 2012 there’s a good chance this will be true anyway.

4. Drive safely, try to be a good person, get plenty of fresh air and exercise. Read lots of books and don’t be rude to people online.

5. When someone does something nice for you, write a thank-you note. Seriously, I cannot emphasize this enough. People really appreciate it.

I hope this doesn’t sound too preachy. I’ve been traveling all summer long and most of my positive life lessons from this trip have their roots in my deep desire not to wind up living or feeling like people I’ve met along the way. Also, try not to be too cynical.