Industry secret

Postcard collage of bird and Hells Canyon with text that says Legendary Adventures Require Legendary Flavor. Reverse side of postcard collage showing Hells Canyon and bird.

Message on postcard:
Shannon and Ann — It was good to hear from you! Sorry I can’t make it to your summer party this year. The dogs are good and I’m working as a hiking guide here at Grand Canyon. You might be wondering, then, why I’m sending you a postcard of Hells Canyon. I’ll let you in on a little secret. Sometimes, when Grand Canyon is full, we’ll substitute in another canyon. Hells Canyon is a popular replacement, but we’ll also use Cataract Canyon, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Canyon de Chelly, Waimea Canyon, and the Columbia River Gorge. Every now and then we’ll do a fjord or a crevasse, but they’re a little tricky. Visitors almost never notice, though.

Art by mail: Retrospective


Message on postcard:
Alissa, Michael, and family — Greetings from the end of my road trip! I drove all the way across Oregon, spending a couple weeks east of the Cascades, and then I drove across Nevada and Utah in one straight shot. Now I’m in Colorado, packing up some stuff I left here last winter … after this I’m returning to Portland, Oregon, where I’ll be living in a house with an architect, a journalist, a liquor store manager, and a former touring heavy metal vocalist turned serologist. Since you’re family, you get a list of mini-stories that never made it into other postcards. Remember these! They will be important for future generations of our clan.

  • Cell phone reception is better in Utah than it is at Iowa’s Yellow River State Forest.
  • There are places in Wisconsin where you can stand on a rock outcropping and look down at soaring birds.
  • Indigenous mound-building cultures are greatly under appreciated.
  • Nordhouse Dunes Wilderness has some of the prettiest shoreline along Lake Michigan.
  • Bison will make monster noises at sunrise.
  • I lack the expertise to distinguish between a tortoise fossil and shell-shaped rock.
  • Before camping on a bridge that dead ends into a fence, make sure something hasn’t died beneath it.
  • You can buy figs on your way to Muir Woods, but you can’t park there on a weekend.
  • Most Vanagon owners are pretty friendly; some are too friendly.
  • I found an antique bottle in the desert. It’s for a flimflam hair tonic that contained arsenic.
  • I almost crashed my van trying not to hit a giant rattlesnake.
  • While lying on my back falling asleep, I saw a meteor through the tiny little window on the roof of my van — on multiple occasions. It felt like being in space.

Reviewing this postcard, I see that this is more like a collection of facts and opinions than stories. I’ll round things out with some sage advice. If you spill transmission fluid on your shoe, it will smell funky forever. Don’t try to cook with anything you scrape off the ground at a salt flat. And be careful of the asphalt at Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine State Forest Northern Unit. It can crack the glass in your phone.

Art by mail: The thing in the desert

Message on postcard:

  1. This is the story of the thing in the desert. It begins as the sun rises on the Alvord playa. It’s hot and dry. I’m saving water.
  2. I’m in the van, working on my sketchbook. The dogs are hanging out outside, full of energy after eating breakfast. Then there’s a series of yips, and Skillet runs in with a bone.
  3. “Great Scott!” I exclaim. Thanks to years of active participation in online paleoanthropology forums, I recognize the bone as soon as I see it. It’s a hominid femur, twenty to forty thousand years old.
  4. I step out of the van and the dogs eagerly lead me to the site of their find. There in the sun-baked surface of the ancient, dry lakebed is the rest of a nearly complete skeleton.
  5. But something is wrong. The skull has horns. My dogs have unearthed the unthinkable — a prehistoric race of demon people.
  6. What’s more, the skeleton belonged to a demon-person who clearly had been laid to rest in some kind of ceremonial burial. He was surrounded by ritual artifacts. In his hand was a bouquet of paleobotanical fossil flowers. And on his finger, a ring.
  7. I ignore my instincts. I remove the ring.
  8. The skeleton’s head swivels, and a dusty voice creaks out . “DOOOOOOOD,” he said, “NOOOOOOOOO.” Behind me, Steens Mountain split in two.
  9. At this point the dogs are seriously freaking out. Eagles are flying out of the mountain. Everything is rumbling. The skeleton is wiggling, big time.
  10. And that’s when the smooth jazz kicks out, announcing Noam Chomsky’s arrival. He strides forth from the mountain.
  11. “Noam,” I say, “This smooth jazz? I didn’t realize you were a David Sanborn fan. Also, I thought you lived in Boston, not an underground magma chamber.”
  12. “Mike,” he says, “that demon skeleton was the linchpin of America’s two-party political system. Thanks to your discovery we can welcome in a new era of tolerance, fairness, and plurality.”
  13. “Okay,” I said.

Art by mail: Overboard protocol

Message on postcard:
Hey dudes! What’s up! This is a postcard from my trip across eastern Oregon. The art here is inspired by a robot prostitute I met in an Old-West-style cowboy town. Whoring opportunities out here are not what they used to be, and rootin’-tootin’ saloons have trouble attracting and retaining lady talent. But robotics experts stepped up in a big way to hap satiate cowboy lust.

So I had saddled up for a drink in the small town of Murder Creek. I heard a clang as a lady sat beside me. She beeped and whistled. “Oh, hello,” I said.

“Howdy, stud,” she said. “Want to have a good … a good … SYSTEM ERROR!!!”

She wept oil tears. It was a hard life out here, I knew.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. The lady machine, whose name was Sexual Lotus Alpha Prime, explained her predicament. Her best hooker buddy, Sugar Hookup, had been dismantled by an angry cattle roper in a fit of rage.

“He had a Sawzall … when I got there, she was nothing more than component parts … there were transistors everywhere. The girls and I raised a ten thousand dollar bounty. Will you … will you find and kill Roper Dan?”

“Holy heck,” I said. “This shit is freaking bonkers. Hell no!”

I finished my drink and hit her power switch. “You might want to replace this unit, barkeep,” I advised. “Its simulation protocol is a bit heavy for us tourists.”

Art by mail: The story of my badass knife

Message on postcard:
Hey Chris! Eastern Oregon is great. But you know what makes it better than great? A badass knife. I have been wanting a badass knife ever since the pig attack, when I was left high and dry without one. And then I found just such a knife on the ground at my friend Tom’s wedding. It was like a reverse wedding present from him to me. Every time I cut something up with my new knife, it will be a celebration of his marital bliss.

I have described this knife elsewhere, so I will skip over its official specs, except I do want to say that it has a neat etching of bighorn sheep, and the handle is made out of ivory that I choose to believe came from a dead pig’s tusks. Its major features are a blade, a handle, and its usefulness for cutting.

And cutting is what I have done with this knife. (Well, mostly I have used it for slicing if you want to get pedantic.) Apples taste better when eaten off its blade. And using it to cut tofu has allowed engineers to harness the energy of the knife’s designer spinning in his grave.

These days I carry my knife everywhere. You never know where pigs might be hiding.

Art by mail: Outdoor adventures

Message on postcard:
Hello Finn! Greetings from Oregon. I’ve been traveling the country all year with my dogs, and I’m finally finishing my trip out here in eastern Oregon. There are huge mountains, deep canyons, and flat deserts. It’s a neat place. I’m visiting it in a Vanagon, a Volkswagen van like the one your dad has. Your dad asked me to send you a postcard from my travels. So I thought I’d tell you about my dogs. Their names are Skillet and Kaida, and they’re outside the van right now, soaking up the heat in the very flat Alvord Desert. The reason it’s so flat is because it’s the bottom of an old lake that dried up. It’s a really neat place!

Skillet and Kaida both like to travel. We’ve been on the road since April of this year, and at first I was kind of nervous because Skillet gets carsick easily. But Skillet is a smart dog, and it didn’t take him long to learn that he wouldn’t get sick if he kept looking out the window. He and Kaida both like sitting in the front passenger seat. Fortunately, Kaida is very easygoing, and she lets Skillet sit right on top of her while she’s curled up and sleeping! Skillet is only two years old and pretty energetic, but Kaida is almost seven, and she’s been with me through thick and thin. She spent a month in Iowa living the easy life with my family while Skillet and I visited the Great Lakes, and that’s the longest we’ve ever been apart.

The dogs and I have had a lot of adventures this year. In June, Skillet and I visited the source of the Mississippi River, where it’s just a stream, and we waded across it. In July, Kaida saved me from a wild animal attack. My dogs are the best!

Art by mail: The great American road trip

Message on postcard:
Hello Todd! This is Mike, reporting from near the end of my roadtrip at Steens Mountain, Oregon. It’s a good day. I got up before dawn and watched the sunrise from near the 9,700-foot summit of Steens Mountain. In the east the sky went from black to dark purple to orange, and once the sun peeked over the horizon I watched the mountain’s long shadow recede across Catlow Valley.

Steens Mountain stands about 5,000 feet above the surrounding desert, and out near the western horizon is Hart Mountain, maybe fifty miles off, although the Abert Rim is visible beyond it. The shadow receded across the valley at probably sixty miles per hour or so. Just uphill from me is the very top of Steens Mountain; it’s a rocky outcropping with some small radio towers on it. (Incidentally, I get great cell reception up here.)

I heard a rock crash while watching the sun come up, and that’s when I saw a huge bighorn sheep staring over the ledge. Pretty soon he was joined by another, and eventually I was looking at five or six bighorn sheep — they were far enough off that my photos of them look more like bigfoot than a sheep, and they blend in surprisingly well among the rocks.

One was a baby — or at least young — sheep, and two of the adults briefly locked horns at one point. I watched them for about an hour while they descended through the rocks and grazed on vegetation too sparse to see. This is a neat place. Yesterday, while overlooking a gorge on the mountain, I met a guy who told me about his fighter pilot nephew, who supposedly enjoyed doing inverted fly-throughs of said gorge on training flights. Wow.