Tuesday, May 31, 2011


For many months, I've wondered what the next adventure might be. In recent years, with each successive crossing of the U.S., I felt the urge to slow down. Even eschewing the Interstate Highway System and taking to secondary roads, often with stops every five or ten minutes to have a closer look at something, it still felt I was missing so much.

I figured my next journey might well be on foot. Indeed, after buying the motorcycle, I imagined that the next "vehicle", after the bike, would likely be my feet. And I started to imagine walking across the United States, retracing some of the paths I've been down. (If "Granny D" could do it at the age of 90, I should be able to!)

But why wait until I'm forced to walk? And why look to far-off, exotic destinations to feed my curiosity? Why not start by more closely exploring the place I've lived on and off for more than twenty years?

Sticker shock at the local gas station. Above each of the station's gas pumps are rather odd signs: "Bathrooms are for everyone, but the driver should get to go first." Are oil companies now teaching etiquette? (We know from their marketing campaigns that they're already greening the environment.)

In the past year, I substantially reduced motorcycle usage, taking pleasure in seeing a smaller portion of my money go to the oil companies. (I had contributed quite generously during the "Americas Trip".) I was now driving less than at any time since first being licensed. But being nearly five miles from downtown and most of the places I frequent, the thought of walking was daunting.

A major milestone was achieved last year when I overcame my inertia and actually walked to a shopping plaza less than three-quarters of a mile from my house. The inner chatter: "walking just isn't 'cool'. Losers walk." My life-long suburban attitude told me this. What might be normal, indeed sensible in small towns like Langley, Washington or Waterbury, Vermont, here in Suburbia seems to be regarded as a bizarre, even unsound behavior. "Why would you walk?" (If it's clearly part of your exercise regimen - as demonstrated by a wild, frenetic energy - or, if you're walking a dog, that's obviously necessary. Then we understand and approve.)

I often walk, but it usually involves driving somewhere - typically to one of several local parks - in order to walk. (We gladly drive and many pay for the privilege of exercising.)

I've often driven to coffee shops and libraries. Couldn't I walk? Granted, the distances are typically four or fives miles each way, but so what? On other days, I'll devote considerable time to exercising. Why not incorporate exercise into my regular excursions? A revelatory concept for me, it's hardly a novel idea. As many have long realized (and I was slow to comprehend,) one can get one's exercise in the course of daily activity, if one chooses not to avoid it, as we are conditioned to do.

I'm also tired of financing corporate green-washing campaigns with BP, Shell and Chevron touting their environmental leadership, all while fighting tooth and nail to avoid full responsibility for environmental devastation in (respectively) the Gulf of Mexico, Nigeria and the Amazon Basin in Ecuador. All this while they announce record profits.

Bennett Valley Road, the shortest route from my apartment to downtown Santa Rosa, is one of the more treacherous roads for pedestrians. Not "foot-friendly" at all.

With the recent publicity surrounding Bike to Work Week, I felt the focus on bicycles was fine, but why not encourage an even simpler, more environmentally-benign activity, walking? Some well-intentioned friends and relatives have suggested I "need" to get a bicycle, but why? I really don't want to buy another thing (and a fairly sophisticated thing at that), including all the specialized gear the activity seems to "require" (just looking at riders here in Sonoma County.) Bicycles are one way to deal with suburban sprawl, but clearly not the only alternative to the automobile.

Early in May, I overcame my inertia and started getting out on foot, exploring my "hometown" and testing the notion of walking long distances. The first day out, I walked about ten miles. I thought this experience could lead to a blog post: "Stranger in My Own Town". By day's end, my feet were raw and body aching. The concept of walking across the country seemed absolutely ludicrous, another hair-brained scheme.

And the argument that walking would save money was also quickly undermined. After a few miles, I was already hungry and dreaming about the restaurant that soon became my destination. I spent $18 on food and beverage during that first walk.

During the second walk, swelling in my lower legs developed into vasculitis, a new malady to consider.

By the third time out, ten miles felt like "no big deal". (I might feel differently in the heat of summer.) There were still blisters and discomfort from footwear. (I have alternated between hiking boots, running shoes and sports sandals, trying to determine which serves me best.)

Now at the end of May, I have made eleven walking-tours of the community and chalked up over a hundred and ten miles on foot. It is likely the first time in my life where, over the course of a month, the distance traveled on foot exceeded the distance traveled by motor vehicle. A pattern seemed to emerge: one day walking, followed by one day riding, followed by one or two days remaining at home. (Having no job to go to makes this experiment quite simple.) In May, I put $20 worth of gasoline in the motorcycle. Most of it is still there.

It has been a revelation how easy it is to meet and talk with people when you're on foot. Regardless of social or economic status, conversations erupt spontaneously with people on the street. I'm much more inclined to step into a business that piques my interest and though I'm on foot, I really don't find much hesitation to deviate a few blocks to follow my curiosity. And on foot you can ignore all those newly-installed pay-point parking systems.

You know, there is a certain pleasure in walking (or bicycling) past these annoying places.

And finally, earlier this month, a notice arrived from my insurance company, Safeco, advising me of a 29% increase in the premium for the coming year. (This despite a perfectly clean record, and the fact that I'm driving less than 20% of my historic rates.) It would be nice to free myself of insurance abuse.

That major corporations can treat us customers with such indifference, and with impunity, makes it all the more pleasing when we realize there is always the option to simply turn our backs on them.

At close quarters, it's interesting to observe an "instinctive phenomena". When drivers first spot me along the shoulder of the road, there is often a slight swerve of the vehicle in my direction, followed by a correction to avoid me. In motorcycle training, we taught riders to avoid looking at obstacles. "If you look at the obstacle, you're likely to hit it. Look where you want to go."

Example of how a "technological solution" causes us to consume fifty times the resources to achieve marginal benefit. Suddenly I'm seeing these discarded floss holders. I don't think I'd ever notice a piece of floss on the ground. These things however...

The walk downtown is a journey back in time. From the small eight-home subdivision where I presently reside in a "granny" apartment, with its custom homes built in the early 2000s, I first pass by apartment complexes constructed in the 80s and 90s. Twenty minutes from my house, I have reached the early-1960s and easily recognize the style of home from my childhood and early teen years, the same construction used in our new family homes purchased in the Santa Clara Valley circa 1959 and 1963, with two-car garages then the prominent feature. (Most now have at least one vehicle parked outside, that won't fit in the garage.)

I'm surprised in these housing tracts how many of the street-facing windows are blinded, or obscured by vegetation allowed to grow up in front. The owners turn to the back yards for their refuge. After an hour, I'm in the 1940s and 50s - simple, austere and uninspired box houses. Some residents make up for the dreary architecture with lush and varied gardens. Half-way downtown and I'm back to my birth year.

On foot, you're much more likely to appreciate the flowers in bloom. Right now, the air is perfumed with rose and jasmine.

After 75 minutes, I'm among homes that would remind my parents and even grandparents of their childhood. Most have generous front porches. It seems we were more social creatures in earlier times. Some have lost considerable portions of their front yards to street-widening projects. Their add-on garages are tucked in the rear, and are barely large enough for a full-size car. So mostly, in these neighborhoods, cars are parked in driveways or at the curb. Roughly 150 years spanned in this 90-minute walk to the Flying Goat coffee shop in Old Railroad Square, itself housed in an old stone hotel from the 1800s.

For the most part, I would not term walking in Santa Rosa "pleasant". It's extremely difficult to escape the roar of traffic. And the ubiquitous two-cycle engines of lawnmowers, weed whips, blowers and chainsaws are almost always in earshot. It's kind of like cell-phone towers: you leave one behind and immediately pick up the next. Same with the "auditory barrage" from these annoying engines. I joke about it, but it seems pretty clear that the noise from engines is a real stresser, something the human body is not inured to. I'll experiment with walking early to see if the noise level is significantly lower.

Lucy! Santa Rosa was home to "Peanuts" creator Charles M. Schulz. His characters are a common sight throughout Santa Rosa.

The Flying Goat coffee shop. Probably my favorite hang-out these days. It's just under a five-mile walk from the house (and worth the effort!)

Less than two hundred yards east of this spot, Santa Rosa Creek flows beneath U.S. Highway 101. Here, it provides a calming influence for walkers and bicyclists on the Prince Memorial Greenway. To the west, as the setting becomes slightly more rural, it might be possible to conjure a sense of the Santa Rosa Plain before humans.

Luther Burbank home and gardens, downtown Santa Rosa

I remember (long ago!) there was serious debate about the aesthetics of power lines over our neighborhoods. With the advent of internet and cable home service, the overhead "rat's nest" threatens to block out the sun. Between these wires and jet contrails above, I fear there will be Global Cooling in these neighborhoods! (And just how much weight can those poles take???)

This looks like someone's idea of a Bonzai Redwood, except this one stands 60 to 80 feet tall!

As I paused while waiting to cross Farmer's Lane, one of the busier thoroughfares in Santa Rosa, it struck me that the level of traffic noise is astounding. And to make matters worse, so many vehicles are engineered or modified to make them even louder than necessary. There is something quite sociopathic about this. (Here in Santa Rosa, we like our big, beefy pick-up trucks.)(I also thought about the oft-heard Harley justification “the noise lets people know we're coming.” It’s all about safety, right? That’s why many Harley riders go without helmets any chance they get.)

The more I "learn" about walking this city, the more I become aware that its a "normal" activity, a way of life for many and that the Santa Rosa has made serious efforts to encourage walking. (I just wasn't hearing the message.)

Napa Valley is currently constructing a 44-mile "Vine Trail" multi-use path from the ferry terminal in Vallejo, northward to the base of Mount St. Helena. It will be designed for bicyclists, walkers, strollers, senior citizens - everyone. A great idea.

Walking through Montgomery Village, an open air shopping center, attractively landscaped with beds of roses. I passed close by the front doors of the shops, often breathing the air coming out of the store. It can tell you a lot. The air from Ross Dress for Less was particularly interesting - an overwhelming smell of plastics and those sizing chemicals used in clothing manufacturing.

In Santa Rosa, many subdivisions contain cul-de-sacs. Seeking to flee the noise of large thoroughfares, I have walked into some, to explore potential alternative walking routes. Since virtually every suburban California yard is fenced, pedestrians are generally prevented from moving between subdivisions, except via the main boulevards. In this way, we engineer communities to discourage walking (and bicycling.) We force pedestrians and bicyclists into the same corridors as motor vehicles, with their noise, and emissions and dust from brakes, tires, oil, and whatever additional detritus they kick up from the pavement.

In many parts of the United States, property is not demarcated with fences and people are able to cross yards, passing between neighboring streets. Where I have seen this, it seems so refreshing and free. We have a certain "tyranny of fences" here in California. (I know the old expression "good fences make good neighbors", but I don't necessarily believe it. Good neighbors make good neighbors.)

Obviously, walking brings out the self-righteousness in me (as if I've not been polluting with the best of them all these years.) One more thing to observe and rein in...as I walk.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

The AfPak Swamp

A few hours before President Obama addressed the nation announcing the "successful" operation to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden, I had just finished reading Bob Woodward's excellent book Obama's Wars.

Much of the book focuses on Obama's struggle to find the right exit strategy in Afghanistan. From page 281, this insight:

Obama said he wanted his final decision to be based upon consultation with the military and not something that was forced upon him. He had to get himself and the country out of that box. War could not suck the oxygen out of everything else. Some of it had to do with the nature of wars that had the U.S. fight local insurgencies. There were going to be no victory dances in the end zone. One of his problems with Bush had been the constant talk of a victory that was not attainable.

Obama had campaigned against Bush's ideas and approaches. But (Deputy National Security Adviser Tom) Donilon, for one, thought that Obama had perhaps underestimated the extent to which he had inherited George W. Bush's presidency - the apparatus, personnel and mind-set of war making.
I came away with a very troubling picture of the role Pakistan was playing in the region, essentially working all sides, variously cooperating with (or tolerating) the Americans and our allies, the Afghani and Pakistani Taliban, Al Qaeda and various other "terrorist" groups.

It was revealed that India, Pakistan's mortal enemy, is sending $1.2 Billion in aid to Afghanistan. (Why is this not headline news?) This is certainly threatening to Pakistan and lends credibility to the argument that Pakistan is in indeed supporting anti-government operations in Afghanistan.

According to Woodward's account (p. 215):
...Pakistan would view a strong Afghan national government as aligned with their archenemy, India, thereby basically surrounding and isolating Pakistan.
The following testimony gives a fairly complete summary of the issues the United States is presently confronting in the "AfPak" region.
Prepared statement by Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations

Before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate
1 Session, 112th Congress

Hearing on Afghanistan: What is an Acceptable End-State, and How Do We Get

Mr. Chairman:

Thank you for asking me to appear before this Committee, in this instance to discuss U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and, more specifically, what constitutes an acceptable end-state in that country and how the United States can best work to bring it about. As has been the case over the past eight years, my statement and testimony today reflect my personal views and not those of the Council on Foreign Relations, which takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.