best purchase ever

Imagine a collection of ancient pottery shards and some twisted lumps of barbed wire jammed inside a bit of stiff, old fire hose. That’s my knees, after years of injury and abuse. They creak, they pop, they snap, they grind, they rasp. They hurt. At some point I’ll have to return them to the shelf and get some new ones.

But mostly, I’m used to them. I know how to deal with them. I can get them to do most of what I want to do. There’s only one aspect of my life that’s been buggered up by my wonky knees. Cycling. Riding a bike. I used to ride a lot; it was my favorite mode of transportation. I used my bike for fun and to run errands. But it hurt my knees. Seriously hurt them. So a couple of years ago, I put the bike away for the winter; hung it from some hooks in the garage ceiling. Never took it down.

Over the river

This summer I bought an electric bike, thinking I might be able to ride it with minimal knee pain. When I say I bought an ebike, I don’t mean I went to my local bike shop, examined a wide selection of bikes, and made an intelligent, informed purchase. I mean I bought a bike online. Which even now strikes me as a phenomenally loopy thing to do. Who buys a bike they’ve never actually seen except in a photograph? Who buys a bike you can’t test-ride, a bike that costs US$1500 (more than any two bikes I’d ever bought), a bike that has to be shipped from Seattle and would require some assembly on arrival? Who does that?

Me and, it turns out, lots of other folks. And I got to say, it’s the best purchase I ever made.

Through the woods

I bought a Rad Rover Step-thru. It’s an improbable bike. Massive. The damned thing weighs about 70 pounds. More than twice what my trusty old Trek mountain bike weighs. It’s a fat tire bike, and when they say ‘fat tire’ they’re serious. Four inches wide. It’s got disc brakes. It’s got a goddamn brake light in back. What sort of bike has a brake light? When I finished putting it together (with the overly enthusiastic help of my brother), I have to admit being a tad intimidated by the scale of the beast. It’s big.

But once I got on it and started riding, that massive beast of a bike became weirdly tame. It rides easily. It’s not what you’d call ‘nimble’ compared to my mountain bike. Because of its size, the turning radius is slightly larger than I’m used to. But it’s rock solid and steady. And surprisingly fun to ride.

They put chairs along the bike paths here.

Best of all? No knee pain. I’d been hoping for minimal knee pain–an amount of knee pain I could tolerate. The notion of pain-free cycling hadn’t even occurred to me. But I’ve had the bike for about three months and I’ve put just over 500 miles on it–and dude, no knee pain at all. That’s because of the pedal assist function. Everything I’d read about ebikes (before committing to the insane act of buying one) talked about this weird techno-magical whatsit called pedal assist. I never quite understood it what it was or how it worked; they just said it made pedaling easier. Pedal assist was the reason I gambled on the bike.

It works. It really does make pedaling easier. Or it can if you want it to. It turns out pedal assist is exactly what it says it is. It provides a measured boost to the energy with which you pedal, which makes pedaling more efficient and effective. You can ride this bike without any pedal assist, but it wouldn’t be easy; we’re talking about a 70+ pound bike with four inch tires, so you’d have to be desperate or masochistic to do so. At PAS 1 — the lowest level of pedal assist — it makes riding a 70 pound bike feel pretty much like riding a normal bike (except even then it’s easier on the knees). I spend most of my riding time in PAS 1 or 2. I’ve used PAS 3 for a few steep or long hills; I’ve had no reason to use PAS level 5 yet.

Shortly before the first tornado siren.

I did use PAS 4 once, but it was an emergency. I’d stopped to visit with a county worker who was doing some obscure chore in what will eventually be a new suburban neighborhood. As we were chatting, the tornado siren went off. He checked his phone and told me it looked like it wasn’t a drill. I’m fairly casual about bad weather, and since I was only 3-4 miles from home and didn’t see any of the usual signs of a tornado, I wasn’t too concerned. I headed homeward, but I didn’t rush. Until a second tornado siren went off. Two tornado sirens is serious. So I began to hurry a bit. The sky got really dark. A third tornado siren sounded. I’d never heard a third siren before. I put the bike in PAS 4 and was easily doing over 20mph through neighborhoods.

I made it home about three minutes before the storm hit. It wasn’t a tornado. It was a derecho — a fast-moving straight-line storm with hurricane-force winds. And I made it home without knee pain. Totally winded, but no knee pain. I’m a big fan of pedal assist.

In the river valley.

Something I hadn’t expected: the bike gets attention. People are curious about it. At stop lights, people will roll down their car windows and ask me questions. People on sidewalks and bike paths often shout out questions as I’m riding by them. Sometimes I’ll stop and chat with them. “How does it work? How fast will it go? Does it have a throttle? Can you ride it without pedaling? What’s the battery range? Can you get a good workout with an ebike? Isn’t it cheating if the bike does all the work?”

Here are the answers. I’ve had it up to about 25 mph on flat ground; it can go faster, but I’ve never had the need to do it. Yes, it has a throttle, which is handy at stop lights and stop signs; even with pedal assist, it can be a struggle to get a 70 pound bike in motion from a dead stop. The throttle makes it easy to get started, and that’s all I’ve ever used it for. But yes, you can ride it without pedaling, using just the throttle like a moped. The advertised battery range is 25-45 miles, but I’ve ridden 53 miles through hilly terrain on a single charge and the battery wasn’t quite dead. And finally, you sure as hell can get a good workout on an ebike. The pedal assist allows you to make riding as easy or as strenuous as you want. By the way, if you bike for exercise, folks tend to ride farther and longer on an ebike, which increases the amount of exercise you get.

Me, I don’t ride for exercise. I ride for the joy in it.

Out in the country.

The ‘cheating’ question always throws me. I’m not even sure what it means. How can you cheat at recreational cycling? It’s not like you’re competing with anybody. Using electric pedal assist isn’t really any different than using 21 mechanical gears to make pedaling easier. If riding an ebike is cheating, then so is riding a bike with multiple gears. You’re still using the energy of your body to propel the machine.

That said, I do feel a wee bit awkward about overtaking a cyclist in spandex riding up a hill on a 20 pound road bike. Awkward, but not guilty.

Every so often I’ll go on a ride that takes me by a two-story fitness center. The parking lot, even during this pandemic, is usually full of cars. I know that some of the people who drove those cars to the fitness center are inside on stationary bikes, pedaling in a frenzy. They’re undoubtedly getting a more efficient workout than I am. They’re using their time a lot more effectively than I am. But I suspect I’m happier in the saddle than they are, and having more fun.

In the fog.

I’ve nothing against exercise, but I ride just for the pleasure in it. With this bike, I get to go places. I get to see stuff and talk to strangers. I get to turn down streets and pathways with no real sense of where they’ll take me; sometimes I get to be lost and have the tiny adventure of finding my way back. I get to be harassed by Canada geese and chased by storms.

I did a 30 mile ride a couple of days ago, the last half of it into a stiff 18-23 mph headwind. When I got home, my legs were wobbly from exhaustion. But my knees? My knees were laughing their ass off. I love this bike.

knuckles dobrovic is slightly dislocated

The whole Knuckles Dobrovic thing began in 2013 when I reluctantly and grudgingly realized there was some artistic value to Instagram. I created the Knuckles alias as a way of investigating Instagram without having my name associated with it. I thought it made sense back then, but sounds really silly now. So I started putting a thing on a glass-topped table on the deck and photographing it. It became a project. Things on a Table. I did that for about a year.

Eventually I started an Instagram account using my real name, but I’d grown absurdly attached to the name Knuckles Dobrovic. I decided I’d keep that account and us it strictly for photo projects. Because I tend to over-analyze things, I came up with some basic parameters for all future Knuckles projects: 1) it’s got to be simple (which means I won’t have to do a lot of planning or a lot of post-processing), 2) it’s got to be organic to my life (which means it’s something I can photograph during the course of an ordinary day — whatever that is), 3) it’s got to have at least one intellectual component (which is more accurately described as a pretentious bullshit element), and finally, 4) it’s got to be able to keep my interest over time.

After ‘Things on a Table’ I turned to Double Exposures of My Feet on the Earth and then to the Hundred Appropriated Google Street View gig. When that was finished, I felt no hurry to find another project. Some idea would eventually roll up in a ball and get my attention. That’s how these things work, mostly.

Yeah, no, not this.

Then, of course, Covid-19 showed up and parked its fat ass in the center of our society. At some point I decided the next Knuckles gig should reflect the strange new Covid reality. I tried a 16:9 moody landscape concept. Broad landscapes as a way of dealing with an increasingly closed in life. But no. Besides, it felt too similar to the Google gig. I also tried reworking a lot of old unseen street portraits in a high contrast are-bure-bokeh-ish style. The idea was to remember life without masks, but do it with a harsh, garish, blurry aesthetic that was sort of alienating. But, again, no. I really like that style, but no. Not now. Maybe someday I’ll come back to that.

Yeah, no, not this either.

But I kept noodling around semi-randomly. Taking new photos and playing with them, looking at old photos (which is something I almost never do) and smooshing them around a bit. Then one restless night I took an old photo of some lawn chairs in a suburban yard, diddled with the color a wee bit, digitally sliced it in thirds, then re-arranged the pieces.

Okay, this might work.

I liked it. It was a mundane, familiar scene but it felt a wee bit out-of-sync. It felt somewhat disjointed and almost (but not quite) unbalanced. Which is sort of how the world seems right now. So I tried with another photo. A bar that wouldn’t be seeing any customers this year.

Yeah, okay, this is starting to work.

The bar was still exactly as it was before the pandemic, but now it was just a tad off-color and slightly dislocated. Which seemed like an obvious title for the gig. It seemed like the approach would be elastic enough to use for almost any sort of photographic style. Landscapes, interior shots, still lifes, street photos.

Okay, that’s it. It’s a project.

It wasn’t until I took a rather busy photo of last year’s Planned Parenthood book sale, chopped it up, and re-organized it that I became confident the gig would probably work. I’ll almost certainly continue to use some old photos in the gig, but I expect I’ll be shooting a lot of new stuff with half an eye on the Slightly Dislocated idea (but only half an eye; I don’t want to be searching for material). I expect I’ll be stopping my bike sporadically to shoot something like this:

Slightly Dislocated — goal

This project may, of course, turn out to be awful. It may become predictable or repetitive, it could turn out to be dull–for the viewer or for me. Hell, as unlikely as it seems, the pandemic might come to a quick end (yeah, that’s not going to happen) and the entire concept of Slightly Dislocated may become out of date. I’ve no idea how long I’ll keep this up, but for now I’m having fun with it.

mawkish memorial day metaphor

Did my bit yesterday. You know…the ritual of tending the graves for Memorial Day. It’s supposed to be a holiday created by a grateful nation to honor the men and women who died while in military service. Some folks are grateful enough to visit cemeteries, large and small in every corner of the nation, to plant a flag on the grave of every veteran. It’s a pretty idea, isn’t it.

But let’s face it, the nation really isn’t all that grateful, and it’s been years since the holiday was about dead veterans. Modern Memorial Day is more a celebration of consumerism than anything else — like most American holidays. But it’s also expanded beyond its original purpose. There’s still a lot of tending to graves, but it’s no longer limited to veterans.

I’m fine with that. It’s nice to have a day set aside for remembering the dead, whoever they are, however they died. That’s especially true now, when the butcher’s bill for Covid-19 will almost certainly top 100,000 in the next week. Maybe next year somebody will plant a flag on the grave of every Covid-19 victim. I think we, as a nation, will need to find some way to express both our horror and our collective grief at the loss of so many lives. Right now it seems we’re either in shock or denial of the enormity of what’s happening. The fact that it’s still happening — that the pandemic is ongoing — makes it difficult to process. Some events are too catastrophic to comprehend until after they’ve finished, until we know how they end.

Yesterday I visited half a dozen different cemeteries — some in the city, some in the burbs, some in the middle of farmland. Some were nicer than others, some better tended, some busy with other Memorial Day caretakers, some weren’t. I helped tend to graves of family and friends, even those of a few strangers, only about half of whom were veterans.

As usual, I shot a few photographs. I generally delete most of the photos I shoot, especially on Memorial Day.  How many photos do you need of gravestones and flags?

This morning I looked at the photos I shot yesterday. I deleted all but a few. Two of them struck me. One, shot in an urban cemetery, was of the rows and rows of flags — a reminder that there was a time when it was common for American men to do a few years of military service, that it was seen as an honorable thing to do. The other photo was of the farmland just outside a rural cemetery, rows and rows of seedlings growing.

Rows of flags, rows of crops. There are metaphors in those two photos. They’re mostly trite, mawkish metaphors, almost embarrassingly sincere, but they’re also honest. Which is more than I can say for a lot of what we see on Memorial Day. 

still standing

I do like an early morning thunderstorm. It’s nine o’clock in the morning and it’s so dark I have the kitchen light on while I drink my morning coffee and read the news. The rain is falling with a sort of steady insistence, like it’s telling us we can stay inside and act like nothing is happening, but it is not going to stop. The cat is looking resentfully out the window at the rain, unfazed by the sporadic thunder. It’s a pretty solid thunderstorm in terms of rain and thunder, but it’s skimping on the lightning. Maybe it’s storing it up and will give us a show later.

The news tells me that on Friday the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives issued guidelines to allow federally licensed firearm dealers to provide drive-up or walk-up gun sales during this period of isolation. Why? To reduce the health risks posed by the coronavirus. The BATF has a dead solid lock on graveyard humor.

On Facebook one of my Christian senator is wishing me a happy Easter and assuring me ‘He has risen’. I hope she’s not referring to that dark, malignant force haunting the White House, ghoulishly presiding over the drown-in-the-fluid-that-fills-your-own-lungs pandemic. Speaking of which, the butcher’s bill in the U.S. will exceed 21,000 deaths at some point today.

This morning the Twitterverse is, as usual, like Jabberwocky written by the illegitimate child of Oscar Wilde and Charlie Manson (just go with me on this; I don’t need a lesson in biology). It’s clever and hateful and funny and malicious and witty and snarky and so incredibly stupid and full of fascinating information and confusing as hell. Twitter is probably like a lot of family gatherings.

~ ~ ~

I’ve forgotten what point I’d intended to make when I started writing this morning. I got distracted by this photograph. I saw it on Twitter. If Twitter can be believed — and I want to believe this is true — this is a photograph of an ICU nurse who has worked 65 hours in the last week. I’ve been looking at and thinking about this photo for about an hour.

I don’t know this woman’s name, or where she works, or who shot the photo. I don’t really know anything at all about her. But I recognize her. I recognize that look. I know she’s on the ragged edge of exhaustion, discouraged, worn down by grief and duty. I don’t know who she is, and I know she can’t save us. But I also know she’ll try. And I know that after a few hours of sleep, she’ll be back at it. So will all of her colleagues.

Today I’ll stay inside, dry and warm. I’ll read my book, I’ll cook some food, I’ll do a little housework, I’ll do a bit of writing, I’ll feed and pet the cat, I’ll continue to check in on social media. At some point tonight I’ll watch an episode of Breaking Bad and maybe an episode of some other show. I’ll fill up every hour of the day, but I’ll never be busy and I’ll never be uncomfortable and I’ll never have to make a decision more difficult than what to cook for supper.

But I know I’ll return, over and over, to this photograph. It’s that powerful; it’s that compelling. Right there — everything that can be said about the power of photography is right there. Everything that’s good and noble about humankind, right there. Everything that can be said about sacrifice and dignity and dedication and love and compassion, right there. Everything that is heart-crushing, that is hopeful, that is beautiful, that is desperately sad and deeply caring and incredibly tough and still tender, it’s all right there.

I hope my Christian senator sees this photograph. I’m glad she finds some comfort and strength in her belief that ‘He has risen’. Me, I’m drawing my strength and comfort from knowing that this woman, whoever she is and wherever she is, is still standing.

knuckles, returned to the shelf

A hundred photographs. A nice round number, and a good stopping point for the Knuckles Google Street View project. I thought about maybe stretching it out until February 18th, which would end the gig a full year from the start date, but…naw. A project shouldn’t be ‘stretched out’ just to reach an anniversary. A project ends when it feels done.

This project feels done to me. Like every Knuckles project, it began primarily as a way to amuse myself. And I mean ‘amuse’ in the older sense of the term: to cause a person to muse about something. To think about stuff. A project, for me, is just a device to engage my interest and attention. A project allows me to become absorbed, to feed my curiosity, to make me think. Granted, the thinking might seem frivolous — at least on the surface — but it’s thinking. Thinking is fun.

The GSV project made me think about a lot of stuff. The practice of curation, for example. I mean, the entire project is, itself, an exercise in curation. We’re talking about ten million virtual miles of highways, streets, avenues, dirt roads, and donkey pathways in eighty-three countries, all dispassionately captured by robotic cameras, each of which has six to eight lenses. That’s a lot of images. I only saw the tiniest fraction of that universe of images, and culling a hundred images out of that number meant some heavy-duty thinking about what makes an image interesting.

It was exceedingly frustrating to have NO control over the elements of composition. I came across a LOT of scenes that would have made a compelling image, except for some distracting element — a trash can, a parked car, a fence, a sign that interfered with the image. Stuff that would be easily dealt with in person. I knew that frustration would be baked into the project, of course. But it was still maddening.

The project also made me think about culture — how culture spreads through the world, and where it spreads from. I saw business parks in Illinois that looked like business parks in Turkey that looked like business parks in Japan. I saw a town in Indonesia that was jammed with US military surplus Jeeps transitioned into local utility vehicles. I saw a statue of a baseball player on a pedestal in Japan, and basketball courts in Slovakia. I saw American-style graffiti everywhere.

In fact, ‘America’ was everywhere. If you followed the project, you may have noticed the majority of the images are located either in the countryside or in small villages. That’s because so many cities — or large areas of the cities — were indistinguishable from each other. Aside from the signs, a city block in Uruguay looked very similar to on in Romania or Indiana. And they were all dull. The oldest neighborhoods of the oldest cities, on the other hand, were often very distinct. Unfortunately, the streets in those neighborhoods were almost always so narrow, so cluttered, so visually busy that despite how interesting they were, they simply weren’t amenable to a good image.

The project made me think about architecture. Not just the obvious architecture of buildings and homes, but also the architecture of infrastructure. Bridges, power lines, bus stops, sheds, fences. Rural mailboxes in Scandinavia look different from those in rural mailboxes in Canada, which look different from those in rural Indonesia. Telephone poles in former Soviet republics and telephone poles in Mississippi are distinct from each other. It was sometimes easy to tell what part of the world you were in simply by looking at the local infrastructure.

Local infrastructure reflects local attitudes. I mean, consider tunnels. You need to build a road through a hilly or mountainous landscape, what do you do? Some nations will build tunnels; other nations will just level the landscape. That approach tells you something about cultural attitudes.

I was also surprised by how many animals I saw on Google Street View, though I don’t know why that surprised me. We live in a world of animals, don’t we. Pets, livestock, wildlife. Dogs, goats, birds, horses, cats, cattle, sheep, chickens. And, of course, people interacting with those animals. Walking dogs, herding cattle, feeding goats and chickens, playing with cats. These were often the most frustrating images, because there’s something strangely emotional about the way humans interact with animals. But this is another of the problems of relying on a robotic camera; robots have no interest in decisive moments. Nor do animals. Animals move. People will stop and stare at a Google Street View car, but to a dog or a donkey, it’s just another car. So the vast majority of images of animals interacting with people (or other animals) were blurry and useless. Except for those of sheep and cattle. Those guys just stand there.

This has been a fun project. It’s been frustrating, of course, but it’s been interesting. And now it feels finished. It didn’t work out quite the way I’d expected (or hoped), but it did work out in ways I hadn’t anticipated. I hadn’t expected weather to be so important. I hadn’t expected cloud formations to be such a factor. I hadn’t expected telephone poles or trees to play such a prominent role. I expected people to be a more critical element.

I like the fact the project didn’t take the shape I thought it would. I like its final shape. I’m satisfied and pleased. And ready to be done with it.

With the final photo today, Knuckles Dobrovic is going back on the shelf. Not forever, obviously, but for a while. One of the things I’ve learned from the Knuckles projects is how much I like the structure that’s necessary for a project. I like the restrictions and the constraints that impose a certain discipline on me. I enjoy pushing against those restrictions and constraints. But this road ends here.

At some point, I’ll take Knuckles back off the shelf. At some point in the future I’ll cobble together some semi-lazy rationale for a project to distract me from all the other stuff I ought to be doing. Until then, if you’re interested in seeing all the photos — or any of the various Knuckles projects — you can find them here on Instagram.

EDITORIAL NOTE: It’s been pointed out to me that I neglected to include links to the origin of the project and the halfway point. I’m a putz. Fixed it, though.

emptiness and excess

I had to spend a chunk of time on secondary state highways a few days ago. I was a passenger for once, which meant I had the chance to look around and think. In the winter months, the Midwestern landscape can seem awfully empty. Every few miles you can see a clump of trees, which usually means a farm house and the attendant sheds and barns. A water tower lets you know a town is nearby. Occasionally you see some sort of agricultural industrial site; I’ve no idea what gets processed in these places, but they emit strange clouds of smoke or steam. Basically, there’s not much to hold your attention except fields and sky. Fields and sky and your imagination.

And I had a thought. Not an original thought, to be sure. Others have had this same thought and have written about it. But passing through the bleak winter landscape, the thought made more sense to me. Here it is:

This is what Donald Trump’s interior life must be like. Empty. Devoid of warmth. Cheerless. Comfortless. Unwelcoming. Desolate. Barren.

Like I said, not an original thought. Lots of folks have written about Comrade Trump’s emotional emptiness, his discomfort with any emotion that’s not rage or resentment, his absolute inability to empathize with others, his desperate craving for unearned respect, his boundless appetite for praise, his craving for having the ‘best’ without any concept of what constitutes ‘best’.

But looking at that exposed leaden landscape led me to wonder if Trump’s emotionally sterile inner life also accounted for his inability to appreciate beauty. He’s always surrounded himself with a chintzy sort of glamour, a gaudy display of tasteless wealth. All that cheesy gold ornamentation, all those extravagant flourishes, all that lifeless furniture that nobody wants to sit on — maybe that phony excess stems from a genuine attempt to bring some sort of brightness into his dreary, grim, inhospitable inner being.

Trump’s home.

More likely (and infinitely more sad), maybe his inner being is so vacant that he can’t even comprehend the existence of feeling something below the surface. Maybe the concept of inner grace and beauty is completely alien to him. Maybe he’s as incapable of experiencing and appreciating beauty as a weevil is of enjoying music.

Because another thing I became aware of during my road trip, is that if you appreciate beauty and grace, you find it everywhere. Even on secondary highways in the middle of nowhere at the approach of evening. Even in empty fields, even in isolated farm houses, even in the effluvia of mysterious agricultural plants.

very cool, but very sad

There’s a place called as the Sycamore Trail. It’s a rather grand name for about 130 acres of untended old-growth woodland tucked between the Des Moines River and a soccer pitch. The ‘trail’ is a 6.5 mile loop, a narrow dirt path for mountain biking. It’s linked to the High Trestle Trail — a paved 25 mile stretch of bike path that follows an old Union Pacific railroad line (including the old half-mile-long trestle bridge that crosses about 130 feet above the river)  — which itself is part of a 100 mile loop that connects with an even longer set of trails, which is…never mind. You get the point. Iowa has a metric buttload cycling trails.

This, believe it or not, is a bicycle trail.

The thing is, the Sycamore Trail goes through the woods. On a weekday, it’s generally deserted. On a weekday in December the only folks in the woods were my brother and I. We were out…let’s call it sylvan geocaching. That sounds so much more adventurous. I mean, sure, basically it’s just walking in the woods and using a GPS device to look for some sort of container that somebody stashed for no practical purpose at all except to give other folks a reason to go walk in the woods. But that sounds moderately ridiculous, to let’s call it sylvan geocaching.

This is not a bicycle trail.

So my brother and I, we were out sylvan geocaching, right? In the woods surrounding the Sycamore Trail on a singularly lovely day for early December. Almost 50F, sunny, not much of a breeze. Couldn’t ask for a better day to be noodling around in the woods sylvan geocaching. We didn’t stay on the trail, of course. We wandered through the flood plains, we slumped around the marshy oxbows, we pushed our way through the dry brambles, we clambered over the levee.

A levee, if you’re not familiar with the concept, is a dirt embankment intended to protect the land from flooding. This levee was about 15 feet high and anywhere from 30 to 50 yards from the river.

The levee.

Flooding is pretty common, which accounts for both the levee and the oxbows. It also accounts for all the downed trees and the odd bits of debris we sometimes see stuck up in the trees.

As we were noodling around sylvan geocaching, we noticed the outline of some sort of structure in the woods. It’s not uncommon, when you’re in the woods, to find the remains of sheds or the brick and mortar foundations of abandoned farm buildings. But it’s rare to find something that’s still standing. So of course, we went to investigate.

As we got closer, we realized it was bigger than we’d expected. Bigger and stranger.

Strange structure in the woods.

One of the reasons my brother and I go geocaching is because it takes us to places we wouldn’t ordinarily go, and we see things we wouldn’t ordinarily see. Things that are often completely unexpected. Like a 35-foot houseboat in the middle of the woods.

How did it get there? I mean, it was about a third of a mile from the river. Say 600 yards from the levee. That’s half a dozen football fields. How in the hell did it get there? We found a clue. The boat registration was still visible. It was dated 1993.

It’s called the Great Flood of 1993, but it actually began in the winter of 1992, when the American Midwest experienced heavier than usual snowfalls. The spring melt was followed by what the National Weather Service called an ‘extreme regional hydrological event’. In other words, it rained like a motherfucker — and it did it for a long time. There were persistent, repetitive storms that hovered over the Midwest. Between April 1 and August 31, the region experienced rainfalls that were 400–750% above normal.

Houseboat in the woods. Go figure.

In the end, the flood covered about 400,000 square miles over nine states. In some locations, the floodwaters stayed for nearly 200 days. Almost 55,000 people had to be evacuated; around 50 people lost their lives. Tens of thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed. Seventy-five towns were completely inundated; some small towns have actually been relocated — some were just abandoned. And at some point, the flood yanked this 35-foot houseboat from its mooring and deposited it at the far western edge of what would eventually become Sycamore Trails.

An oxbow along the Sycamore Trail.

The floodwaters receded, of course. Trees grew up. Twenty-six years went by. We’ve had more floods since then, though not quite as bad. Floods that are called ‘once in a hundred year’ floods, or ‘once in 500 year floods’ take place every couple of years now.

Finding that houseboat in the middle of the woods was incredibly cool. But it’s also incredibly sad. It’s sad because of all the suffering that took place. And it’s sad because the President of the United States, despite all the science and all the evidence, says climate change is a hoax.

The good news? A decade after the Great Flood of 1993, Greta Thunberg was born. So there’s that.

at the fair

You know those mornings when you wake up, deal with the cat, and drink your cold brew coffee while you consider the list of things you ought to do, some of which are moderately important, but by the time you empty your mug you’ve decided to skip all those things and go to the state fair instead? That was me yesterday.

Young couple trying to see how many kids they can stuff in the cab of a really big tractor.

I like the state fair. I love the state fairgrounds more than I like the actual fair; I’ve spent a LOT more time noodling around the fairgrounds during the off-season than I have during the fair itself. But the fair is fun too. The noise, the smells, the crowds, the weird tension, the chaos, the confusion — I like all of that.

I like to look at farm technology. Tractors and combines and — okay, I have no idea what most farm tech is called. Or what it does. I confess, I have absolutely NO interest in the purpose of farm tech. But I’m fascinated by 1) how massive some modern farm equipment is, and 2) the fact that there are people who restore or refurbish old tractors. I like to listen to old guys (and it’s always guys) talk about their old tractors, even though I’ve no idea what they’re talking about. I recognize them as nerd-geeks who have a passion I can respect even though it’s entirely foreign to me.

Old guys talking about old tractors.

I also like that things I don’t understand are being judged by standards I also don’t understand. Like horses and sheep. Or cabbages and turnips. Or sewing and crafting. I look at the prize cabbages and I have no idea why one cabbage is superior to the next. I have no idea why this cow is better than that cow, or why the way that horse trots surpasses the way this other horse trots. But there are folks out there who DO know those things, and I find that notion wonderful. (By the way, I don’t need — or want — an explanation for why one horse’s trot is superior; I’m just happy that folks who DO know and care about such things exist.)

Some sort of horse judging thing. Or maybe a riding judging thing. There was definitely judging going on.

I like the people I see at the fair. Not just the folks like me, who show up and eat the deep fried vegan peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and marvel at the size of the biggest boar, but the folks who move to the fair for a week or so and show their animals. Again, I don’t know dick about farming or farm stuff. But I’m always impressed by the people — and especially the kids and younger folks — who spend their fair days washing and drying their cows or goats, or shoveling animal shit out of stalls and laying down hay (if that’s hay — what do I know from hay?). When I was a kid I had to do the usual chores — wash dishes, maybe mow the lawn, that sort of thing. These farm kids? They’re raising livestock and acting like it’s no big deal.

Blow drying a goat.

Kids. A tangent here. As a rule, I don’t photograph kids. I think kids going about their daily kid lives doing kid things are eminently photographable and interesting, but photographing kids these days is just a pain in the ass. It’s not the kids; it’s the parents. I have, in the past, been accosted by parents for shooting photos in the general vicinity of kids. Not photos OF kids, mind you; just photographs of stuff in a park where kids are playing — stuff with zero kids in the frame. Nothing is more embarrassing and frustrating and infuriating than being waylaid by an irate parent and basically accused, in public, of being a pervert. So I just don’t photograph kids anymore.

Except at the fair. I will occasionally shoot a photo of a kid engaged in some farm/fair related activity. Like blow-drying a sheep. I’m not photographing the kid, you understand. I’m photographing the activity. But sometimes there are moments when a kid is being so perfectly a kid that you have to make an exception. So I photographed a kid. I am NOT going to feel guilty about it.

Woke up from a nap, got chores to do.

Actually it turns out it’s almost impossible to shoot a photo at the state fair without including a kid. They’re everywhere. Which is as it should be, since fairs are all about being a kid. Sometimes when you’re taking a photo of a kid, you’re also shooting a photograph of somebody being a good, caring, thoughtful parent.

Cooling mist on a hot fair day.

When I got home I was surprised that almost every photograph I shot had a kid in it. Or an old person. Or a disabled person. Old folks and disabled folks on mobility scooters zipped around the fairgrounds like hornets, like pirates, like…well, kids. They probably shouldn’t have been eating funnel cakes or deep fried Twinkies or bacon-wrapped BBQ ribs, but they were. They probably should have been napping, but they weren’t. They probably should have headed inside when the sky got dark and it began to sprinkle, but they didn’t. They faired (and yeah, I know ‘fair’ isn’t a verb, but there ought to be a term to describe the act of enjoying a fair). Those folks faired like bosses. It was great to see.

Leaving the fair just as it began to sprinkle.

That was the fair. I saw a cabbage bigger than my head. I saw a massive horse with hairy hooves that looked like it ought to be pulling a Russian sleigh and escaping a pack of wolves. I saw farm tech that looked like mooncraft. I saw a sleepy young cowboy who’ll almost certainly look exactly the same in forty years. I ate a deep fried  peanut butter and jelly sandwich on a damned stick. I walked six and a half miles (unless my Fitbit is lying to me).

I faired moderately well.