Triple Threat

Through the magic of the Public Radio Exchange, Two Wheels to Nowhere has been licensed by KUT-FM, 90.5 in Austin, Texas. Apparently they have been running an episode a week—Sundays at midnight. Perfect: Two Wheels was made to be listened to in the dark. Equally cool, WRNC 97.7 in Chequamegon Bay, Wisconsin has also licensed Two Wheels, though I don't know when they plan on airing it. Including REMIX's repeater in Spokane, Two Wheels is getting terrestrially broadcast from three stations and blasted down to Earth on XM 136.

This is a lot of unexpected awesomeness. Whether you heard about Two Wheels from a terrestrial station, a satellite broadcast, or the internet, thanks for listening.


The Man Who Knows What You Don't Know

A spot of mustard-yellow sun is stuck to the chrome bar stool where the Man Who Knows What You Don't Know sits. Sounds of an acoustic guitar drift from the porch through open windows, a creaky Beatles tune fracturing on dark wooden walls. The restaurant is empty, closed. The two employees stagger around like an undead cleaning crew, zombies with mops and sponges. For them, this is the end of a very long, tiring day. The Man Who Knows What You Don't Know stares into his empty coffee cup. In a city, he would exit the restaurant and leave the staff to their cleaning, but there isn't a city within four hours of hard driving and, out here, nobody is in a hurry. The song outside finishes and the latches on a guitar case snap open and shut. In the kitchen, a mop squeaks quietly on linoleum. The point of mustard-yellow light ascends the stool, a miniature sunrise locked in an inverse relationship to the sunset outside.

The Man Who Knows What You Don't Know looks up from his coffee cup. Perhaps he has divined something from patterns in the dregs. The conversation has no point of origin, it just starts. These types of conversations always begin without warning, though bystanders should probably be warned with sirens and flares. Waco. He wants to talk about Waco. "The Feds shoulda never been there. It shoulda been the state police or Texas National Guard. Not us." The Man Who Knows What You Don't Know worked for the Secret Service. As a sniper. When the Secret Service didn't need him, they pimped him out to other government agencies: the FBI, ATF, CIA. "I liked the FBI guys, but the CIA? They're assholes. Arrogant. Tight-lipped. But I tell you what, I'd love to know what the hell is going on in there. They do a lot of work. Look after their own. You wouldn't believe it."

Waco was his last job. He says the ATF asked him to shoot a woman standing on the roof of the Branch Davidian compound. She had been there for a long time, standing around with her son, refusing to move. The ATF was edgy. Was she going to pick off someone? Blow herself up? Shoot her son? Probably. "She was just standin' up there with her kid and they asked me to shoot her. I never saw a weapon and I wasn't about to kill an unarmed woman... I got enough shit from Vietnam to deal with." The ATF, disgusted, packed him up and returned him to the Secret Service in Washington. Insubordination didn't help his career. Upon returning, the Secret Service parked him behind a desk as a low-level functionary and, after a brief stint pushing papers, the Man Who Knows What You Don't Know resigned—exactly as they wanted.

When he worked for the Secret Service he "cleaned out" cities before presidential visits. "God, I wish I'd been around when Kennedy was in office... that woulda never happened. You know how many people planned to kill Reagan? A lot of them came close. Saint Louis is a remarkably bad town. Chicago. New Jersey. Lots of mafia." The Man Who Knows What You Don't Know says that his group was quietly deployed two weeks prior to the president's arrival and they would systematically get rid of people considered likely to assassinate the Commander in Chief. American citizens. Without warrants. His brown eyes are open and unblinking between his slick gray hair and pushbroom mustache. "And you think I'm crazy. People in this country don't know half the things that's going on. But I don't care anymore. I don't mind talking." The mop has stopped squeaking in the background. Everyone is listening.


At the Axis of the Grid

Like most cities in the American west, this downtown is sickly during the day and moribund at night, its orange-lit, 1950s-era architecture only appreciated by a few homeless people. Two of these people stand in front of a modern blue ATM embedded in the side of an old building. If the building makes the ATM look incongruous, the ATM has a similar effect on the people. The woman in front of the machine is barely clothed, her thick body wrapped in a fuzzy cyan blanket. She wobbles from one leg to another and looks over her shoulder suspiciously. Her face is flat and deeply sunburned, eyelids fighting to push back puffy cheeks. She could be anywhere between thirty and sixty. A ziploc bag full of crumpled ATM receipts sits on the ledge of the machine in front of her. She inspects one and then, with a jerky motion, runs her drivers license through the card-swipe. The machine displays an error message and she jabs at the keypad until it spits out another receipt, which she puts in the bag. She looks over her shoulder again and scowls. Behind her, a man in tattered jeans, a dirty black t-shirt, and a crumpled trucker hat is folded over the top-tube of his mountain bike. He is either asleep or seeking nirvana in sidewalk stains. The woman runs the drivers license again and the machine coughs up another receipt. She stares at it expressionlessly and puts it in the bag. This process repeats itself for several minutes as the man on the bicycle sways gently back and forth, his face coming disturbingly close to the ground.

Then, suddenly, the woman is finished. The ziploc bag snaps quietly shut under the fierce pressure of her calloused hands, then she pivots awkwardly on her heel. As she walks past the man doubled over the bicycle, he raises himself and says: "here." A small wad of fifties changes hands but the woman's puffy face remains impassive. With the heavy footsteps of loose platform shoes, she stumps down the empty street.

When the man approaches the ATM, his movements are fast and efficient: swiping a card, hammering a pin, and withdrawing a monstrous stack of twenties. $400? $600? He does not print a receipt. His trucker hat casts a long shadow over his face as he jumps on the squeaky mountain bike and weaves down the road.



After six years of procrastination, I finally got up the nerve to create an account on the Public Radio Exchange. For those of you who are unfamiliar with PRX, it's the bridge that connects public radio stations with independent producers. If you've never browsed their website, it's well worth exploring—there is a lot of radio online that is slightly too weird for terrestrial broadcast. Two Wheels to Nowhere is living there now, as is my latest short documentary Voices from Pie Town.

Here's the surprising part: within a few hours of going live on PRX, Two Wheels to Nowhere was picked up by REMIX Radio, a station that aggregates interesting public radio and podcast content and blasts it out on XM 136 and a terrestrial station in Spokane, Washington. I never expected it, but Two Wheels might get a bit of non-digital airtime. Pretty darn cool.



86 days, 14,779 miles, 25 states, 5 provinces. 220 audio interviews.

What is the hardest decision you have ever faced?

Last summer’s interviews—the ones that came together into Two Wheels to Nowhere—were extremely personal, but they did not prepare me for the intensity of this summer. Riding a motorcycle around the continent is a pretty easy thing to do, but knowing how to talk to people about their most intimate experiences is, well, difficult. Assessing the value of such an invasive project is tough, too.

To send my husband to a nursing home.

To admit to needing psychiatric care.

To acquiesce to being raped.

What is and isn’t safe to ask? How do you discover those boundaries? Should you sleuth around with a flashlight when a crucial part of a story is being intentionally left in a dark, cobwebbed room? For interviewees, sharing their hardest decisions is an act of immense trust, an act predicated upon the belief that this radio project will have value, that something can be gained by listening to the choices other people have faced. This isn’t the place to delve into philosophy but, for me, the project would be worth less (though not worthless) if the conversations weren’t generally true. This creates tension. During the interview, it is a tension between pushing for details and knowing when to back off if revealing those details makes the interviewee uncomfortable. The tension continues into post-production, where it manifests as a tug-of-war between telling a good story and respecting the interviewee’s privacy.

Let’s go back for a second. What lead up to the decision?

There were conversations where people began calm and ended up sweating and shaking. There were conversations that ended abruptly, the interviewee rattled by the sudden return of a long-buried memory. There were conversations with long, awkward pauses. And tears. And hugs. Many of the most powerful moments are not on tape—and shouldn’t be. Other moments are on tape, but are inappropriate to share. My flustered incompetence wrecked a few of them, but not all.

What were you weighting? What was in favor of the choice you made? How about the other choice?

Was there a specific moment when you made up your mind? Something that happened?

Now, sitting down to edit, I can only attempt to move forward with tact and judgment—not my strong suits, but a treatment each interview richly deserves. Of the 220 decisions, I will choose about fifteen and cut them into short episodes. There won’t be a narrative framework to the project, just anonymous people from different walks of life facing some brutally hard choices. Their stories are amazing. Fingers crossed, I won’t botch them.

How did the decision change you?

Life is messy and ugly and too fucked up too often. Many people have lived through scenarios that are incomprehensible to the rest of us; perhaps we have heard about them third-hand or seen them caricatured in film, but those depictions are little more than the faint shadows of real events, easily otherized, devoid of emotional force. But when someone tells you, in his own words, about deciding to sever ties with his father after years of emotional abuse, you listen. And when someone else tells you about deciding to place her mentally ill daughter in an asylum after nineteen years of struggling to control her at home, you pause. In radio, these stories are told one-to-one, and you can’t murmur the obligatory “oh, that must have been so hard,” before thoughtlessly returning to your well-oiled life. You can feel the burn of intensity, even when your inability to relate leaves you speechless.

If you had made the decision the other way, where would you be today?

This is a project about empathy, not in the specific sense—you will never empathize with the drug dealer who decides to plead guilty after beating his client to a bloody mess with a steel pipe—but empathy in the abstract. The interviewees may strike you as unsympathetic, their decisions inconceivably foreign, but they are sharing the fulcrum moments of their lives and they are, ultimately, just as human as you. Those could have been your shoes. You might have walked the same direction in them.

Knowing what you know now, would you go back and make the decision the same way?

If their stories make you pause and digest, if they make you wonder about the invisible maelstrom of decisions swirling around you then, maybe, the project will have some value—maybe their trust will have been well placed. We’ll see. There’s still a lot that can go wrong in editing.

Do you have any regrets?


Tucson, AZ

Typically, when you hear the word "biker" two counterposed images spring to mind: the Whale, with his pristine, $30k hog and matching apparel and the Rat whose white skin and brown hair have averaged out to a dirty orange from sun exposure. The Whale aspires to be the Rat—he has seen the Rat depicted in hundreds of movies, TV shows, and advertisements. The Rat is somewhere between hardcore and feral, stringy and muscular. He lives in a shack in the desert and thunders through the sand from roadhouse to whorehouse. Breakfast is for pussies, lunch is a whiskey bottle with a broken neck, and dinner comes off a mirror. The Rat chews burned rubber instead of tobacco and spits corrosive fluid on police cruisers. He kills the weak with a scowl and the strong with a rusty chain. When Smoky takes a shot at him, he bleeds 20W-50. The Rat made "biker" a scary word but, today, he is nearly extinct.

When you see a chrome-coated cruiser thundering down the highway, chances are you're seeing a Whale. They are ubiquitous, parked in service stations, wheezing on and off their manicured rides at diners recommended by so-called "biker" magazines—as if bikers had magazines. As if bikers ate at diners touting A+ ratings from local health departments. Whales put their bikes on trailers and tote them around the country from rally to rally, the motorized equivalent of dog shows. Whales do not camp, ride during the winter, or carry adequate tools. They do, however, have families, lots of stuff, and 401ks. These attributes, coupled with their Harley brand pacemakers, render them unthreatening. Whales are too vested in life to risk misanthropic behavior. They are friendly, responsible geezers who like squeezing into costumes and taking in a bit of fresh air. They'll wave to you.

You can travel thousands of miles without meeting a genuine Rat and, if you do, he won't wave to you. He won't even see you, partly because you don't matter and partly because he wears inadequate eye protection and his vision is blurred by road-crud. But, sometimes, if you are lucky, you will meet a him at a gas station in the middle of rural New Mexico and he will deign to acknowledge you.

"Tucson? Huh." The Rat sneers that he is just setting off for Los Angeles. "Now that's a real ride." 10:00 has come and gone and the city of angels is nearly 800 miles to the west. The Rat spits on the concrete and finishes fueling his bike. Salt crystals cover his once-red bandanna. His Harley doesn't have bags on it. It doesn't have fairings. Or a windshield. It would be appallingly uncomfortable for one hundred miles, let alone eight times that. "Gotta get there for a funeral tomorrow afternoon," he says nonchalantly. His silver aviators can't conceal his self-satisfaction. There is a 50% chance he caused the funeral and another 50% chance that it will be his own after hitting a deer tonight. "They sure are going to be surprised to see me roll up at that country club." Without another word, he starts his weathered bike and interrupts conversations for everyone in a three-mile radius. Then he roars onto I-25 southbound.

If he speeds, doesn't stop, doesn't encounter traffic, he will arrive in LA around midnight. However much he brags about being hardened, his ride will be long, lonely, and uncomfortable. Beneath all of the assholic swaggering, one senses that the rest of his life is the same way. The Whale envies his image but, in the Rat's poor, rural existence, there is no glamor.



Santa Fe, NM

The neighborhood in Santa Fe is dark except for infrequent strobes of yellow and blue lightning that illuminate bulky thunderheads. Fat droplets of rain hit the pavement and smack with a sound that can only be likened to raw meat being dropped on a marble counter. Through an iron gate, onto the dark porch of a brown faux-Pueblo house where a cardboard cutout of Will Ferrell dressed as an elf smirks in the flickering light. The small voice on the phone says the door will not be locked. The door is locked. Is it the right door? The one with the dog in the other side? "Yes," he small voice says, "there should be another couch surfer there." The dog does not bark in response to knocking on the door, though it is rumored to be friendly. Windows in the door offer disjointed glimpses a cluttered living room illuminated by the soft, chilly glow of a CRT. Law & Order reruns. Television actors. Their voices are audible through the thin wood, overblown intonation, stagnant pauses, weepy outbursts. The episode is about the rape of a retarded person.

Knock knock.

The dog is quiet as the windows in the door buzz softly. A traveler's backpack vomits clothes off a sofa onto the floor. Next to the door, a bedroom window yawns. There is no screen. "Go for it," the little voice says. Heavy, wet boots squeak. Interior doors open. Inside the living room, Law & Order continues: "their lawyer might argue that it was pity sex..." The dog wags its tail and snuffles around the boots. Numerous sofas line the living room walls. They are covered in stuff. Mounds of stuff. Laptops, clothes... people. A shirtless man covered in tattoos is passed out next to the door, oblivious to the televised drama, the loud knocking, and now the dull thudding of boots near his head. Is he breathing? Softly. The dog pads around the room and presses its wet nose against things. The air is close. "I... just... can't believe this!" a woman chokes through tinny television speakers.

There is wireless. Wireless is all you need to locate a cheap motel. Phone calss. Reservations. Doors open and close. The dog scuttles around excitedly while the tattooed man lies on the sofa like a corpse, his waxy skin gleaming under the flickering blue television light.

Lock the door. Close the door.

Outside the rain has stopped, leaving the air pungent and fresh.

Heavy boots crunch on gravel. A wrought-iron gate squeaks. In the distance, the porch is black except for the sickly, radioactive light from the windows. Red button: thwacka-thwacka. Thumper engines sound like helicopters.

Go, go, go.



Lafayette, CO

Is his name Skeet? Skeeter? Remaining silent through an awkward introduction, he reclines in a white chair out behind The Miners Tavern. The tavern is in Erie, Colorado, a former mining town smashed between the hammer of Boulder and the anvil of Denver. Inside, stories unfold. Until a few years ago, the downtown streets remained unpaved and it appeared that Erie's locals had magically rendered their community invisible to the speculators bent on forging Denver and its satellites into a California-style megalopolis. But the spell that had protected Erie is losing its potency and the town has begrudgingly ceded ground to encroaching blandburbs. Refugees from Denver were accompanied by new homes and chain restaurants, Tyvek and stucco boxes that erupted around the town like pimples on oily skin, transforming Erie into an extension of the very city people were trying to escape. The town council fractured and, outnumbered, established residents lost their majority. Downtown was paved. The Miners Tavern is one of the few places in town the old locals still congregate. It is immaculate and blue collar, spacious and lively. On a Wednesday night, it is the only building downtown that glows with light and sizzles with energy.

Boots on a white metal table, long silver hair flowing from behind a bald patch, Skeet wears his navy blue jumpsuit with authority as he gazes at the stars overhead. "He rides his motorcycle every day of the year, even in winter," someone says. Skeet smiles and his eyes remain glued on the heavens. He is silent. "Um, hey, so this guy just rode around the country on a motorcycle..." Skeet will not take the bait. He is having a perfectly relaxing night without being dragged into a conversation with an outsider. "Everything okay?" He murmurs: "the stars are clear tonight." A group of bar patrons spray out the back door like water being released from a kinked hose. Primus is playing tomorrow, a fact that some of them find exciting and others find meaningless. Inside, a severe looking man with angular features, a dark goatee, and a black cowboy hat spins teenybopper music. "He plays this set every night, same order. He loves this stuff. It's a little better when you're drinking."

The hispanic man at the bar says: "construction is run by the mafia. Restaurants, too. You have to know people to get in, otherwise they will never hire you. It doesn't matter how good you are." He appears to be in his forties, a dark blue baseball cap shading his darker eyes. He nods emphatically. "I ain't lying to you, man. I got no reason to lie about this. I don't even know who you are. I don't care, either, because it's the truth. You gotta know people, do what they tell you..." His words are steamrolled by a powerful female voice singing Karaoke from the other half of the building.

Back on the patio the karaoke is muffled and Skeet remains transfixed on the heavens. Talk of Primus has waned and now bets are being placed on what song is next in line. "Trevor will sing Sabbath. You know he will. War Pigs. He always does." Two Jäger shots are on the line. The conversation dies down and cigarettes light up as everyone listens through the glass door for a hint of the next song. It is not Black Sabbath.

Rocky Mountains


Allenspark, CO

The yellow and black trains have three, four, five engines. They are a mile long. "Typically about 28,000 tons of coal," the Engineer says. They head east, as far as North Carolina, where they are digested by power plants. In some areas, the Engineer says, the entire trainload can be burned up in 24 hours. "People talk about us getting off coal... are they kidding? Even if you really pushed alternative energies, it would be impossible to get them past 10% of our total power production in the next decade." Empty trains run west, blowing their horns as they meet their eastbound counterparts. The coal originates in Wyoming. "It's a soft coal, a clean coal," the Engineer says with conviction, "there is less nitrogen than eastern hard coals, so when it burns there is less acid rain." Another train rumbles by. They have been scraping and chugging along the tracks all night, every twenty minutes. In a nation that views railroads as moribund relics of the 19th century, the constant movement, the shaking ground, the rough industrial vitality makes for an impressive display. They never stop. "Warren Buffett just scooped up BNSF and they run a line parallel to this one. Just as busy, all coal, too. You think that guy would be spending all that money on a railroad if it didn't have something to ship? Coal's not going anywhere."

The Crusader has steely hair in the closest female equivalent to a crew cut. Her skin, which is stretched tightly over a powerful chin, is tan and leathery. She has gray eyes that burn like twin carbon-arc lights in dark sockets—they burn with the fervor of temperance. Temperance crusaders may seem as archaic as railroads but, like their locomotive counterparts, they survived the 20th century intact, if not especially visible. "My hardest decision? Going against the flow." Her eyes flash. "I am the daughter of a Lutheran minister, grew up in the church. I knew that world was small and left home when I was eighteen. Went straight to LA. Lived on the streets. You learn a lot out there, what the real world is about, how people actually behave." Today, several decades later, she runs a small consignment shop out of a garage in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Frank Sinatra's voice croons out of an old monophonic Zenith radio and avocado green shelves support an array of tarnished silver utensils, floral teapots, and Hummel dolls. It was only in the moral swamp of Los Angeles that the Crusader learned to understand the evils of alcohol and drugs, to viscerally feel the truth she had learned as a child. "This is a corrupt town, a sinful town. Did you see main street back there? Nothing but bars, each one full of people ruining their lives. I've been fighting to have them all closed. Everybody on the town council knows me. The sheriff knows me. They hate me. I'm someone who isn't loved in this town, but you have to go against the flow... because it's the right thing to do." She lights a cigarette. "There's been a little progress here and there, but they won't stop fighting. They come at me from time to time, but I get my hammer and I pound them right back down." She swings her arm and destroys something with an invisible sledge. She is like the Tommy of Whack-a-Mole. A sneer passes quickly across her mouth, lips pulling back to reveal perfect, if somewhat yellow, teeth. "They know they can't be rid of me." Yet something makes her too wary to speak on record.


Chimney Rock, NE

Warm, sleepy, rural Nebraska. The vast parking lot outside the Hy-Vee shimmers in the early morning sun. Pear-shaped retirees wheeze like old locomotives behind shopping carts piled high with diet soda, their chugging and sucking breath adding texture to a soundscape of chirping birds, electric cicadas, and distant traffic. Inside the store the environment is cool, dry, and white. The oleaginous grooves of Pablo Cruise play from hundreds of tinny speakers, a soft rock current flowing just beneath the mantle of consciousness. Plastic wheels roll across linoleum with a sound that is simultaneously sticky and bubbly. In the back of the store there is a giant freezer overflowing with colorful microwave dinners. The sign hanging over it reads: Meal Solutions. Who knew that, in the dead center of the first world, meals had been problematized.

The truck stop is the size of a bowling alley. It offers food, showers, and the usual assortment of zebra-striped seat covers, chain link license plate frames, and bumper stickers proclaiming: "Annoy a liberal: work hard and succeed." A special glass case near the cash register harbors cheap pocket knives, a few CB radios, and a collection of Nebraska shot-glasses. It also contains a few small fighter jets that have been locally crafted from spent .50 machine gun bullets.

Omaha, NE II

"You shoot pictures for the Miami Herald?" The group of young Sudanese men idle around on the white pedestrian bridge spanning the Missouri river—Miami is a world away. The men are generally tall, skinny, and immaculately dressed in Polo shirts and fashionable jeans. It is night time, but they wear dark sunglasses. Their dress emulates callous high-rollers, a disguise that is betrayed by their infectious cheerfulness and juvenile fear of being caught with a few beer cans in public. But perhaps their squeamishness about the beer is warranted: Omaha has one of the largest Sudanese expat communities in the country and large ethnic communities have a knack for making local police edgy.

The Tall Man is surrounded by friends when he says: "hey, photographer man! Take my photo!" Then, when the great lens points at him, he finds himself standing alone. His friends snicker from behind the camera and one hisses for him to set his beer down because the police will see him on the front cover of the Miami Herald. The Tall Man sets his beer down, not because he is concerned about the police, but because he needs both hands to wrangle two reluctant women into the picture with him. He emulates a music video gangster-pose while the women squirm and grimace. As his friends continue to giggle, the Tall Man recaptures his arm candy and the shutter abruptly clicks. He reviews the picture, contemplating the unhappy expressions of his imaginary harem while, in real life, the women bolt for safety. "Oh man, this is no good! One more! One more!" Amateur photography means nothing to him—he is convinced that he will be famous tomorrow... if he can just get his babes to smile. But they will not smile and have no intention of approaching the camera again. One verbally backpedals while the other escapes to find a bathroom. The Tall Man looks morose, but his friends can no longer restrain themselves and an explosion of laughter rises into the flickering orange and blue sky, their happy voices mingling with the thunderclaps booming overhead.


Omaha, NE I

A decision: to seek therapy for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. You were a professional soldier. Over two decades of military service in the Middle East, the Balkans, wherever the United States needed you. You subscribe to the ideology of democracy, you've fought for it, killed for it. As a soldier, as a man, you dismissed psychology and counseling as effete bullshit. But you've seen the good guys, your fellow good guys, kill innocent people in rage. When a warrior in your unit raped and killed an eight year-old girl you almost shot him but refrained, partly because you simply do not shoot men on your side and, more fundamentally, because you feared that a prison sentence would deprive your children of a father. So you blew the whistle and, in response, the military encouraged your silence. Then they honorably discharged you.

The hammer of justice never came down upon the rapist and murderer. He has retired. He lives near you.

You love your country, but your outlook is darker, more complicated. The good guys are no longer the good guys and guilt seeps into your every waking moment like poison gas hissing underneath a closed door. You could have saved her. Every night you wake up on the hour to re-secure windows and locks. Thinking about that eight year-old girl tears you to bits.

You can still make justice happen.

The Vietnam War veterans at your workplace tell you to get help. You refuse. Then, one night, your young daughter has a nightmare and crawls into bed with you for comfort. Unconscious, panicked, you throw her through a wall. Miraculously, she is okay, but the experience leaves both of you terrified. Yet you still refuse to see a therapist. When your son refuses to clean his room you destroy everything he owns, kicking his furniture into splinters. In the mirror, you see a lunatic, but you still refuse to seek treatment. Shrinks are for wimps and losers, women and civilians. Warriors solve their own problems.

It is late at night and you are in your truck. Armed. You know where the rapist and murderer lives. He does not deserve to live. You drive in circles. You drive towards his house. Killing him will be easy—you've planned it all out. When you are done, you will park at a nearby lake and watch the sunrise. Then you will kill yourself.

You keep driving into the night.

Then you stop. The motor idles and the transmission remains in drive. The soldier's crime has consumed you. It is ruining your family. It is very near to destroying them. Your act of vengeance is justified, but what are the ramifications? Who will be collateral damage? Your children. Your wife. You. You are a man, a soldier, and, suddenly, you realize that you cannot deal with this on your own.

You release the brake and make a u-turn on the empty road through the rolling hills under the black, black sky.

It takes two years and seven doctors before you feel like you have reached a starting point, then three years more before your life regains a sense of normality. But you still have flashbacks of the little girl getting raped and killed. You still feel that you could have saved her. You still know that, with a few slugs and the smooth turn of a key in your truck's ignition, you could cleanse the planet of her killer.

But you decided to get help and, carrying more baggage than any person could handle alone, you take slow, incremental steps into the future. Every day you fight bitterly to keep the memory from controlling your life and wrecking your family.

Whatever they say, you are still a soldier.


Ledges, IA

You worked at the college but never had a college degree. After a decade and a half of quietly propelling your department forward, after picking up slack for an endless stream of incompetent supervisors, after earning the affection of students and coworkers, you thought you were safe. But, then, a new supervisor swooped in and decided to make an impression on her own supervisors. It was the classic saga of upper-level managers justifying their salaries but, this time, you got hung out to dry. When you were asked to operate a student telephone switchboard, you thought they were joking. They were not. You mentioned that your job was not to answer phones, that you didn't have time to answer phones and take care of your regular workload. The hammer fell with shocking immediacy and, without a word of discussion, you were informed that your long service to the school would be terminated in two weeks. After being unexpectedly insulted and abruptly fired, you were expected to work for another two weeks.

One week of awkwardness elapsed and, on your final week, the switchboard materialized in your office. Phones rang on the board, but nobody was willing to answer it. Officemates winced with each ring and went to desperate lengths to feign business with other activities. Then your desk phone rang. The supervisor—the one who had fired you the previous week—incredulously asked why you were not answering the switchboard. Reminding her that you had already been fired for refusing to answer it, you made it clear that you still had no intention of playing operator. The line went silent. Then your supervisor informed you that campus security would escort you off college premises and any future attempts to visit would be greeted by the local police. Former colleagues pretended to not see you as you were escorted out. Allies among the faculty were muzzled by thinly-veiled threats from the administration. You had friends in the administration, but they became unreachable when you needed them. And now you are unemployed. People see you differently. You see yourself differently. While you know that Kafka couldn't have devised a more unjustly vindictive bureaucracy, you can't escape the lurking sense that there is something wrong with you, that you failed.


Lisbon, IA

A green kite charts a speedy parabola through the blue sky. The wind comes out of the west, a brutal, invisible pressure that makes trees lean, tractor-trailers wobble, and the man with the kite stumble forward. The Big Muddy pushes south, high water next to grassy, manicured banks, more indomitable than the midwestern wind. Davenport, Iowa's waterfront is hardly a bustling commercial center, but numerous people move up and down its bike path while others talk quietly under freshly-painted gazebos. A minor league baseball stadium has thrown its gates open and fans in red jerseys pour in to enjoy a late afternoon game with the river as a backdrop.

What is the hardest decision you've ever made? "Being me." The African-American man in the white sedan is in his mid-forties and wears thin-rimmed glasses and a gray t-shirt with cut off sleeves. "You married?" No. "Are you bi?" What? "Are you bi?" No. "A lot of people in this park are bi." Is that what he is referring to when he says that his hardest decision is being himself? "No, no. By 'being me' I mean, not getting too crazy, keeping myself from getting crazy. I can be pretty wild." He says that he has to be a mentor to his younger siblings and children. He does not want them to see him in a weak moment. He remembers seeing his own father in weak moments.

He pauses.

"That whole gayism thing, that's probably the number one decision people tell you about, isn't it?" No, but a few interviewees have discussed coming out. "People tell you all kinds of stuff, don't they?" Some of them. Sometimes. "It's probably your smile—you've got good teeth. I saw you over here and I said: 'shit, why ain't I better dressed today?' Yeah, you got a good smile, but I don't know what you're like underneath."



Chicago, IL II

"I came to America with five dollars in my pocket and did not speak a word of English," the Art Dealer says. She immigrated legally from Poland in her early twenties—several decades ago, when the Soviet Union was still intact. Like many other Poles, she headed straight to northwest Chicago, the largest Polish community outside of Warsaw. "At home, I made $20 a month. In America, I got a nanny job. Usually, I worked for about twelve to fourteen hours a day, six days a week... and I made $20 a week." Slowly, she saved up enough money to escape wage slavery and decided to launch a European art gallery. Her gray eyes contemplate her large, black desk: "At the time, there weren't many people bringing European art to Chicago, especially Polish art. I thought that it might be a way to get money going back there while exposing Americans to new art..." She raises her eyes glances around the large room of her gallery. The walls are covered in huge oil paintings in heavy gold and black frames, pastoral images of snowy European countrysides, vibrant cityscapes, a few still-lifes. Paintings lean in stacks along the base of walls. Many are beautiful, some are insipid, but all are surprising to find hidden behind the barred windows and locked doors of a dismal, 1960's-era storefront. Like many other immigrants, the Art Dealer made the journey alone. Friends and family remained in Poland, but she was driven to America out of a powerful ambition to live a more comfortable life. "I still go back a few times a year and see them." Decades later, with the gallery thriving, she has lived the quintessential American Dream: "this really is a country where anything is possible. I love it here. I would never return. This is home now." She has helped over ten Poles immigrate to the United States since relocating herself, offering them places go stay while they try to launch their own lives. "Some people complain about America. I have traveled all over the world, Africa, Asia, Europe, and there is nowhere else like this. Five dollars. I came with five dollars and no English. Look where I am now."

Up the street, in a dark Polish bar, the Agent is hunched over a Bud Light as he talks with the Bartender. His hands tremble slightly as he unwraps a roll of Smarties and puts a few of the chalky, pastel candies in his mouth: "I bring these with me everywhere... there are more in my car. Hand them out at bars; people know me as the guy with the Smarties. Here, have some, they don't have much sugar." The Bartender is a lean man with a Roman nose, a long, stern face, and a jean vest. His gray hair is slicked back on his head. He should have been in the Rolling Stones. Maybe he was. "This economy stinks," he says, and lists the Polish names of two regulars who just got laid off from manufacturing jobs after two and three decades of employment. "Can you believe that? Just thrown away. There's nothing left here. Dead." The Agent, a retired Fed, nods in agreement and chases his beer with a few more Smarties: "all those new condos downtown, who are those for? What do they even do that's so important?"

It is an area of long, ugly roads lined with trash and light-industrial buildings. Freeways and railroads crisscross over and under surface streets. Color is rare: the buildings are shades of tan and mustard brick, dark gray asphalt, light gray skies, brown lots strewn with trash, chain link fences. A large stuffed tiger lies on on the cracked sidewalk, its head partially torn off and its torso slashed open down the spine. Intestinal-pink foam explodes from its neck as if under pressure.


Chicago, IL I

Friday night has become Saturday morning and the frat boys and sorority girls who have flowered into young urban professionals fill Lincoln Avenue like a throbbing cloud of jellyfish. A multitude of faces under yellow lights: smiling, laughing, crying, shouting, vacant. Strong shadows play havoc with expressions, eyes glimmer in too-dark sockets, noses are accentuated, double-chins erased. Pulsing bass grooves undulate through brownstone walls while their treble counterparts flow through open doors, present one moment, absent the next.

On the west side of the street, in front of a hospital for children, a group of men in pale striped shirts is getting harassed by an aspiring boxer with a wife-beater and cornrows. The aspiring boxer prances stupidly from one foot to the next, facing the group as he hops backwards down the street. He swings his arms in wide, flailing arcs towards one of the men, hands open, pawing and fondling the shirt sleeves of his seething opponent. The group stops. The boxer stops in front of them. Angry words are exchanged. The boxer takes another provocative slap. Men in the group straighten their shirts and roll their necks, elaborately preparing for a fight as if Hollywood cameras were trained on them.

On the east side of the street, taxis jockey for fares in a huge, self-defeating automotive snarl. They clog up a six-way intersection and the traffic lights cycle impotently through colors as cars back up further and further. Horns add their shrill voices to the cacophony of human noises as emaciated hipsters dart between cars on their bicycles. Schools of pedestrians follow suit, abruptly wriggling from one side of the intersection to another, swimming against the current of taxis.

The girl in the electric blue dress isn't tall, but she is beautiful. Athletic, blonde, perfectly proportioned, hers is the kind of beauty that makes traffic tickets vanish, job opportunities materialize, and bartenders prompt and attentive—which seems to have been the story tonight. For some reason, she is alone and, perhaps for the same reason, she is completely and totally drunk. Her perfect teeth are exposed by a gently-moronic grin and her bleary eyes are fixed directly in front of her, across the street. Inspired or terrified by all of the noise and activity, she migrates and her excessive stilettos click unevenly on the cool pavement. Click, click, click. One frozen aisle of cabs and then another, she crosses perpendicular to the green, head locked forward, eyes fixed, smile still idiotic. What does she see on the far sidewalk? Not the taxi. The only taxi in motion. The taxi that has, finally, discovered a clear channel through the gridlock and is flying forward at twenty miles per hour. And the taxi doesn't see her, either, as she totters out from between two frozen cars into its path. Her beauty is irrelevant.

And there is a sound like a bear going through a dumpster, which is the taxi's hood. And there is a sound like a heavy duffel bag coming up a conveyor belt and thudding onto the carousel of an airport luggage claim, which is the girl. And both of these sounds happen at once. She rolls onto the taxi's hood and partway up its windshield, only to be hurled into the middle of the intersection as the car's wheels lock with a scream of rubber. She is a cartwheeling tangle of white and blue. She is a small pile of white and blue. Stationary now, illuminated in the middle of the huge, congested intersection by the taxi's white lights that look like spotlights and might as well be. The audience of drunken yuppies are all quiet, even the ones who didn't see the collision. Instinctual silence.

She twitches, breaking the fourth wall. Somebody runs into the intersection. Somebody else yells: "call an ambulance!" She is standing now, weaving slowly towards the curb, supported on a friendly arm. She sits down. Bruised, not bleeding. "Don't call an ambulance," she whispers, "I'm okay... I don't think I hit my head." Everything is motionless.

Then, the slurred voice of a young man affecting worldliness in front of his horrified small-town friends: "don't worry about it, this is Chicago, this happens all the time!" He repeats the phrase again, apparently unsatisfied by its reception the first time. His friends ignore him, their eyes glued to the bruised girl in the electric blue dress. This does not happen all the time—they will remember this night. The girl puts her head on the arm of the man who helped her out of the intersection and begins crying. "It's Chicago!" This does not happen all the time—she will remember this night. "The police deal with this shit every night!" The taxi's engine idles, doors closed, lights still glowing on the empty stage. The driver's hands are loosely on the wheel and his wide eyes peer out his side window. This does not happen all the time—he will remember this night.


Ann Arbor, MI II

Detroit isn't exactly lively, but it is alive. A small number of people walk around downtown and many of its skeletal buildings appear to be in use or, at least, not on fire. Outside of downtown, in the neighborhoods, the picture is bleaker. Every inhabited house has its abandoned, charred counterpart. Empty lots are commonplace, their surplus of weeds and trash flowing over curbs and into potholed streets. Commercial buildings with shattered windows and collapsing roofs expose their plumbing and wiring to the world, architectural autopsies, bodies without skin. But many houses—many beautiful houses—are still inhabited.

When Detroit isn't being ignored, it is generally trotted out as an example of catastrophic urban failure, discussed in the past tense, its collapse treated as a fait accompli. These may be fair characterizations, but they make it easy to overlook the large number of normal people who are still living in Detroit and, quietly, fighting to keep the city from degenerating into a no-man's land. On this swampy, overcast morning, they are out with weed-eaters and sun hats, ladders and paintbrushes, wrenches and spare parts. Some neighborhoods have pooled resources to hire private security guards who patrol select streets in tiny white cars. Others have invested in wrought iron bars for their windows. Retail stores and restaurants are hardly common, but the few that exist are doing a brisk trade. This is not the result of gentrification. While Detroit has its contingent of affluent, artistic young whites seeking the ever-elusive "real," the only urban revitalizers visible today are middle-aged and black.

"You've probably heard a lot of things about Detroit," the Dad says, "hopefully you're seeing that the picture is a little more complex." The Dad stands in front of the counter of The Black Whole, a shop owned and operated by DJ Blackman, one of the biggest names in Detroit's hip-hop scene and also the man who named Kid Rock. A gold album hangs discreetly on a back wall accompanied by a small plaque attesting to the DJ's crucial role in launching the star's career. Blackman sits behind the counter, eyes peering at the screen of his MacbookPro through oval glasses. He faintly shakes his head and his flowing black and silver beard waves slightly. The Dad is a producer, too. Like the DJ, he appears to be in his early forties but, unlike the DJ, he has not launched any gold-selling artists. Perhaps things would have been different, he speculates, if he had made his hardest decision the other way.

The Dad's hardest decision wasn't being a dad—that was a mistake—it was being a dad who stayed. He was eighteen and had just left Detroit for college. Getting out of town was a big deal, attending college even more so. Then a girl he had been dating back in Detroit called him... pregnant. He could have easily remained in college, evaded her, contested his parenthood. This would hardly have been an unprecedented move. He knew other men, both friends and family, who had ducked parental responsibility. His own father was one of them, a virtual nonentity in his life. And he missed him, resented him, didn't want to be like him. Eventually, his need to be different outweighed his educational and career aspirations. So, with little fanfare, he dropped out and moved home. Maybe he would have made it as a big name producer without the kids, he muses, but he has no regrets. They are out of the house now, young adults, and he couldn't wish for a better relationship with them. His immense pride in his children is obvious as he speaks, "and here I am, doing music anyway." A tune chirps out of Blackman's laptop and fills the incense-heavy air of the store. "Alright, so maybe a little more recognition and money wouldn't hurt," he says with a laugh, "but that'll happen."


Ann Arbor, MI I

At 100 kilometers the blue sky drains white. Is there weather to the west? Fog? High clouds? No. The sun shines through the whiteness. At 60 kilometers the white sky regains pigment, now the sandy color of a dust storm, but the air is still. At 40 kilometers the sky darkens to brown, like the toxic cloud downwind of a forest fire, yet no trees are burning. The sun is dim and watery, the atmosphere suffocating.

Over 2.5 million people live in Toronto and far more inhabit the lower Ontario megalopolis—hardly large by international standards, but large enough to overwhelm. By three in the afternoon, everyone is on the freeway. Sitting still. Sitting alone. Engines hum. Hundreds of thousands of air conditioners and sound systems create hundreds of thousands of steel cocoons, tenuous havens from the loud, fuming sea of engines stretching for miles. Drivers start and stop, irritably punching their accelerators and stomping on their brakes. Billions of gallons of gasoline creating vast amounts of unused horsepower. Billions of hours of human life dedicated to the thoughtless, infuriating task of waiting in line to go home. And we do this daily. Volitionally. It is perfectly normal. It is also perfectly insane.

Throw a person in the middle of the urban freeway. His puny body is obsolete, legs too slow to compete with engines, skeleton too frail to rumble with welded automotive chassis. His lungs burn and convulse from an excess of carbon monoxide fumes. His eyes clog with road-grit. Concrete dividers hem in his movements. There are no sidewalks for him to retreat to. Without the life support of his own machine, he cannot survive in the freeway environment—he might as well be tossed into the middle of the ocean without a boat. But the ocean is not manmade.


Ivy Lea, ON

The RV pants into its campsite and stops with a shuddering wheeze. Imagine a snake digesting a large rabbit—slow, swollen, stupid—cringing and vulnerable in the middle of the road. If you were to give this snake a mechanical incarnation, it would surely be the RV. It is big enough to hold two city busses, or a rock band... or a rock concert. The trees on either side of its parking space claw at it in a futile attempt to relax their branches. The RV sits quiescent for a moment and then makes bumping and creaking noises. The sounds of digestion? Two extensions pop out of the left side. The bolus moves! Then, a thudding noise and the crunch of branches and leaves. Another thud follows and wooden fingers scrape quietly across metal. Small scales of tan paint flutter to the soft earth. A small door opens on the side of the behemoth and two couples venture forth from its bowels. They stare irritably at the small tree blocking their right wing from deploying. One scraggly kindling-stick with the audacity to prevent the great snake from swelling to its full enormity. The older couple vanishes back inside the snake and the man reemerges with a hand-axe. Seconds later, with a tremendous grunt, he is standing on the locked hands of his son-in-law and plunging the axe into the offending tree's upper branches. The branches are gangly and frail, but the man's axe strokes are wildly inaccurate as he struggles to maintain balance. The son-in-law puffs something in French and the two pause from their efforts. After a rest, they repeat the process. And repeat the process again. The tree, slowly mutilated, finally surrenders after their third attack, dropping its offending branch to the ground with a soft whoosh. The men smile. The reptile swells. The tree's branch finds its way into the forest. A television satellite appears and a generator growls to life.

Québec City, QC II

15:44. The Referee is working part time in a shop selling Inuit art, walrus figurines carved from tusks, small hunters of polished stone mounted in chunks of driftwood. This is a part time gig, he says, a prelude to the professional wrestling costume business that he is about to launch with his girlfriend. They make and sell costumes now, but the dream is go full time and continue refereeing during the evenings and weekends. Hardest decisions? He makes difficult decisions in the ring all the time. He made one last weekend. "They're fast, but they're very hard." It's intimidating, a lot rides on them. "Professional wrestling is theater, right? It's got a script. Everything is scripted. I'm an actor, and it is a hard role to get. But sometimes things go off script, maybe one of the guys gets angry and starts knocking the other guy around for real. The crowd probably can't tell the difference, but I can." Elderly tourists wander into the art shop and The Referee pauses his story. They prod and nose objects without making eye contact with The Referee. Then, without a word, they abruptly walk out. "It's supposed to be about protecting your opponent—that is the big rule. And, last weekend, this guy kept dropping his opponent on his head. The guy was getting dazed and slow. When you get knocked on the head and you're not expecting it, it really stuns you. So I have to decide: do I stop the show? For real?" How much thrashing is too much? Will the guys go back to the script or will someone end up with a broken neck? If he stops the show prematurely the crowd will be disappointed and the wrestlers and managers will be angry. "I could lose my job. There are a lot of other people who want to be in professional wrestling." Conversely, if he doesn't stop the fight and a wrestler gets injured, he will lose his job. "People aren't supposed to get hurt on my watch. I'm an actor, but sometimes it's real. Sometimes you have to make that decision and you have to make it in a split second."

20:23. The fleeting warmth of Canada's summer infuses Québecois with manic energy. Shoppers buzz from produce markets to bakeries, clothing shops to electronics stores. Along Rue Saint-Jean , it is hardly an exaggeration to say that every retail business is interspersed by restaurant. French food is available, of course, but burger joints hold their ground along with a good contingent of Lebanese and Vietnamese—linguistic connections drawing in ethnic cuisines from the old empire. Québec City's gutterpunks glower down upon the consumer melee from the parapets of the fortress. They spend most of their days up there, blasting the Dead Kennedys from their tinny boom-boxes and drinking cheap beer. In a few months winter will drive them back into their parents' basements but, for now, they exhibit their antiestablishment plumage and summer tans to everyone below. A man with a green mohawk stands up on a turret with his electric guitar and catches the sunset light. He flails around passionately and one can only assume that he is shredding through a wicked solo but, due to lack of power on the fortress wall, his guitar is unplugged and the only sound audible is traffic from below.

01:09. Away from the main drag, the streets of the old city are silent apart from muffled laughing echoing off rows of houses. Pedestrians are rare, windows dark. The red LEDs of car alarms flicker on and off in shining black vehicles. The laughter continues, loud one moment, muted the next. An outburst. The laughter pours from a painfully bright basement window that projects a conspicuous green square onto the deep yellow sidewalk. The window is at ground level, the room it exposes somewhat lower. Two young men sit inside the room, one white and one black. They are playing monopoly at a rickety card table. In shorts. Just shorts. Both have gold chain necklaces. No alcohol is in sight. One counts money. The other says something in French. Both laugh. It is the only sound for blocks.


Québec City, QC I

If the old area of Québec City looks good during the day, it looks even better at night. Narrow houses line curving streets and the bulky walls of the old fortress encircle buildings that appear to be genuinely sturdy. It seems authentically European. Throngs of young, fashionably dressed pedestrians cover sidewalks and cobblestone streets. Restaurants are packed, their patrons sitting outside enjoying the mild evening air. Laughter and exclamations in French echo off stone edifices. A disco ball the size of a SmartCar glitters in front of a bar. Locals say that Québec City is regarded as the small, stodgy cousin of Montréal. It feels like neither of these things, though the downtown is suspiciously idyllic. It's too clean, too vibrant. The people look frighteningly healthy and, while the level of drunkenness competes with the best American cities, the atmospheric belligerence-pressure is fairly low. Half a million residents in the city and no gun murders last year. There must be something wrong.

"Everyone who lives in town walks around... they're all thin," Marc-Antoine says as he pats his stomach and laughs. "You can tell I'm from the country, can't you?" A posse of toned blonde women walk by in heels and he sighs: "Beautiful, right? We have to stay healthy or we get out of breath following them up the hills." In this era of quantification, it is surprising that no phony social scientist has tried to empirically discover the most beautiful urban populace in the world—but, if such an absurd undertaking were to be pursued, Québec City would probably win. Marc-Antoine grins: "you hear the story about why the women are so beautiful here? The king was sending girls... ah, what's the word? Orphans? The king was sending orphan girls over to Québec and the first place the ships would dock was Québec City, so all the men would pick the most beautiful girls as wives. Trois-Rivieres was next and," he laughs, "Montréal was last."


Mt. Carlton, NB

The road traces the coast, but you cannot see the coast. Instead, endless trees stretch in every direction, a mix of dark pines and light birch. Road signs transition from English over French to French over English as Canadian flags become scarce—northern New Brunswick claims to be the heart of Acadian country. Whether or not it is the heart of Acadian country, it is certainly the epicenter of Acadian pride. Acadian flags cover the landscape; a French tricolor with a gold star set against the blue. They wave in front of virtually every immaculate white house, they are on vanity license plates, outdoor sculptures, phone poles. Their bright colors accent the hypergreen landscape of trees and close-cropped lawns, blues, reds, and whites fluttering with a pale orange tint in the afternoon light. The flags also send a message to the rest of Canada: Acadians are different. Many of them speak English but, like the Québécois, they actively resist assimilation into Anglophone culture. The British savagely deported Acadian settlers after wresting Canada from the French during the 18th century and, not surprisingly, themes of exodus remain at the core of Acadian cultural identity. In one small town, a single house bristles with Canadian flags, its grassy moat dividing it from a throng of Acadian neighbors. Nobody sits on the porch.

A group of Harley riders with strikingly normal waistlines lounges at a shaded wicker table outside the boulangerie in Caraquet. They sip coffee, eat pear tarts, and converse in French. Inside the boulangerie, someone with strongly accented English asks if Arizona is in South America. Most Arizonans would probably assume New Brunswick is in Europe and, if blindfolded and dropped off in the middle of Acadian country, they would doubtless be convinced of their assumption. The boulangerie closes, V-twins thud, roar, recede. Leaves rustle over the warm street.

It is difficult to comprehend that the pavement outside your front door connects, unbroken, to virtually every corner of North America, one gargantuan system of arteries and capillaries shuttling people and goods around like blood cells.

Two Acadian teenagers in a lowered Honda Civic back out of a parking lot and, deliberately popping their clutch, peel out with a screech. They wear sports jerseys, backwards hats, and wrap-around shades—poseur frat-boys blasting the theme from Smokey and the Bandit out of their shivering little car.

east-bound and down, loaded up and truckin'

The acrid smell of burning rubber fills the air. Elsewhere on the web of pavement, a tractor trailer slowly bumps a car in stop-and-go Los Angeles traffic and both drivers stand outside their vehicles to exchange information. In a quiet suburb of Tulsa, a middle-aged woman with an persistent summer cold walks out to her mailbox in slippers. In Seattle, an office drone curses as he drops a fresh chicken samosa in a puddle outside of his favorite Pakistani food cart. In Caraquet, smoke dissipates into the air as two rubber scars appear on Boulevard Saint Pierre Ouest. Millions of unrelated dramas simultaneously playing out the stage of asphalt.


Shediac, NB

Lobster Man emerges from the Lobster Shack with a whoop, scuttling around the front porch with maniac geisha-steps. The Lobster Shack looks like most seafood-themed tourist traps in the Northeast, a dilapidated pile of wood painted colors that must have been bright and punchy three decades ago. Now, however, the paint peels and its decorative buoys and fishing nets give it the appearance of a trash midden rather than an exciting gateway to North Atlantic fishing culture. A Roman candle explodes and small bubbles of fire float into the air. Lobster Man whoops again and raises his stumpy arms heavenwards before taking a shambling victory-lap around the porch and vanishing inside.

Inside. Lobster Man begins yelling in a thick Scotian accent. He yells so loudly that his immense mouth covers the better part of his face, the overhanging ledge of his top teeth appearing like a yellow-ivory mustache. His eyes are crushed to slits by the pressure, barely visible behind thick glasses. The empty Lobster Shack reverberates: "YOU NEED ORANGE JUICE!" Lobster Man pounces on his victims and places styrofoam cups in their hands, reaching into a fridge and pulling out a half-empty carton of orange juice: "YOU NEED VITAMIN C!" Orange juice flows. "AN ARIZONAN! WE LOVE JOHN MCCAIN HERE! THE MAN WHO SHOULD HAVE BEEN PRESIDENT! COME HERE!" An enormous poster of John McCain hangs on a wall behind the register, surrounded by smaller photos of political figures, an assortment of non-Canadian flags, and hanging marine detritus. "AND A NEW YORKER! FROM THE EMPIRE STATE! I'LL BET YOU DON'T RECOGNIZE YOUR OWN FLAG!" He produces several tiny blue state flags. The New Yorker does not recognize them. "SEE! YOU NEED CRANBERRY JUICE! YOU NEED VITAMIN C!" Lobster Man produces cranberry juice in a fresh set of styrofoam cups. Then, with another whoop, Lobster Man runs from the Lobster Shack.

There is no menu at the Lobster Shack. There are no listed prices. There is only lobster. Three crustaceans appear without prompting, borne out of the kitchen by a short, elderly woman wearing a pained expression. Who ordered lobsters? There is confusion. She says there is always confusion. How much do the lobsters cost? $30 each. And the pawed-over styrofoam juice cups? $3.50. She returns to the kitchen but will not take the lobsters with her. The lobsters ooze on their plates, dead black eyes reflecting the florescent lights overhead. After a pause, two of the lobsters are returned to the woman's kitchen and she mutters about being confused. A whoop comes from outside. Lobster Man has resurfaced and sparklers burn on the porch. "WE NEED A LITTLE PATRIOTIC MUSIC! WE NEEED A LITTLE JOHN PHILIPS SUSA!" Lobster Man makes trumpeting noises with his mouth and his compact potbelly quivers.

Lobster Man explodes back inside. "I HAVE DONUTS! HAVE SOME DONUTS! YOU WANT WHEAT DONUTS? HEALTHY DONUTS!" He has cardboard box full of strange, off brand dough-tubes covered in sugar. They look several years old but unlikely to expire. Some of them are brown, but none of them are wheat. He throws bags of them on the table and then quickly snatches them back: "BUT YOU HAVE TO PROMISE TO VOTE G.O.P. THAT'S 'GOD'S OWN PARTY!' PEOPLE HAVE DIED SO YOU CAN VOTE G.O.P." There is no pause in the noise, the Lobster Man needs no response. "WE HAVE CHERRIES HERE! COME GET SOME CHERRIES!" The donut bags fall back on the table and Lobster Man flings himself out the back door. Outside, a cherry tree is fruiting. Lobster Man plunges into its branches and flails around, emerging with a paw-full of delicate red and yellow cherries. "TAKE THESE TO BUDDY! TELL BUDDY TO COME PICK CHERRIES!" Lobster Man vanishes and explosions sound from the direction of the front porch.

Many fireworks later, at the register, Lobster Man reiterates the urgency of voting Republican, getting enough vitamin C, and taking a box of Little Debbie cream-filled cookies. "DO YOU WANT TO LEAVE A TIP FOR THE OLD WOMAN IN THE KITCHEN? SHE DOES ALL THE WORK AROUND HERE!" In the kitchen, the old woman beams as the twosie is dropped into her cupped hands and her eyes threaten to tear up beneath her hairnet: "I am sorry about the confusion. There's always confusion. Please... understand." Back outside, to a backdrop of fireworks, Lobster Man jumps up and down then struts back and forth: "GOODBYE BUDDIES! GOODBYE BIKER BUDDIES!" Engines start hurriedly, gloves and helmets are thrown on sloppily, earplugs forgotten. Screeching from the porch: "AND DON'T FORGET WHAT I TOLD YOU! LET'S MAKE THIS A ONE-TERM PRESIDENT! YOU KNOW WHAT WE THINK ABOUT HIM!" He squats, pinches his nose, and makes farting noises. Engines roar and, in the rearview mirror, a miniature Lobster Man dances on the porch, jiggling disaster in a baggy white t-shirt.

If the New Yorker ever writes an account of the Lobster Shack, you will probably find it here: http://www.angryspidermonkey.com/


MV Leif Ericson, North Atlantic

The green carpet makes squishing noises underfoot, slick moss and blueberry bushes partially inundated by rust colored water. It stretches across most of Cape Spear's point, a living mat interrupted only by faded pink-gray rocks. The Cape is the easternmost point in North America; it may also be the sole point of entry for the entire continent's wind. The few pines foolish enough to homestead the Cape are emaciated, their spindly trunks growing at 45° angles. A Canadian flag is blown with such force that appears perfectly rigid, more like a rectangle of plastic than cloth. On top of the hill, the white tower of a lighthouse is set into relief by dark skies, its electric green lamp burning in puny defiance of horizon-to-horizon blackness. Waves crash. The damp air scours nostrils with its salty oceanic stink. The scene is filled with all the overblown, Good versus Evil iconography of a Tolkien novel—except that it takes place in 21st century Canada. Offshore, a geyser of water erupts from the sea and is closely followed by the curved arcing movement a huge dorsal fin. Pink tourists squeal in delight. Sauron is forgotten and slouches home in a funk.

The Great Boat is broken. The Intermediate Boat is broken. The Lesser Boat is broken, too, but it generally floats, so all of the contents of the Great Boat are stuffed into it. The Lesser Boat plies the waters early in the morning, churning and rocking, cramped refugees lying face-first on the well-trodden carpet, their bodies swaddled in air that reeks of sweat and diesel.


St. John's, NL II

"You wouldn't hitchhike in America?" The 23 year-old girls are incredulous. They are traveling across Canada for the summer, mostly by car, but they have ditched their ride in a stranger's yard in Nova Scotia and now they are hitching across Newfoundland. "Not even as a guy? Really?" They walk out the front door, backpacks filled with clothes, cameras, fresh vegetables. They have no destinations planned, but one of their hands tightly clutches a sign that reads: WEST. "What are you so afraid of?" they asked.

The Fabricator used to work with metal. General construction jobs around the island. Like most Newfoundlanders, he went abroad to the mainland to earn money. Also like most Newfoundlanders, he hated life on the plains and returned home where there was, still, no work. So he decided to abandon his trade and return to school and for degrees in geology and teaching. After decades of spotty work, he is unemployed and not especially well off, financially. "There isn't a big need for geologists here, right?" In retrospect, he wishes that he hadn't have returned to school. Eking out a living through metal fabrication would have been difficult, but it couldn't have been any worse. He is not nostalgic about the value of education—he undertook school pragmatically in an effort to find a niche in a crippled economy. It was a gamble, a losing gamble, and he wonders how severely he damaged his prospects of retirement. Sitting in a chair in the middle of his brother's cluttered used appliance store, he coughs and stops speaking as his clear gray eyes scan the machines sitting in front of him.


St. John's, NL I

Sunday. A day of warm air and light tinged the yellow-white color of roasted corn. The Canadian Weather Office has issued an alert about dangerous UV levels. This is an odd suggestion in a nation where tanning salons adjoin all manner of businesses, from laundromats to coffee shops.

The doors are wide open at the bar in Salvage, a long, spare hall with a high, curved ceiling of wooden slates that could easily be a repurposed longship. Empty tables line the walls and a bright female handwriting in a blackboard advertises homemade chowder and partridgeberry tarts. The bartender moves efficiently, bringing cheap American beer to a clientele of local middle-aged men. A few tourists stop at the bar and quickly scuttle outside where a deck offers views of a calm blue harbor and the steep, rocky arms hugging the town. Behind the bartender, a woman makes something with flour in the kitchen. Perfectly amber-brown loaves of raisin bread are piled next to her. A breeze wanders through the side door, carrying the muted tones of a relaxed conversation on the deck. It's four in the afternoon.

The men at the bar talk about Alberta and the monetary lure of distant oil-sands. "Everybody's been out there, eh." Most of the older generation, men who worked the boom in the seventies and early eighties, have all returned. Some returned richer, some poorer, but all were deeply homesick for the rock: "some guys would actually cry when they had to go back to Alberta after a visit. Grown men." The oil boom played out in the eighties, but resumed a decade later and many of these men have watched their children departing for jobs out west. Talk turns to the younger generation. Do they miss Newfoundland as acutely? Will they remain in Alberta? They can earn between $60k and $100k a year without a college degree, "but they don't often come out no richer, just accustomed to having the biggest truck or the biggest TV... they make a thousand dollars a week, but they'll spend eleven-hundred." Somber heads nod, seconding his disapproval. Some of the men, two fishers and a logger, regard the decision to emigrate to Alberta as a prioritization of money over community. One of the fishermen, whose roots stretch back to the 18th century, offers a thought: "you don't make much here, but you don't need much to live on. A little car or a quad'll get you from here to there as well as a Corvette. And there are a lot of things we have that they don't." Yet the logger, who has raised a family and seen his kids venture out on their own, contemplates heading west for temporary work... money is money. What will he loose? Arms raise beer glasses rhythmically up and down, pumping liquid like a derricks.

Newfoundland's greatest source of pride is its hospitality and the strength of its communal sensibility. This subject invariably surfaces in any conversation between an islander and a mainlander and their bombastic self-affirmation is hardly cheap marketing. Their reality is so cordial that it appears staged to visiting urbanites. Newfoundlanders make eye contact. They say hello—to everyone. They know each other, wave on the road, invite strangers into their homes for dinner. These things can happen in small towns anywhere, but small towns are equally likely to be places intensely hostile towards outsiders, a trait that is rare in Newfoundland. But can this survive for another generation? Can it survive population growth? The men wonder. Will the alienating, materialist culture of Alberta return to Newfoundland? Or will the latest generation of young Newfoundlanders remain on the mainland? The logger peers into an empty glass.

"Now can I ask you a question, mister? Are you doing this radio thing just to make fun of us Newfies?" Newfoundlanders are the butt of jokes across Canada, typically jokes about intellect, or its absence. The stupid Newfie is a staple of Canadian humor in much the same way as the inbred West Virginian is of American jokes. But, unlike West Virginians, Newfoundlanders have poured out of their provence in huge numbers looking for work and their presence is not always welcomed, even when their labor is needed. They are, at once, the West Virginian and the Mexican. Graffiti reading: "Newfie go home!" appeared in one man's work camp in Alberta. Another one overheard his foreman complaining that he wished they could enclose the Newfoundlanders' company housing with a fence. It is impossible to know what life experiences made the skeptic at the bar so fearful of ridicule—maybe he's just a paranoid guy—but he is genuinely surprised to hear a mainlander heaping praise on his island. Satisfied or bored, he picks up his beer and heads for the deck.


Terra Nova, NL

Larry and Debbie live in a small, dark red house with green trim. The living room is lined with dark, yet hospitable wood paneling and its large windows overlook the bay outside. Larry's small powerboat bobs calmly up and down in the water. The afternoon is dark and misty clouds hang low over over the rugged landscape of steep granite hills, jagged inlets, and clusters of tiny islets. Larry removes his camouflage hat and puts his feet up on the hassock. He is in his fifties, a man with a solid build and a closely cropped salt-and-pepper mustache. If he got out of his black diesel truck and approached you in America you would almost certainly run, but this is Newfoundland—instead of leveling a pistol at you, Larry will invite you over for dinner with his family. "We have company over all the time. Had this fellow from Osaka stay with us for a night... he was hitchhiking across Canada. Just started. It was pouring rain," he says in his thick Celtic accent. American travelers, yes, they tend to be a little squeamish at first: "had a Californian through the other day. He didn't seem comfortable when I invited him, but I said we're Christians up here, it's not like we're going to do anything to you!" He smiles a smile both genuine and understated.

In the kitchen, Debbie makes spaghetti. She is a tall, soft-spoken woman with long hair, a long apron, and a round face that is calmly benevolent. "Wish we could offer you something a little more Newfoundland," Larry apologizes, but the pasta lands and it is more than tasty. Their eldest son and his girlfriend are visiting from Alberta and they join at the table with their three year-old daughter. Larry says grace and food vanishes. Stories volley back and forth, anecdotes about beautiful and remote parts of the island, places where "the white pine are so big, me and me eldest couldn't wrap our arms around them." When Larry listens he cocks his head slightly and squints with one eye while opening the other wide, a gleaming gray iris appraising your every word. His backcountry lore is impressive, his hunting experience voluminous. He makes a point to state that most locals hunt and fish for food. Even after almost three decades of working as a mechanic at the local boatyard, his employment isn't steady enough to ensure a large salary; felling a moose can feed the family for a long time and commercial meat is expensive. The pasta is a memory and the white toast that accompanied it quickly follows suit. Then Debbie brings out her homemade molasses rolls—lassie buns—a recipe she got from Larry's mother. A recipe that is perfect in both conception and execution, the rolls being sweet, spicy, and gooey all at once. The conversation migrates back to the living room. The family sits in a circle. The living room is not centered around the altar of a television.

Larry is bored with being a mechanic. The challenge is gone. He has a pipe dream, though. Many years ago, he and Debbie met an elderly couple traveling from South Carolina and, true to form, invited them over for dinner. They swiftly became friends and Larry took them out to a cabin he built on a small island 21 miles out towards the Atlantic. They had a wonderful time and returned to visit again several years later. The friendship endured until the couple passed away. But Larry still remembers how happy they were to visit, their smiles as they disembarked on the island. Their excitement made him feel good. He thinks he could give other visitors the same experience and, perhaps, turn into a highly personalized adventure tour guide. He could host from his house, use his own cabin, boat, or quads. He and Debbie have been going into remote areas of the woods for their entire lives and they are masters of the forest picnic. "She's a great cook," he says with a smile, "and I've got something of a reputation in he area for being able to build wilderness privies with a view!" Larry certainly has the charisma and the experience to make a fabulous host, but he is daunted by the marketing. He needs affluent Americans or Canadians who like eco-tourism of the grittier variety. "I wouldn't really know where to start finding these people..." There are other technicalities, too. "As a Christian, I would have to let them know that I don't allow alcohol in my house. And I don't think I would be comfortable with a homosexual couple staying here, either." He pauses and thinks. It is a complicated decision to weigh, a tremendous financial risk, and a minefield of potentially uncomfortable situations. The world teems with idiosyncratic people—opening the door to them as a business is very different from opening the door as a generous individual. But it could be fun. Yeah, it could be really fun. He scrunches one eye and ponders a rack of moose antlers hanging from the wall.


South Brook, NL

A low and impenetrable mist clogs up the fjords of Gros Morne National Park. It is so thick, so pervasive, that the landscape appears to have recently experienced a downpour. A pine branch sparkles, its needles covered in refracting orbs of water that magnify and distort the bulbous nose that will collide with them a few seconds later. The misty mis-en-place does not charm the moose, nor does the opaque air make its poor eyesight any worse. It is huge, indomitable, apathetic. Water droplets patter on chocolate-pudding earth as the animal vandalizes another tree with its face. It is difficult to believe that these creatures did not live on Newfoundland until a century ago, when they were introduced as a food source. While they have certainly become a food source, they seem to have turned the island's forests into their own food source and gotten the better end of the deal.

In the campground, a conversation about cultural differences under a sky so clear galaxies are readily seen. Similarities between the United States and Canada are so extensive that differences become all the more interesting. Is it fair to generalize about national characters? Do Americans have a darker outlook? Are they morbidly fascinated by dreams of apocalypse and judgement? Is this fixation unhealthy or do are they realistically appraising a declining nation, a threadbare morality, and a poisoned environment? Why don't Canadians seem to be talking about millenarian disasters? "I don't think it's any different," a Canadian says. "Not long ago, I got caught in traffic just underneath a railroad overpass. As I was stuck there, a train come overhead. Everything shook. You couldn't hear anything. And all I could think was: it's going to come off the tracks and fall on me. It's going to come off the tracks and crush me. And I'm stuck here in traffic."


Steady Brook, NL II

Where are the bumper stickers? The tasteless, righteous, squealing that adorns so many vehicles? Are their no angry eco-feminist-vegans in Canada? No belligerent Christ-thumpers? Why don't the semi's have printed pieces of cloth that resemble teeth strapped to their grills? Does nobody here support their troops? Where are the national flags? And the shallow political vitriol? Where is cartoon-Calvin kneeling at the cross or, alternately, peeing the words "Ex-Wife"? The cars are clean and bland. No mudflap babes, no antenna balls, no trailer-hitch balls.

A decision: to call the police on an ex-girlfriend, the bipolar mother of your child, the woman whose temper causes her to attack you as you are holding your infant son. You know that calling the police will be a declaration of war, a final termination of a dysfunctional entente. You know it will make seeing your son harder, at least in the short term. But you call them anyway because you fear that she will accidentally hurt the child. She is briefly detained. You are awarded a court order awarding you regular visitations but his mother evades you. Her phone whisks you to voicemail, her doorbell is unanswered and, when you intercept her at the doctor's office for your son's checkup you weren't invited to, she talks about leaving the provence. Was your decision the right one? In retrospect, you feel that there was no alternative... so you proceed with your newly hired lawyer.


Steady Brook, NL I

The day was hot by Newfoundland standards—85° and sunny, a welcome break from an unusually chilly summer. The temperature drops slightly around dusk and the islanders, wearing t-shirts and shorts saved for this very occasion, flock around the gas station at the foot of the mountain. The mountain is dark, faint outlines of ski lifts visible from the parking lot in the gloaming light. A small pod of Harleys thunders into the parking lot and their riders dismount and potter around waiting to be admired. More arrive, and then more. They are generally, but not exclusively, middle-aged. Men drive, women ride. Expensive branded outfits match bikes. Other bikes start appearing, younger, thinner people on insectoid crotch-rockets with their own panoplies of matching armor and helmets bright with decals of flames and skulls. A gangly neon-green chopper with a back tire so round it looks like a basketball becomes a locus of conversation. The large parking lot is full of bikers now, but the two subspecies do not intermingle. Engines rev, snorting and buzzing. Night descends and bikes start departing in small groups, racing onto the Trans-Canada Highway at dangerous speeds. Ten minutes later the parking lot is empty aside from a few cars parked in front of Tim Horton's for evening pastries. The bikes will return tomorrow.

The dilapidated Toyota 4-Runner pulls up next to the bank of the river blasting a techno-remix of Santogold that nobody particularly wants to listen to. It's late, nearly midnight, and the adventure tour guides jump out the doors and hustle to pull two huge inflatable rafts out of the river. They laugh and verbally abuse each other as the flabby boats slide up the bank and onto their trailer. One, two, then a several kayaks and a canoe are heaped precariously on top of the rafts. Colorful ropes fly through the air, securing the mess of floating things to the trailer. The Toyota shudders to life, paddles bristling out its windows like oars, and the techno nobody wants to listen to blares. The transmission engages with a clunk and the vehicle and boats surge into the night. Adventure tours will be leaving early the next morning, and the next, and the next. They will be departing all day long until nine at night, at which point preparation will begin for the next day. But the guides are ebullient. They will work like fiends for the next three months until the cold banishes the tourists and then... they wait for next year.


Channel-Port-aux-Basques, NL

Middle Head is a granite tongue sticking out at the North Atlantic. Today, the Atlantic responds to the gesture with wind strong enough that it slightly flattens exposed skin, like gentle contact with a physical object. Its gusts are stumble-inducing, which pairs nicely with the jagged precipices on both sides of Middle Head. The sky is light gray to the north, dark and foggy around the sheer brown and green cliffs of the peninsula to the south. A neon rainbow of buoys convulses in foamy waters. Then, inevitably, the rain returns, a gradient of wetness going from shy drizzle to drunkenly uninhibited downpour.

The MV Caribou is named after the SS Caribou, a passenger ferry that sailed between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland from the mid-1920s until the Germans torpedoed it in 1943. The commemorative plaques delicately waltz around this topic, employing the passive voice in reference to vague "enemy" U-boats. There are no conspicuously German tourists on this voyage, but they may be a larger traveling demographic than is apparent—perhaps they are on board, but are cleverly disguised as Albertans? It is not beneath them.

There are multiple yellow warning signs throughout the ship. They read: "No Crocs are allowed on the escalator!"


Ingonish, NS

The rain marches in from the southwest and treads heavily on Cape Breton Island. Dark pines, dark water, dark granite, dark skies. Gloom suits the empty landscape and causes the few white buildings to glow as if surrounded by a corona. The Trans-Canada parkway merges down to a thin, black hose of a road that winds through monotonous forest. Progressing east, the ambiguously Scotch-Irish accent becomes thicker and unpronounceable Gaelic place names appear on road signs. The quality of roadside baked goods increases proportionally as locals become indecipherable: tea cakes, oat cakes, molasses biscuits—all are world-class. Hitchhikers, unfazed by rain, walk along the highway, four pale Anglos and one determined-looking Native American with a warmup jacket and a black garbage bag. Along with one or two native curio shops, he is the only reminder that this isn't Scotland. The slop-slopping of his soggy boots on pavement resonates as a persistent tap-tapping on the inside of one's skull, a sound that banishes Celtic romance and darkens the landscape with a gloom surpassing the heaviest clouds.