The first snow! As it fell into my coffee cup and hair last week, I felt ecstatic. Then I looked down into the mud I was drinking and quietly acknowledged the fact that I could wait no longer to fix the window next to my bed.
I don’t remember how the glass in the window broke, but it did. In the freegan spirit, Dr. Karl and I had taken apart a double-glass window harvested from the trash across the street (renovating meant removing and tossing every window in the building). We then cut new glass for my large panorama window, and broke every remaining pane trying to cut the bit for the smaller one. Glass cutting has a large margin of error.
Having thoroughly disliked the process of taking apart the double-glass window (bits sealed together with stubborn rubbery glue requiring a thin, sharp knife; patience; and strong arms to remove–all things short in stock in my workshop), I tied the shudders shut, covered the window with two thick blankets, and ignored the glass issue for another four months.
I’d slept in my wagon, I’d heated my wagon, and I hadn’t been any the worse for the missing glass, though I did repeatedly think of Madame Sleeveless’ squatted home. She’d had holes in the walls in a Colorado winter, and if they could be satisfactorily stopped with blankets, then so could my tiny window. I felt justified for having scooped over a dozen down blankets and comforters out of the trash over the past year and a half.
But in the name of saving wood, of pleasant bedside views, and in the face of the first snow, I swallowed the unpleasant taste in my mouth, lugged another window out onto the ping-pong table, and enlisted the help of Dr. Karl once again.
With the right tools, a repair job will usually run smoothly, and you might even manage to complete it within the time you’ve allotted yourself. So, of course, cutting the pane of glass took much, much longer then I had expected.
We got the panes out of the frame easily enough, but then didn’t have the right knife for separating the top pane from the metal frame that held it suspended above the second plate of glass. Trying to shove a knife between them that was too thick cracked the glass. So we did what we should have done from the start, smashed the top pane, peeled out the glass bits by hand, and freed the intact bottom pane easily with a pair of pliers and my too-thick knife. It was a pleasantly violent, unpleasantly wasteful approach, but we cut the remaining pane successfully on the first try, and this morning, wrapped in blankets, I looked out at the snow and the birds from behind a finished window.
wägler/way-gler/ nouna. A person who lives in a bauwagen. Literal translation: “wagoner.”
steinhäusler/sty-n-hoy-sler/ nouna. A person who lives in a stone house. Literal translation: “stone houser.” The detail of stone is included due to the fact that most houses in Europe are built of stone. In America, for example, the term Backsteinhäusler (“brick houser”) or Holzhäusler (“wooden houser”) might better apply.
It is perhaps also important for the burgeoning German student to note that the only people I have ever heard use either term are people who live in bauwaegen.
A night in a “stone house” is, admittedly, a luxury. Especially on the nights when there is a party scheduled in the venue at the front of our property that is bound to bump and thump (or in the case of electro, twink and twonk and beep?) late into the night. As a person who values sleep above just about everything else, and with a Beard planning to work the following day, we fled the premises and spent the night at some friends’ empty apartment in the city across the river.
Staying in apartments and houses is a mixed bag. There are the luxuries: hot showers and baths, walks to the bathroom that don’t require going outside, large indoor spaces that can fit quite a few people, heating systems turned on and off by a dial, running water in the kitchen, and reliable internet connections. The main downside is that I always wake up feeling like I have the Sahara desert in my mouth.
On paper, the luxuries outweigh the downsides. Then again, most of the downsides don’t really weigh in on a one-night visit. The cost of rent, the environmental absurdity of peeing into a bowl of water, the fact that you can spend hours (days! weeks!) without ever setting a single foot outside, and the strangeness of living in a building full of strangers. I can’t say I can imagine ever renting again.
Sometimes, however, I can imagine a house. Nothing big, and certainly nothing with electricity or running water, but a pretty little shed somewhere in the woods with a wood stove and a nearby stream and a composting outhouse across the meadow. When I let my imagination run wild, I imagine that someday I will find a run down old summer camp property for sale for a song, filled with strange tiny buildings that will fill with good people.
I fell in love with this shack while we were in America. As far as permanent structures go, this would have to be my dream house. It’s in the woods yet near an interesting town, it’s next to a stream, it’s go a ton of problems that I know how to fix, it has no running water, the neighbors are awesome, and it could very feasibly be squatted.
Our trek led us on. And on and on and on. The day had begun with a coffee in the hazy half-light of dawn, and it would end five hundred miles later with Pabst Blue Ribbon in a tiny silver can at a country-western bar in Nashville. It was a pilgrimage of sorts: We made country music ourselves, and rumor had it that the streets of Nashville were paved with banjoes, cowboys, and lucrative recording contracts.
I’m not the marathon driver that I used to be (personal record: 13 hours from upstate New York to Ohio, one stop), so somewhere just past Knoxville we stopped at a gas station for several minutes of feigned sleep and more watery coffee. We’d prayed for a grocery store, but all we had found along the highway were “convenience” stores, truck stops, and chain buffets. We’d finished off the leftovers of La Ninja Espanol’s delicious faux baked chicken and were reminded at every rest stop food counter just why Americans tended toward obesity and cardiac arrest.
The memories were filtering slowly back. It wasn’t that I’d forgotten them, but that they’d lost their poignancy in the fog of years and miles sifted through the gray matter that sloshes between my ears, as if the memories were not of this world, but of a parallel universe that had ceased to exist when I’d left it.
But now I remembered. I remembered my last American desk job, where the word “crazy” was liberally tossed around when I mentioned that I rode my bike to work every day (a five minute ride) and astonished looks greeted the fresh salads and greens-filled, vegetarian sandwiches I would prepare for lunch. In America these things made me some kind of freak, but in Europe the same habits just made me a part of the mainstream.
The cheapest fare, it seemed, was always the most disgusting, so I swallowed my pride and my poverty-bred spending habits, bought a bag of peanuts and a jug of orange juice for five dollars, and chalked it up to jacked-up gas station prices. But it turned out that in comparison to what we bought at home for under 10 Euros at Aldi or Netto was going to cost us about 60 dollars at American grocery stores. Had it always been this way? I couldn’t remember.
Finally, tired, euphoric, and deeply disturbed by the price of American beer, we arrived in Nashville where we were unceremoniously greeted by the committees of strip malls and chain stores that line every town in every state across the nation. Were we in Nashville? Denver? Tallahassee? It didn’t matter. It would look the same no matter which city border held our weary bones.
With two hours left until our couchsurfing host would return home from work, we decided to seek out some of the sights, which for us generally meant infoshops, used book stores, and thrift shops. (Oh how I love the musty smell of a warehouse full of donated clothing, books, and funny hats! Oh what patience the Beard would exhibit as I dragged him between the over-stacked shelves and Salvation Army racks of seven states!) Before leaving for a new city I would search the internet for a Food Not Bombs chapter whose website links would, in turn, lead me to the radical culture of each destination. In Nashville’s case the lone beacon was the Firebrand, an infoshop and venue named after the publication of a Tennessee-born anarchist named Ross Winn.
In an unassuming building in an unassuming neighborhood we found the boxy white building. Closed? No. We wandered into the library at its right entrance and found, among the zines, a man who rented a practice space in the building. “What good luck that I was here!” he told us, once we had explained where we’d come from and why we had stopped by. “Usually the infoshop doesn’t open for another two hours.”
Through the library was a show space, floor still littered with bits of glass unswept from the last show that had been held there, and through that room was a tiny infoshop where we added copies of our CDs to the shelves, and I bought a CD from a local riot folk band called Chicken Little. As we browsed through patches, zines, and records, Practice Space Man told us about the bands he’d toured with and played with and recommended bars and venues we might enjoy seeing while we were in town.
With another hour left to burn, we wandered. As luck would have it, we wandered right into “Music City Thrift,” located among shifty discount beer joints and various other strip mall fodder, and found enough $1 Christian propaganda T-shirts to cloth every member of the hell train. One white shirt read “Nashville: Jesus City” above a city-skyline cartoon, complete with Jesus parade and zeppelin. A blue shirt’s front read “For the Glory,” while the back asked if YOU had what it took to fight for the lord, our commander, apparently, in a soccer match.
When I left you last, intrepid readers, the Beard and I were in Filthydelphia, waiting for the Fed Ex man to bring the key to our imminent escape to Tennessee. Though I had long stopped believing in any sort of happy ending, our white-trucked knight finally rang the doorbell and pressed a new copy of my credit card into my hand. We were euphoric.
Back at the airport car rental office, I gritted my teeth as I realized that I was going to have to deal with the same woman who had refused to help me in any way, shape, or form in the name of company policy. But as the luck of the line would have it, another representative took my information, and it was a matter of minutes before we were on south 95.
Freedom. Finally. And yet how depressing it is, the way that in America owning or having access to a destructively made, destructively fueled chunk of metal can be associated with freedom instead of repulsion. But there you have it. Sunglasses on and music turned up we drove right into every six-laned rush hour traffic jam from Philly to D.C. The Beard gaped–how could six lanes of highway be completely full?–and I tapped my fingers on the steering wheel to the tune of Bonnie Prince Billy singing what would become our trip’s cliched theme song (Ramblin’ Fever, apparently written by Merle Haggard and much improved upon by the Bonnie Prince).
And how appropriate, for it was to Nashville–mecca of country music both cheesey and wonderful–toward which we were headed. Between us and cowboy-booted glory, however, were 800 miles of highway. But we had a tent and an enormous duck-print sleeping bag, and around midnight we crept our way down a winding dirt road in Middle Creek, Virginia (which Google is currently telling me does not exist where we found it that night) to a camp site.
Like a lot of other camp sites with signs out on the highway, Middle Creek Campground wasn’t a campsite persay, but an RV site, a place designed, not for people with tents, but for people with large, wheeled vehicles and electric hook ups and water tanks. A sign at the entrance instructed us to check in at the general store to settle up. A sign on the closed general store told us to knock at the house across the stream if the store was closed.
A barking dog answered our knock, but no one emerged to take our 10 dollars and assign us a spot. So, back across the stream, we set up our tent and slipped away before dawn the next morning, congratulating ourselves on not having spent ten dollars that could be better used for cans of beans, bags of tortillas, and hot sauce.
And for those of you who like schmaltzy country music, the offending tune as sung by Merle Haggard:
Between the end of fall and the beginning of wood stove season, there is a chill just mild enough that you can heat a small room with candles. Tonight, I light twelve candles, and when I find the chill no longer in the room, in my wagon, I sit very still in the soft light, and I stare at my newly finished bookshelves. I feel content, just sitting still for several hours, not meditating, not really, but feeling peaceful and deeply content as I run my eyes across the colorful spines that line the shelves. I had come inside to decide what to read next, but now the task seems impossible, so I sit and I stare and revel in the beauty waiting inside each cover.
I have not organized a single picture or composed a single sentence on the subject of my recent two month gallivant across America. Frankly, I am loath to face the task. Writing about the trip and sorting out the pictures feel like that proverbial final nail in the coffin. As if it is the writing and not the physical return that will truly end the experience. So instead I sit and stare at my shelves and my piles and remain firmly embedded in the present. There is no past, and the future is a crumpled to-do list that I may or may not ever complete.
The room smells of sickly perfume when I blow the candles out. I do it slowly this time, so as not to splatter blue wax across the yellow walls like I did two days ago. Tonight I finished reading a book called The Telling , a book written by one of my favorite science fiction writers (Ursula Le Guin) and the woman who taught me the word anarchism. The Telling is about a “futuristic” society run by a corporation, and it is also about stories and how important they are. What words do I have to tell you mine?