Monday, August 16, 2010

The Battle of Mobility – OR - Two Legs vs Four Wheels

My friend left her car with me for the month of July, while she sublet my place in Manhattan. She did it partly so her vehicle would get some exercise while she was away, but mostly as a gift to me, since I do not have one. I was a bit reluctant to accept the thing, partly because I couldn't help but feeling responsible for it's welfare, imagining some unforeseen accident not of my fault but damaging the car nonetheless. But mostly because I must have know in my heart that, though I said I'd use it only for the occasional run to town for groceries, the lure of easy transport would be harder to resist than I was admitting.

It was.

Lauren left the car on the last Tuesday night in June, and by Wednesday noon, I had decided it was okay to use the car to get to a trailhead on the western edge of Minnewaska Preserve, several miles away.

Now THAT decision was partly due to the fact that I HAVE wanted to check out the farther reaches of the park, and I am really not a fit 12-mile a day hiker, but more like a 3 to 4 hours and I'm ready to call it a day type. But mostly it was because the guy who I have had a giant crush on since last October, and who has been visiting me on and off since, and who had spent much of June staying at my place, had left that morning to road trip in the western states. There is more, as one would expect, but this post is about the relationship between me and cars, and not me and men, though I suppose I should mention that Peter did have a van, which made forays into town for groceries and laptop recharging much more convenient. Perhaps that is where the slippery slope began to erode.

As regular readers of the Happiegrrrl chronicles know, I got the opportunity to live on a nature preserve for three months in the fall of 2009, and this year I am there for the entire season - May 1st through some time in November. Though at first it sounds idyllic, for "most" people this would actually be an unattractive situation, since the cabin I reside in has no electricity or plumbing, and is situated under a canopy of trees which make the inside dark even on sunny days. It's chief draw, to the uninitiated, would be it's immediate proximity to world-class rock climbing, but upon further inspection, most would find it unacceptable for more than a very short time period. And that would be people who own a car and can simply get up and go whenever they please. I came up last year without a car, knowing I would be dependent on others, paid or out of friendship, for anything requiring a drive.

I packed my gear in on two weekends, arriving via train at the Poughkeepsie station twenty-plus miles away. A friend was paid to transport me from the station to the cabin, and we made an agreement that i would call upon her once or twice a week for rides to and from town as needed for errands and supply replenishment. Included in the deal was the occasional trip to her house for a hot shower. It seemed workable to me, though a potential hassle getting coordinated, since my location is not within cel phone service range.

The first trip went well, though my efforts at planning the various errands I wanted to do ended up including too much to be accomplished in the available time. The second request was problematic because she got a full-time job that would make her assisting me an inconvenience for her, and she offered to set me up with another friend for the future. Instead, I began hitching rides into town and taking people up on serendipitous offers of a ride. That meant I had to ration what could be achieved on planned outings, and also be ready to go with the flow for those who offered rides. What I ended up doing was using the rides, if they included a return trip, to include ice for my cooler and really stocking up. On trips where I would have to carry everything, I had to limit myself to amounts which would fit within my climbing backpack.

If I wanted to do laundry, I could bring my laptop along and work online while there, but nothing more. For a grocery run, I needed to carefully list what I needed, so as not to forget something I found coffee. For days when I would go into town intending on doing online work(I run several online subsistence businesses, which you can visit by clicking the "ads" to the right on this page), I would bring my laptop, and need to locate a source to plug into. Since I often brought Teddy on those days, as I would be there for 4 or more hours, it had to be a resource that allowed him to accompany me. I would tell you those places, but I depend on them being available, and the more who know about them, the less likely that becomes. Sorry - you're on your own!

The big problem has been rainy days. The cabin, being too dark to work in without a headlamp even at mid-day, becomes my only protection once a real downpour begins. For most rains, though, I can remain on the spacious porch, which is really the main living space of the cabin. Unless the rains are coming at oblique angles, the area stays almost completely dry. Needless to say, when nature wets her pants for days on end, there is only so much a person can do to amuse themselves. In the five months I have been here so far, I think I have only been "rescued" two or three times by someone stopping in to offer me a ride into town and a way out of what has become an hermitage...

However, the inability to zoom miles within minutes has not been a negative experience for the most part and in truth it has been sublime. Time slows greatly when one walks, and life becomes simpler. Nature moves from a background to the fore, something many people never really experience except when trekking for multiple days in the back country. The hills ARE alive with the sound of music, and the scent-sations of Hemlock, wildflowers, and muddy wetland bogs. Television, for me, consists of watching the winds blow through grasses, hearing the winds shake the leaves of high trees like mini tambourines, and following the flight paths of various birds as they flit about. Evenings are spent, often, in anticipation of the owls in their revelry. I have come to recognize distinct 'voices" of several of the local Barred and Screech Owls, and even twice have heard the supposed sole Great-Horned owl who resides in these woods. With a car, it's so easy to miss out on all that, since I can so easily have the car whisk me away, like a magic genie accepting my wish of being somewhere as it's command.

On the other hand, four-heel mobility does have it's advantages. The most luxurious, in the heat of summer, is the ability to keep my cooler iced. With no car, the only way I can do that is when someone is giving me a ride immediately home from town, and willing to stop while I run into a store. Since I hitch-hike nearly exclusively, that's just not possible, for my bag of ice would be a (leaking) bag of water by the time I got back. I can wait up to half an hour waiting for a pick up. and the nearest store, the Mountain Bistro, is an hour's walk away.. Only once have I gotten a ride from someone I thought I could ask if they minded pulling into the place, but in the end I chickened out. Besides, I didn't know that they would take me right to my cabin area. Most people drop me at the Scenic Overlook or the Steel Bridge on 44/55, and I have a 20 minute walk still to go.

Between May 1st this year and June 30th, I purchased a total of 4 bags of ice. Considering they last about two days, you can easily surmise that mostly I went without. The interesting thing is that many foods actually don't require refrigeration anyway. It's a convenience, really. Of course I use dried milk and don't keep meats, but eggs last and so do cheeses. and vegetables. Still, on a hot day there is no cold one waiting in the icebox., Instead I have a tepid half bottle of juice that should have been guzzled before the ice melted.

The other battle being fought, in my mind as well as body, was the Battle of the Bulge. Last year, I lost more than twenty pounds, and two pants sizes, in the three months I was here, simply because I didn't have easy access to prepared foods, cel service or even climbing. Those pounds were lost mainly along the Shongum Path, which I used at least every other day, and by the end of October, the change was so obvious that everyone began to comment.

Wintering back in New York, I gained back ten of the pounds, even though I KNEW what I had to do to keep them off(just not eat restaurant take-out food or nibble sweets while I whiled away time online at home). Luckily, I got back down to size within a month of my return. My body hasn't looked this good since I was sixteen years old - more than thirty years ago.

While having the car, I felt myself slipping within the first week. The Magic Weight Loss trail, .I mean the Shongum Path... hadn't felt the pad of my foot in several days. On my second trip into town, to use the internet in the air-conditioned comfort of the local coffee house, Cafeteria, I decided to stop in at Jenkin-Luekens farm stand and see what fresh fruits they had available.

Jenkinss, a farm stand along HWY 299 is a quaint old family stand, with seasonal fruits and an incredible selection of farm-grown apples each fall. They also have seasonal berries, peaches and cherries, which were just finishing at the writing of this post. I pass the stand every time I go to and from town and secretly always want to stop in. I like supporting personally owned businesses over corporate shops, and always like to see how they are holding up in their own battle against the progress of society. But I don't want to ask friends to stop if they are driving, and I surely can't ask a stranger whose picked me up hitch-hiking!

But now I had a car! I could stop whenever I want!

Well - I did get a box of wonderful sweet cherries, but was somewhat pleasantly surprised to see the changes in store. They have added local beef for sale and bags of dried fruits and nuts which are not local. Though it is a little sad to see a farm market has had to buy wholesale, I know they needed to do so in order to stay in business. But did I choose to buy nuts and berries? Noooo....I found my way to the back of the store, where I KNEW in the back of my mind, they kept fresh-baked pies. They had blueberry and Strawberry-Rhubarb, which were still warn.

You can easily guess what happened.

I came back to Jenkins on another occasion and picked up a fresh Cherry pie as well. Now, it wouldn't be so bad if I had a cadre of friends stopping in for sweets and tea in the afternoon, but for the most part, I don't, and of those who do visit, most would cross their hands in front of themselves, warding off that pie as if it were a vampire. And so, instead of having a raw apple or orange, my sweet fixation was refocused on the fattening crust(but it was sooooo delicious) and sugar-laced fruit compote.

On the other hand, I DID purchase a nice piece of steak from Jenkins; freshly frozen, locally raised beef from Millbrook Farms. And I did pick up green peppers, onions and potatoes, along with hand-picked blackberries and a sack of wonderful peaches during "car month." That I provided a bit of support to a local stand, as opposed to sending money away from the area, via a chain grocery store's chain of command., felt great.

Now that I'm relegated to foot traffic, I feel at a bit of a loss, knowing that humongous blackberries await those who venture amongst the Jenkins bushes and that I, for the most part, will not be one of the pickers. It's back to picking up prepackaged Driscoll's strawberries at the supermarket, and being disgusted as I take note two days later that the "freshly picked" harvest has already begun to mold.

Another facet of my life that underwent changes in having a car was my internet usage. When I am a pedestrian, my time online is limited to that which I can get in before using up my laptop's battery. I have a mobile broadband connection, and so my "office" gets set up on the short rock retaining wall near the Gerdie Block at the Trapps. Usually, I have a bout 2 1/2 hours available before I need to shut down.

Most people would probably think that it is outrageous to be spending such a chunk of time online when I could be - well, climbing! But I run several businesses which depend on my internet connection. First is the bread-and-butter companion animal care service I started in 2002, Premier Pet Care, but my online usuage for that is just a matter of keeping abreast of schedule changes and invoicing clients.

I also sell hair accessories made form vintage sewing buttons through Talisman Studios at Etsy. Because I need to ship the goods in a timely manner, it's imperative that I check in every 2-3 days at a minimum. Of course, I also need to keep the shop stocked with items, and the uploading of images/descriptive listings take up some time.

Then I have the "time-sinks," ventures to which I dedicate an exorbitant amount of time with a very small yield in return. I am an artist by nature, and though I am not the best graphic designer, I do like to create t-shirt designs, which I market online. The climbing-related shop is ClimbAddict, which I began in 2005, and have seen slow but steady increases in views and sales each quarter since. Still, it won't (yet) pay the bills(and it likely never will).

Because ClimbAddict has such a small audience(not rock climbers as a whole, but those climbers who would purchase graphic t-shirts of the type I create), and because I am hoping to create more income via online venues(enabling me to have a mobile lifestyle), I began a group fo general t-shirt shops last winter. There are 5 shops, which I have umbrella'd under

Creating each graphic takes time; often more than I can get within a single battery charge. Then there is the uploading to the venue and creation of the various products. Depending on the design and venue, this can take anywhere from 1 to 8 or more hours of work. But that's not the end of it, for without marketing, no one would ever come across the designs, in enough number to possibly support the efforts involved. So - I need copious amount of time, not only online, but with an electrical connection powering my laptop.

Having a car made it so much easier to pop into town and while away the hours, working on these ventures, all the time warming up the battery so I could come back to the cabin - a much more inspiring place to do the creative aspects of the work.

This July happened to be comprised of almost exclusively above-90 degree days. Teddy didn't want to go hiking any further than to the field for his poop walk, and frankly, neither did I. I certainly couldn't expect him to walk the mile needed to hitch a ride, and then sit patiently at one of my (top-secret) outdoors electrical outlets in New Paltz. Even in the shade it was uncomfortable. So, for me, the ability to get into town in 10 minutes vs. the more likely an hour commute via walk/ride hitch, was a real benefit. To be able to work in air-conditioning instead of out in the hot sun was almost too luxurious.

Still - this also had it's side effects. Because I was using 4-5 hour blocks of time for the work, I would often want something to eat. Even without food, I still spend $2.75 each and every session, for the beverage that is minimally required to be taking up space in the coffee house. I suppose I could have gone to the library., but the heat was so stifling that by the time I had driven the few miles to town, I was desperate for a cold drink to refresh my dehydrated body. The walk from car to library would have been a whole extra block, too.... which sound absurd, especially since I had been accustomed to walking at least a mile before the car came into my hands, Yet here I was, feeling that extra effort was just that - an extra effort.

It wasn't only that. One day I didn't need to go into town, really. The laptop battery was fully charged, and I wasn't in the mood for an extended work session. I just wanted to check my emails and see if I had gotten any phone messages. The problem was that I had solemnly vowed to not drive that car to the Trapps. Not for climbing, nor trailwork or internet work.

The thought occurred to me that I could drive up to the Overlook to check on things(which I DID do, each night, in order to not be waiting at the gate as the daylight waned, wishing the latecomers would go away so I could close that gate! That was a benefit the general public of Split Rock-goers received out of my having the vehicle....

But it was not night time; it was mid-day, and thus the parking at the Overlook had a 30-minute limit. That would be enough to check emails, but I knew I would straggle online, and stretch it out for a longer time. The Overlook was out.

I thought "Well, I COULD park in the Trapps and go to my outdoor office." And then - I am embarrassed to admit - a groaning thought popped into my head. It just seemed sooooo far a walk, in comparison to the relative ease I'd been having to log on lately. I simply didn't want to walk from the parking lot to the Gerdie Block!

That was a bit of a rude awakening, and I worried how I would fare once the car was gone and I would be forced back into the old routine, especially since August is historically the month when we see the worst of the high heat and humidity. The good news is that it has been a very easy adjustment, although I haven't hitched Teddy into town yet; he's just come on the Shongum Path to Gerdie Block.

Back to the food issue. Because I spent so many hour in town, online, and had either snacked or eaten something more substantial, I often wasn't hungry when it came time for dinner back at the cabin. I'd make some little thing, or eat some not-so-good for me thing(like a piece of the Jenkins pie).

Not being the brightest star in the galaxy, I didn't make the connection between the change in my eating habits and my purchasing of food. I would go to the grocery and stock as usual, and then wonder why my fresh produce was wilted when I went to eat it. If I cooked a pasta or grain dish for dinner, chances were the next night I wasn't interested, since I had snacked on an oversized cookie in town. It was upsetting when, about half-way through the month, I realized that this wastage was due to, not only my missed brain connections, but that damned car!

It's been about two weeks since Lauren came to pick up her car, and I admit that as that time drew nearer, I began having very slight anxiety issues over the idea of being carless. I'd become dependent. I even had fantasies of not wanting to return the thing! And the thought that maybe I DID need a car after all occurred to me, and that I should considering beginning to look for a decent deal.

The good news is that things have reverted very easily to the old mode. I'm feeling a level of fitness in my body again, enjoying the scents of the Shongum Path, and renewing my connection with passersby as I type away at my laptop in the Trapps. I'm certainly spending less money. I spent about a hundred dollars in gas, sixty for ice, and who even knows how much in food, simply because of having that vehicle.

Imagining the change that having a car would have on my life(not only vehicle cost/maintenance and insurance, but those incidental expense increases I mentioned above), I am a bit concerned about the future, as I intend to live in the southwest this winter, in a nomadic existence. Unlike the Gunks, with it's immedate proximity to climbing, and my cabin in the woods, this phase won't go carless with such ease, though some people do it(young men, able to subsist on Ramen Noodles, who don't have a dog).

However, for now, no wheels IS doable, and actually quite nice. Sure, I don't have the conveniences and range of mobility I enjoyed while driving, but the benefits of NOT having a car definitely do outweigh the benefits of having one!

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