By Marc Heiden, since 1997.
September 9, 2008
Now that public reports have surfaced about Kim Jong Il's absence from official state ceremonies in North Korea amid serious health concerns, I am finally at liberty to announce that Kim Jong Il tried to travel the Oregon Trail at the same time as we did, and his current health problems stem from a debilitating case of dysentery, a failure to invest in spare parts for North Korea's wagon, and the unified refusal of Indians to help him find wild fruit. We passed his party of high-level party functionaries on the side of the road and it was a pathetic sight. Kim Jong Il did not make it to the end of the Oregon Trail as we did. They flew home from Boise, Idaho. His operatives are under orders to hack together a cheap Photoshop job with him at the end of the trail where they just put his head on top of K.'s body, but now, dear readers, you know better than to buy that shit.
I intend to write an itinerary so anyone who would like to travel the Oregon Trail can follow our route, but I may not get around to it. Google seekers of the future may feel free to email me if I don't.
Football season is here, and that is a fine thing. However, while watching the day's games, I saw a series of beer commercials touting "drinkability" as a new word. Our cultural discourse is eternally an optimistic child on the way to school, and "drinkability" is the flash of a pervert's trench coat. I used to believe that we, as Americans, would stand up and reject things like "drinkability", but now I am older, and resigned that frat boys are already using "drinkability" in term papers and preludes to date rape, and it will be in President Palin's 2011 State of the Union address.
I am resigned, but not surrendered, for today I am proud to announce the first official What Jail Is Like Fellowship Program. What Jail Is Like Fellows will defend cultural discourse through the creation and use of compound German words to describe every-day situations. It is a documented fact that Germans communicate with each other exclusively through compound words: weltschmerz, schadenfreude, so on and so forth. These words, absorbed into our cultural discourse as a whole, have proven tremendously useful in the past. However, it has been ages since a new German compound word has crossed over, and situations are still emerging that require their use. I have an opening for two What Jail Is Like Fellows to create and propagate German compound words, and one What Jail Is Like Fellow to slander the first two Fellows and persistently argue that this ought to be done in another language.
Applicants for the first two positions should submit German compound words to encapsulate the following emotions:
1. The sense of hearing a song you like in a commercial, and feeling your emotional attachment to the song calcify.
Needless to say, the Fellowship Program is unpaid and probably does not qualify for academic credit of any kind, but I will be happy to send emails on behalf of Fellows urging immediate recognition of their work by scholastic or professional organizations.
September 1, 2008
Oregon Trail Diary
We made camp at The Dalles, near a roaring dam on the Columbia River. The Comfort Inn had a plate of warm cookies on the counter, and I took one before the clerk had a chance to announce the price of a room; K. rejected her offer and we left, but I still had the cookie. You can't get to the end of the Oregon Trail without that kind of quick-thinking.
On the fateful morning, before starting out in the Volks Wagon, we headed over to a gas station to fill up on sugary nonsense. It sat next to the shell of a Taco Bell, identifiable by the shade where the sign had been and a few price strips on the drive-through menu. (We saw a number of shuttered Taco Bells and Taco Johns on this trip. It was eerie, as though a plague had gone before us, and fast-food taco chains had not built up the necessary immunity to it.) The gas station also hailed from another era. It had one of those racks of classic rock cassette tapes, with more Alabama than is currently stocked by any music store in America; although I already had all of the songs, I thought about picking up a Kinks compilation that appeared to have whimsical biographies of the band members in the liner notes. There was also a selection of bumper stickers, including one that said, "Bill and Hillary = America's dual airbags". Really? In 2008? How long can an item sit on sale without anyone noticing it hasn't sold? Does that explain the shitty off-brand rice krispie treat I bought?
Sandwiched between the hotel and the dam were some old cedar shacks, long abandoned. They were a bracing reminder that not everyone makes it to the end of the trail.
We carried on. This had been a long, long trip. We were out of Q-tips, and certain members of the party were out of clean underwear and socks, while certain other members were also low on socks, but not on underwear. I had blisters on my toes from a long hike in the Tetons, and blisters on my soles from a long, blissful session on the basketball court at the Hampton Inn outside of Boise. (Age has only improved my magnificent skyhook.)
The last miles were a time of reflection. I can't remember anything specific that was reflected upon, although I did play a lot of the soundtrack from Head, in recognition of the previous day's discovery / decision that Mike Nesmith's ancestor James Nesmith traveled the Oregon Trail. (Put it in Wikipedia, folks. I'm an authority.)
Today, Oregon City is a suburb of Portland, but during the pioneer days, it was the end of the Oregon Trail. That's still the city slogan, emblazoned on the welcome sign. Did we make it?
We certainly fucking did. Free of dysentery, cholera, typhoid, snake bites, exhaustion, and broken arms; all members of the party in full health, farmers from Illinois, triple points. We are unsurpassed in the annals, at the top of the top ten list. We are exuberant. We reached the end of the Oregon Trail.
The End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center has that sign out front, and the stairs list major points from the trip - Chimney Rock, Independence Rock, and the rest. Those stairs felt like they were meant specifically for us, for people who had arrived there after doing the trail, and it was fantastic.
The exhibits weren't up to the standard of the centers in Independence (Day 1) or Baker City (Day 9), though. They obviously meant well, but there wasn't much in the way of depth or interactivity. There were photocopies of land-claim forms and pages from coloring books, accompanied by signs asking you to be polite and only take one. There was a room full of half-told stories of people who traveled the trail, with instructions for you to visit the Museum of Oregon City to learn whether they arrived safely and what they did afterward; there were replica bottles of medicine that promised to remedy illnesses such as "women's weakness", a malady whose symptoms include fainting, cramps, and "fear of impending evil". If I understood the schedule of events correctly, a movie called "Bound for Oregon!" was shown every couple of hours, and there were presentations by a band of hucksters who pretended to be merchants outfitting wagons or some shit like that - whereas, at the other two museums, you could load your own wagon without the intercession of hucksters.
Also, there was an outline on the wall of a dog, and you could dip your hand in a bucket of hand-written name tags, choose one, and place the tag on a hook coming out of the outline's neck, thereby naming the outline of the dog. First, though, you had to take off the name tag placed by the previous person. So, I un-named the dog outline "Target", and re-named the dog outline "Albert". It was electrifying. By contrast, the Baker City center had a true story from a girl's diary wherein her faithful dog, Tray, was shot because the other dogs in the party were barking at the cows and scaring them off, and the leader of their wagon party felt that dogs were a liability the group could no longer afford. The girl was sad, and felt certain that Tray would have enjoyed Oregon.
The woman at the admission desk did not comment on my "You have died of typhoid" t-shirt. (K. did not wear her "You have died of dysentery" t-shirt.) I found it bizarre that the computer game got no mention at all in any of three, uh, interpretive centers. (What is wrong with the word 'museum'?) I didn't expect the displays to be pixellated or anything, but the computer game is the primary driver of public understanding in their subject, so you'd think it might warrant a shout-out somewhere in the facility. But no, MECC does not receive its due.
We left and headed for the Volks Wagon. Our path was long and roundabout, though, and took us past an eager old man named Cedar Walt, who was keen to show us things he had made out of cedar, and then showed us how nicely and easily planks can be split from a cedar log. I tried doing it myself, and with a firm effort, soon had a fine plank in front of me. I now feel significantly more confident that I could fashion a shelter of some kind in the wilderness, were cedar trees around, and tools available. (I am also confident that I could fashion the necessary tools out of two sticks, a rock, and a vine, but the tools would be helpful.) I'm glad to know that. Unlike the pioneers, we had a hotel room to sleep in that night, but I think we could have managed in 1848. We'd have done well, even after the computer screen blinked off.
From there, it was on to Portland and Seattle to see old friends, and then across the country back to Chicago - journey's end.
I woke up in a strange place is the work of Marc Heiden, born in 1978, author of two books (Chicago, Hiroshima) and some plays, and an occasional photographer.
Antarctica, Beelzetron, Books, Chicago, College, Communism, Food, Internet, Japan, Manute Bol, Monkeys and Apes, North Korea, Oregon Trail, Outer Space, Panda Porn, Politics, RabbiTech, Shakespeare, Sports, Texas.
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Written by Marc Heiden, 1997-2011.