Forest Health Conference – day 2

Wild hogs are the worst
Wild pigs are the worst, or certainly among the worst invasive species. They can destroy a corn field in one night.  They are an especially savage enemies of longleaf pine and are a big factor in its decline in Virginia.  Longleaf pine roots are rich in starch.  In colonial times, “free range” or feral pigs rooted up and killed young longleaf.

Wild pigs are not present in most of Virginia, but they are serious problems where they are found and in other states.  The best way, the only effective way, to deal with wild pigs is to exterminate them.  Hunting does not control their numbers.  They breed rapidly and you need to kill 70% of the population every year to keep populations under control. The pig is one of our most efficient ways to produce protein and this same factor makes them efficient pests.

Jeffrey Rumbaugh, USDA-APHIS, talked about feral pig management.  The bottom line is that any are too many.  A challenge is that some people like to hunt them and so introduce them, and they soon get out of hand.  That is why we do not want to encourage a hunting culture to develop around them.  As it is now, wild pigs are nuisance animals and you can trap or shoot them anytime you see fit.  But that is easier said than done. They are cunning animals.  The methods and traps that work for a while will not work all the time.  Where there is enough open area, they can be shot from helicopters, otherwise it is much harder.

Herbicides safer than ever
Charlie Smyth, Nutrien Solutions talked about herbicides. Herbicides are getting much more precise and you need to use a lot less.  At one time, they dusted gallons of the stuff per acre.  Now it is down to a few ounces.  I dislike using herbicides on my land, but sometimes the alternatives are even less attractive or impossible.  Some invasive species just cannot be controlled w/o herbicides.  Herbicides may also be the way to help a beneficial ecology to establish or reestablish. An established ecology may then require little or no use of herbicides to maintain it, and that is a good goal for forestry.
It is NOT that herbicides are not safe if properly used. One of the purposes of the forest health conference is to certify pesticide and herbicide users.   There is currently a controversy around glyphosate, one of the world’s most widely used herbicides.  No evidence is found to think it is harmful. The Canadians recently did a meta study and determined – “No pesticide regulatory authority in the world currently considers glyphosate to be a cancer risk to humans at the levels at which humans are currently exposed. We continue to monitor for new information related to glyphosate, including regulatory actions from other governments, and will take appropriate action if risks of concern to human health or the environment are identified.”

The once and future king of eastern American forests – GMOs give hope
Good news for a future most of us will not live to see is the return of the American chestnut.  Nobody (almost nobody) alive today remembers a healthy chestnut forest in its native range, but the records and photographs indicate that it was magnificent.  The American chestnut was a keystone species in forests in North America.  Its wood provided timber for building our young nation.  Its nuts fed wildlife livestock and humans from Canada to Florida.  All this ended in just a few decades when an Asian blight swept through our American forests.  The blight probably arrived sometime in the last 19th Century, but it was first documented at the Bronx Zoo in 1904.

William Powell, Ph.D., SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, described his work and research.

The blight releases a toxin that kills ends up girdling the tree and killing it.  After all the chestnuts are killed, the blight persists in introduced chestnuts and in some oak species. It does not kill these trees, however.  But that means the blight is always present, ready to attack new chestnuts trees.  No American chestnuts have shown any immunity to the blight. Asia chestnuts are not much harmed by it, and there attempts to cross American and Asian chestnuts has been ongoing for nearly a century. The problem is that they are similar species but not the same.  The American chestnut is taller, straighter and just better.  Hybrids have been unable to survive well in the wild and they are not the same.
Transgenic research may help solve this problem.  The capacity to live with the toxin produced by the blight is common in nature.  It is possible – and has been done – to transfer the gene from another plant to chestnuts.  These trees are 100% American chestnut save for the addition of this one factor.

GMOs are heavily regulated, and USDA, FDA and EPA all have a piece of this.  The transgenic chestnuts are currently passing USDA tests.  So far, no differences between the improved chestnuts and other varieties have been found. They have tested the mycorrhizal environment, leaf litter, nuts, flower and nutrient intake, among other things.  They have looked for effects on animals like frogs and bees and found nothing. This IS an American chestnut tree.  The difference is that it is not killed by the blight.

It is important to note that it is not killed by the blight AND it also does not kill the blight.  The gene affect the danger of the toxin produced by the blight, makes it harmless to the tree. This is important because it will not set off the adaptive arms race, i.e. it will not cause the blight to develop resistance to the cure.  If the blight could articulate a goal, it is not to kill trees, but to survive. That it still does.

USDA tests will be done in about 18 months. FDA may take another year.  It is unknown how long EPA will take to approve.  There is even some doubt that EPA should be involved. They regulate pesticides and herbicides. This genetic improvement does not kill anything.
The next steps will not be to plant trees, but to distribute pollen.  Scientists want to use the resistant pollen to pollinate trees that came up from root sprouts or were planted by concerned landowners or other scientists.  The idea is to make sure there is a lot of genetic diversity.  The blight will kill many of the offspring of these crosses, but those that inherit the immunity will survive along with the genetic diversity present in their native home populations.   The chestnut range goes from Canada to Florida.  There are a lot of different environments in that large area and lots of local adaptations that are likely useful to keep in the gene pool.

So, lots of good news about chestnut trees, with the caveat that they will not become a major forest tree again for 50-100 years.  Those of us alive in 2119 can brag that we were present at the creation.  We are likely to see American chestnut trees in gardens and maybe along street with the next decade.  There are lots of “Chestnut Streets” in American towns. It will be nice if they can have the real things shading the eponymous streets.

Beautiful dark green hemlock groves: we may not soon see their like again
A very sad loss is the beautiful dark green hemlocks that used to shade coves & mountain streams. I still recall my first hike to Old Rag Mountain. The hike started in a hemlock grove.  Hemlock groves were dense and so quiet and dark.  It was an almost spiritual experience walking among them.  They are all gone now, killed by the hemlock wholly adelgid, that showed up from Asia around 1924 and it is eating its way through hemlocks in eastern North America.  Scientists think that extreme cold kills them, which may be the good news from Wisconsin and Minnesota.  No such salvation in Virginia or the Carolinas.
We have been fighting back with chemical, biological and silvicultural tools, but success is limited. Chemicals work just fine, but they are too expensive to be applied at the landscape level. Scientists have had some limited success with biological controls, but no great breakthroughs.

Genetics might be the best way to go.  Transgenic sciences are developing rapidly, and it may soon be possible to enhance hemlocks with using the new science.  The adelgid infests hemlocks in its native China but does not kill healthy trees.  Western hemlock species seem also to have resistance to the bugs. Our eastern species (eastern and Carolina hemlock) might could be equipped. The usual caveat is the time it takes to grow trees.  Eastern hemlocks are not a key forest industry tree, which means that it, unfortunately, may get less attention than a species more commercially valuable.  It is, however, extremely valuable as part of forest ecology.  It grows in very shady places and has a major role in keeping streams cold, which affects fish populations.

We had a special edition talk about the new disease affecting beech trees around Lake Eire. This is very frightening. They still do not know the cause.

Healthy forests – Virginia Association of Forest Health Professionals 27th Annual Conference

In praise of “non-essential” government employees
Coming so close to the end of the shutdown, I am reminded of all the good work that Federal workers do. It is work that is low profile. If they stop working, we do not immediately notice. We might not notice at all that they are gone, but we would notice that our forests were less healthy, that our water was not as clean and that we just were confusingly lost.

It is always a little depressing to attend these forest health conferences, with the solace that lots of smart people are working to protect our trees.

Many of the scientists that presented their research at the conference were Federal employees and everybody depended on Federal programs in some way. Could we get along w/o their work? Yeah, but our world would be a lot worse.

Anyway, before I go into the insights I took away from the first day of the Virginia Association of Forest Health Professionals 27th Annual Conference, I want to say thanks to all those “non-essential” government employees who do the essential work of keeping our forests safe and defending our country from pathogens and pests, or at least giving us the science to fight back.

The agenda is attached, and you can see the biographies of the speakers. I am not going to make a full report but rather talk about my own takeaways.

Spotted lanternfly, the current bad bug
Eric Day talked about our latest big threat, the spotted lanternfly. If we can control this pest, it will become not important. If it gets away, it will cost us billions of dollars. The spotted lanternfly is very fond of another pest from China – the ailanthus or tree of heaven. Mr. Day said that one way to control the fly would be to control the tree of heaven. He meant it ironically. We have been fighting the tree of heaven for more than 100 years. I have been going at it in my own corner of the forest going on fifteen years. The best we can do is fight it, knowing we will never win. Tina MacIntyre, Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services also talked about the fly. She emphasized the need for people who spend a lot of time in the woods to be vigilant. If you see something that looks like a lanternfly, get a sample to share with the extension and then kill as many as you can. These bugs have no place in the Old Dominion. Kill them first and ask questions after.

Remember the birds, bees and butterflies
I listened carefully to Anand Persad, Ph.D., Davey Institute, talking about pollinator habitat because I am working on pollinator habitat on my land. I am looking forward to March to plant more varieties of wildflowers. Most of what he said, I kind of knew already, but it was good to hear it again. You need a variety of plants that flower at different times, since pollinators need to eat all season long. One thing I just had not thought about was the need for tree flowers. Deciduous trees flower, although most forest trees are not showy. They flower earlier in the season, before the wildflowers even emerge. This tree pollen provides early food for pollinators, especially bumble bees. Bumble bees also need nesting places, often in fallen logs. An ecosystem is complex.

Early warning system
Most of the nasty pests that show up in America come from Asia. The big and obvious reason is that trade with Asia is so robust. There are lots of opportunities for the bugs to hitch a ride. Less easily seen but just as obvious when you look is that East Asia has many similar ecosystems. The forests there are similar to ours and their pests can easily adapt to our tree species. Back in Asia, many of these bugs are endemic, but not big problems. The ecosystems have developed balance and defense. When a foreign bug shows up in America, it does not bring along the full panoply of predators and counter measures. North American pests, BTW, can have the same disruptive effect in Chinese forests.

Dave Coyle, Ph.D., Clemson University talked about the above and suggested that we need for an early warning system. Take the example of the emerald ash borer, that is spreading across our ash forests like a deadly wave. Back home in China, it does not generally kill healthy ash trees. They have developed defenses. But a while back, the Chinese were reforesting their hills. Among the trees they chose for this were American imports – green and white ash. At first, they did wonderfully in their new environment, having left many of their old pests behind. But then the emerald ash borer found them.

The Chinese noticed this. They studied it and wrote about it. They even wrote about it in English, the international language of science, but nobody paid much attention inside or outside China. In retrospect, we could have seen this coming. What we could have done about it is another story, but it need not have been such a surprise.

Prevention is always better than cure, but it is hard to do. A pest now destroying laurel and bay trees throughout the South is a vascular fungus transmitted by the invasive redbay ambrosia beetle. This beetle is smaller than a sprinkle on a donut. Genetic testing indicates that ALL the beetles that have killed 500 million trees in the last decade originated from ONE bug that hitches a ride from China, probably to the Port of Savanna. These bugs can reproduce asexually, so one is all it takes. It is a tall task to keep out all these things. This bug is small enough to fit through a spaghetti strainer, and it takes only one.

Those of us who grow pines in Virginia are not overly fond of sweetgum that overrun our piney woods. Nevertheless, we can appreciate their place in the ecosystem. The Chinese like sweetgum for their nice form and beautiful fall colors, so there are lots in China. But they are now being attacked by a bug called the sweetgum inscriber. If this gets to America, it will devastate our forests. We should take the warning.

… And you need fire in pine ecosystems
Adam Coates, Ph.D., Virginia Tech, talked out the value of fire in the ecosystem. He was responding to studies that showed that wildfire destroys forest soils. These studies are true but off target. The hot and destructive wildfires destroy forest soils. Prescribed fires and the formerly common light fires do not. I have written about fire so often, that I will not go more here, except to note that Mr. Coates talked about a couple places I want to go in South Carolina: the Santee experimental forest near Cordesville and the Tom Yawkey forest near Georgetown, SC.

Asian longhorn beetles, dangerous but big and stupid
The Asian longhorn beetle has the capacity to be one of the biggest forest pest in the history of forest pests. It can kill almost everything in its way. Fortunately, after it is detected it can be controlled and eradicated. Eternal vigilance is the price of this, explained Joe Boggs, Ohio State University. By the time they are discovered, they usually have been there for a while, but they are not very mobile; they can fly but usually prefer not to and they are big. The infestations can be traced to single introductions from Asia and then their spread. They tend to move where people move them. Don’t move firewood.

Pine beetles, bad but manageable
Dave Coyle came back to talk about the southern pine beetle. This bug was the plague of southern pine forests, but it now mostly under control in the south. There are lots of possible reasons, none of which tell the whole story. The biggest factor is management. Pine beetles depend on over thick forests. If you thin your trees on time, the beetles have trouble getting hold. A forest with 120+ basal area is “beetle bait.” BTW – my forests are thinned to 50 BA.

Beetle outbreaks have not been a problem in Virginia for more than 20 years. Beetles are a problem still in Mississippi and Alabama. Reasons for this are not completely clear, but one reason may be lack of thinning in National Forests. You can see an almost perfect correlation between poorly managed USG lands and beetle spots. Mr. Coyle showed us an aerial photo of a beetle outbreak that stopped exactly on the properly line between an private and thinned forests and an essentially unmanaged government property.

The pine beetle is a manageable problem in the South, where we are used to it, but the bug is moving north, affecting loblolly and pitch pine in New Jersey and as far as Massachusetts. If the bugs can keep moving north, they may eat their way into white & red pine. This could be a disaster. These trees do not have the same sort of open ecology as southern pines, with their regular burning regimes. I grew up around white pines and I simply love them. The idea that they could be so endangered is heartbreaking. Let’s hope those smart guys working to find solutions will find one in time.

The heartbreak of the ash apocalypse
Speaking of heartbreaking tree death, Kathleen Knight, Ph.D., U.S. Forest Service talked about her research into ash mortality and the emerald ash borer. She has been monitoring ash in Ohio for more than ten years. The bad news is that mortality is nearly 100%, nearly – more on that later. The less bad news is that ecosystems can adapt. As the ash die back, other trees take their places, especially silver maples, elms & basswoods, that are present in the forest and in the understory. The dead ash are very brittle and they tend to fall down rapidly, presenting a danger to people walking in the woods, but making way for new trees. The good news and the bad news is that in a few years it will be hard to tell that the ash tree were ever there.

Ms. Knight also discovered some good news after returning to one of her sites, showing the value of follow up. She and her team saw a perfectly healthy ash tree among the many dead stems. Closer inspection of the site turned up 106 more. This was only around 1% of the total, but they are hope. Ash trees can be easily grown from cuttings. There may be hope for resistant trees in a short time. Studies show that the resistant ash can kill the borers. This is an adaptation of the Asian ash trees. The resistant American ash trees are not quite as good at this, but it is the first generation.

The other good news about ash trees is that they can be saved chemically. This is not cheap and cannot reasonably be done in forests, but valuable ash trees near homes or shading streets can be preserved. This is because of how the emerald ash borer interacts with the trees. The borers are phloem feeders, i.e. they are shallow. The phloem easily carries insecticide to kill the bugs and their larva. The question is if there can be “herd immunity”. If a sufficient number of ash trees are treated and the bug that invest them are killed, will the populations be cut enough to save unprotected trees?

The pathogen attacking the pest
Last presentation of the day was about a pathogen that is attacking tree of heaven. Rachel Brooks, Virginia Tech, presented her research. Tree of heaven, ailanthus, is a serious pest from China so it seems almost poetic justice that a new pathogen from Asia might help free us from this trouble. So far, it looks like attacks only tree of heaven and spreads via root graphs. Biocontrol is good but I am always a little leery of it. What can kill one species today, might turn on another later.

I didn’t stick around for the pesticide safety presentation, since I don’t handle pesticides myself. Those who do get continuing education credit for these things. I do not. I will be back tomorrow for more.

January tree planting

I planted more than 400 tree today: 50+ bald cypress & 350 longleaf pine. I understand the professionals are much faster, but it is a lot of me. I also planted in smaller batches and with more thought. For example, I plant the bald cypress in sunny but wet places, not just in straight lines, and I am planting the longleaf in patches.

It was a nice day, sunny & around 50 degrees. It is nice to be out and doing something. I like to imagine what the trees will look like when they candle this spring and maybe decades from now.

I was listening to relevant audio programs. I finished one on evolution and one on dynamism in nature, which is some of the same thing.

The audio book was called “Inheritors of the Earth.” I actually listened to it about a year ago, but I wanted to revisit. The theme is that nature is dynamic. The author talks about deep time. When you look at it this way, being native doesn’t matter. Very few things are where they developed.

Longleaf have their own “native” story. It is likely that something like the longleaf ecology has been around for tens of thousands of years, however it was not where it is now. Longleaf ecosystems, or maybe proto-longleaf ecosystems, likely developed on the coastal plain of Norht America, but at a time of much lower sea levels. So the longleaf coastal plain is now underwater, the continental shelf.

I like to think that we are restoring longleaf in Virginia, but what does that mean? They were “native” to our state in 1607, but so what? We often take first European settlement as the base-line for “natural” America, but is was no more natural then than it is now. We really are not restoring as building an ecosystem with the natural principle of the longleaf ecology.

Anyway, I have confidence that it is good.

My picture is the end of the day. I just barely got the last trees in the ground before dark. Days are short this time of year.

Spent the day planting bald cypress in some wet spots on the farm. I listened to the Great Courses while at it. It seemed appropriate to hear about evolution when in nature.

Evolution explains lots of things, but it I can see why some folks don’t like it. Of course, the reason often given is religion, but I don’t think that is a real issue. You can still have faith in transcendence even if you recognize the mechanism of evolution. I think the greater reason why people dislike the idea is that they dislike the idea of emergence. Emergence takes away not only the idea of a plan that we can figure out, but it also removes heroes and villains, and people like to have heroes and villains.

The audio program is what Darwin didn’t know, as you see in the attached. Mostly they are talking about advances in genetics. Darwin postulated the idea of evolution, but he had no idea of the mechanism. Mendel and genetics were still in the future.

What Darwin actually got wrong is that he thought that evolution always went very slowly and that everything was gradual. In fact, evolution sometimes moves very quickly.
Nature is resilient. I say that often. And nature is resilient because of the process of evolution. Everything changes and adapts to changing circumstances.

Last day in San Diego – Stay Classy

Notice the difference in the photo, not beer but ice cream. The others are more of the usual.

We had lunch at a place called Union in San Diego’s Gaslight district. Food was good, but we wanted the ambiance of the outdoor seating.

San Diego is very pleasant. It is fairly green in the winter, since the Mediterranean climate here features warm and dry summers and rainy winters. A local friend, Dana P. Eyre told me that this winter was indeed rainy, but not outside the normal. although there have been droughty winters in the last few years.

We go back on Tuesday, not sorry to have missed the snowy weather back home.
We also visited the San Diego Botanical Garden, as you can see in picture #4. Last is the entrance to the gaslight district, the San Diego old town.

Despite California car culture, San Diego is a very walkable city. It has a good troll line. We dropped off the car a day early, since we didn’t figure to need it here for the last day.

Link from my first visit to the Botanical Garden.

Salton Sea, Borrego Springs, California

We had a beer-less lunch today in a little village called Borrego Springs. We drove from Palm Desert to Temecula in a very round about way, first going south the Salton City and then west through Borrego Desert Park.

The Salton Sea was created by accident in 1905 when water from the Colorado River broke through dikes and flooded the flat land below sea level now the Salton Sea. This “lake creation” has happened periodically in history. Water fills the basin and then evaporates. In the deep historical past, this was part of the ocean, the Sea of Cortez reached farther inland during warmer periods. In the much cooler times of the last ice age, it was part of a big freshwater lake. When California became part of the United States, there was no water. It was called the Salton Sink and was like a smaller version of Death Valley.

This incarnation of the Salton Sea is living longer because it is fed by irrigation runoff from the Imperial Valley. For some years, levels were actually rising, but more efficient irrigation has produced less runoff. The Salton Sea is now evaporating faster than it is being filled. It will become an ecological problem, as the salty dust exposed by evaporation becomes dust in the wind.

Salton City is odd. It was platted out in the 1960s as a resort community. The streets are laid out in a grid patter and have names like “Harbor,” “Marina” or “Coastal Breeze”. None of those things apply to today’s Salton City. It is mostly empty. I was surprised to learn that the city is actually growing. New houses are going up. Why not? They already have the grid. It is a depressing place, however, like visiting a Twilight Zone city.

We drove along the Salton Sea and saw parts of the Imperial Valley, the most productive agricultural area in the world. But it is not really pretty. It is like an agro-industrial place, very flat and productive.

As you leave Salton City, you go through some depressing piles of dirt, but these are full of campers. Evidently it is a good place for off-the-road. Borrego Springs is a pleasant little place. I imagine it is pretty hot in the summer.

First two pictures are us at Borrego Springs. Next is CJ driving the convertible. It was a bit too cold, but since we paid the big bucks, we wanted to use it. You can see a lot more from the open car and the mountains past Borrego Springs were attractive. Picture #4 is Salton City. That is the middle of two, really. Lots of lots available. Last is Borrego Springs.

— Okay. A day w/o beer is like a day w/o sunshine. We had the Diet Coke for lunch, we we walked over to place called Karl Strauss not far from our hotel

Had some great beer. I did the flight first and the winner was one called X Rye Zeeb. The X is just for show. The Rye is for one of the big ingredients and the Zeeb is the name of the brew master. It was a very smooth IPA. It would not meet the German purity law (Reinheitsgebot) since includes rye, but it was good beer. Chrissy had an Irish red.
Our pictures show the event. In picture #4 I am looking serious. I have been told that I smile too much so people do not take me seriously What do you think of my serious look?

Joshua Tree again

Joshua Tree National Park protects a unique environment where two environments meet. The Joshua Trees grow in the high desert of the Mojave. As you go downhill, you get into the Colorado Desert biome. The Colorado is a subset of the the Sonora Desert, but it lacks the iconic saguaro cactus, which is kind of a big deal, IMO.

The dominant thing here is creosote bush, also known as chaparral. This bush does not play fair. It emits a kind of toxin that inhibits the growth of other places, resulting in widely spaced bushes, each able to get enough water. They look like somebody has planted them in regular rows.

Another common plant in the Sonoran Desert is the cholla cactus. My cousin Carl Hankwitz warned me about them. If you get near, they stick into you. They call it the jumping bush because it seems to jump on you and hold you down.

Joshua Tree was going to be shut down because of the shutdown, but they opened today with volunteers and money from entrance fees paid voluntarily. There was some vandalism a couple days ago. I have trouble understanding the malice that goes into destroying nature. The logic of keeping it open was that visitors would help avoid vandalism by at least providing witnesses to disapprove.

We first visited the park in 2010. I was at Camp Pendleton for a Marine training exercise and Chrissy came after. I rented a car, but it was a piece of crap, so I took it back before CJ arrived. They had a convertible, so we traded up. Since that time, we have really enjoyed convertibles. I don’t think it is worth it to own, but renting once a year it is nice to have. It was not really warm enough to drive with the top down, but we did it anyway, using the heater to make it okay. You really see a lot more.

Joshua trees form a kind of savanna. The little ones look like longleaf pine in the bottle brush phase, as you can see by the second photo. Photo #3 is just a nice sunrise photo. #4 shows me close the the cholla cactus. I did not touch. Last is ocotillo. It is a deciduous tree, but not dependent on season. Instead, it is rain dependent. After it rains, the leaves come out. This can happen five times a year.

A very eventful day. We went to Joshua Tree National Park and visited Palm Springs. I will write about such things soon, but let me start with the usual beer pictures.
We went to Babe’s Bar-B-Que & Brewhouse for pulled pork and beer.

I don’t think pigs & beer get the credit they deserve for the advance of civilization. Recent scholarship indicates that beer came before bread in the use of grain. It is an excellent way to preserve the otherwise perishable product and provide carbohydrates into the future. Pigs are one of the world’s most efficient protein machines, and they recycle superbly. They grow fast and they can subsist on garbage that would otherwise just be wasted. Peasants could feed the pigs the slop they no longer wanted to eat and shortly harvest a bonanza of pork products.

I believe it is true that w/o pigs and beer, Western Civilization never would have broken free from the cycle of subsistence.

So let’s toast the wonderful pig with a flight of beer.

We had two sets of beer today. The first group is at Babe’s. The other two are from lunch at an Italian place in Palm Desert. I am not leaning sideways because I am drunk, but rather because Chrissy need me to lean out of the light.

Young men are stupid

Next note in my story. This one asked about my first big trip alone.   It was not a good idea, but did it anyway. I had planned to hitchhike to Arizona over spring break with a couple of young women I knew. I don’t remember both, but I do recall that one was called Sandy, a beautiful blond-haired girl. I had a crush on her and thought the trip would be a good opportunity to get to know her better. Turned out they got a better deal, i.e. a guy who had a car, so I was left forlorn with no place to go for spring break, but an intense desire to go somewhere warm, to escape what passes for spring in northern Wisconsin, winter most other places. I decided to hitchhike to Florida.  

You cannot memorize all the details of the map  

Lack of planning is a general affliction of 18-year-old boys.I like to think I was just more adventurous, but more likely just less circumspect. I didn’t have much money, only $15 cash, which I did not want to waste on a map, so I went to the library, memorized the road map of the Eastern USA (more on that later) and headed south on US 51 out of Stevens Point with what I thought would be supplies enough for the sojourn.   Planning was not one of my skills at that time, but I had already developed the insouciance that would later characterize me.   You meet a lot of interesting people hitchhiking. They tend not to be average people. Almost always male, usually generous but iconoclastic. I wanted to avoid Chicago, so I went toward Urbana and then east, ending up the first day in Louisville, KY. Well … not really in the city. It got dark, so I passed the night under a juniper bush near the highway. At first light, I hit the road again.  

Sweet Alabama  

I was lucky to get a very long ride. They were going someplace in Alabama. My first mistake with my memory map was to confuse I-65 (Alabama) for I-75 (Florida). When I discovered the mistake, I thought I would go east on I-10, as I recalled went to Panama City, Florida. They let me off on Hwy 10, but it was State 10 in Alabama, for reasons never clear to me called the Pineapple Highway. Maybe it is a busy road today, but back in 1974 it was rural and secluded.   I stood out for a while until a guy in a pickup truck stopped. I could not understand much of what he said. The accent was impenetrable, but he seemed harmless and seemed to be going my way, so I hopped in. He went only a few miles. I worried. I could not understand the accent. Alabama was a foreign country. A farmer was working the field where I got off. He came by to talk. He had a “Gone with the Wind” accent, but I understood him well and said so. He seemed a little taken-aback. I explained that I had understood nothing from the guy in the truck. He just laughed and said.

“You talked to old James. He’s the town drunk. Ain’t nobody understands old James.”  

He told me that the next town was Luverne and from there I should turn south toward Opp. A name like Opp, I could remember. Florida was more of less that way. I got a ride all the way to Brantley when it got dark. I was talking to some old boys at a gas station. They could tell I was not from around there and they were having some fun telling me about the prevalence of rattle snakes in the tall grass. I left town at dark looking for a place to sleep. It was all tall grass, no doubt full of snakes, until I saw some short grass and neat trees. A roadside park, so I slept there.  

Sleeping in the graveyard  

When the sun came up the next day, I could see I was not IN the graveyard but next to it. Had I known, I believe I would have had some trouble sleeping. As it was, it was nice and quiet. No snakes and no spectral visitors. But I figured I had adventure enough. I was running out of food and I wanted to go home, so I backtracked.  

In the words of the old country song  

I easily got back to I-65 and then got a ride with a guy on his way from Panama City to Nashville, he said to kill his wife and her no good boyfriend, an erstwhile best friend of his. Evidently, they ran off together. He was not so much concerned about the running off as that they took some cash he kept in an old coffee jar. He did not have a plan on how to do the deed. What he did have was a bottle of bourbon between his legs and he gulped it down the way I drink Coke Zero. His story sounded a little too much like a Hank Williams, Jr song. I also recalled the words of the old Roy Acuff song, “Whiskey and Blood on the Highway” (There was whiskey and blood all together; mixed with glass where they lay; I heard the moans of the dyin’; but I didn’t hear nobody pray). I tried to pay attention to the news the next day and didn’t hear about any spectacular murders, so I figure he was just talking … and drinking.   People who picked up hitchhikers sometimes were just looking for someone to talk at and they often are not serious. But guns, booze, anger and cars are not things you should mix or mess with if you can avoid it. Not wanting to be there if he encountered the pair and considering that it is not great to drive with an angry drunk, I told him I needed to meet someone and bailed in Decatur.  

A special providence  

My next ride was good. Got all the way to Nashville. I figured I would deploy some of my $15 to take the Greyhound Bus as far as I could get, hoping to sleep during the night trip. It was getting cold. I did not know where the bus station was, and neither did the driver, but trusting luck and the benevolence of the good Lord, who protects drunks, children the United States of America and fools like me, I guessed the correct downtown exit. I was in no rush to leave the bus station, where it was warm and reasonably comfortable, so I got a ticket for a late bus. $7, about half my fortune, got me to Evansville. $15 was more in those days than it is today, but it was not that much. From Evansville I thought I could get to Hwy 41, which I recalled went thorough Milwaukee as 27th Street.  

Clear & bright and icy cold  

Got off the bus just as the sun was coming up. It was a bright and clear day but otherwise not a good day to be out. A winter storm has passed through the night before, leaving that wonderful clear sky, an early morning temperature of -5, ice on the roads and not much traffic. Nevertheless, I got picked up quickly by a nice old guy. He told me that he usually did not pick up hitchhikers but that he thought I looked pathetic in the cold. He drove me to Terra Haute and bought me breakfast. I was hungry, and hunger is the best cook, so I still remember fondly the ham and eggs I had at Waffle House.   My next ride seemed a nice guy but was a four-lane a-hole. He drove me not far and then told me to get out in the middle of nowhere. He laughed as he drove off. I looked up to see a sign saving, “Rockville Prison. Do not pick up hitchhikers.” I later found out that it was a woman’s prison, but the sign didn’t specify. I walked back until the sign was no longer casting its dark shadow and got picked up by a couple of young women (maybe from the prison 😊). This is uncommon. They were very nice. I do not recall where they dropped me. Somewhere in the Chicago area, but still Indiana. It was near enough that I saw the signs to I 94 and so I knew which way to go. I didn’t need my memorized map to tell me that I-94 went right past my father’s house in Milwaukee. I got a few short rides though Chicago.Chicago scared me. It was the big and dangerous city.  


My father told me that Chicago was the friendliest place in the world, an insight as based on his experience after WWII. My old man was among the first GIs to be discharged back to America after the war. They dropped him in Chicago still wearing his Army-Air-Corps uniform. So soon after victory in Europe, his uniform may have influenced people’s generosity and account for the drinks and meals they bought for him. I could not count on that. It was getting dark and it never stopped being cold. I was not optimistic.   My special providence stepped in again. Some guy picked me up headed for Kenosha. I had been to Kenosha once for a swim meet. I didn’t know exactly where it was, but I knew that you could get there from Milwaukee in about an hour, and it was Wisconsin, so I was content. It got better. They guy asked where he should let me off. I told him any ramp would do since I was just going north. He told me that it was very cold, as I was aware, and asked me if I had any money. I told him that I had around $7. And he told me that he could not drop me off into that dark emptiness. He drove me instead all the way home to my father’s house.  

Life lessons  

It is probably not a good idea to depend on the kindness of strangers, but I was glad that I ran into good people. Besides the Rockville Prison guy and the homicidal boozer, everybody I met was okay, some were very friendly and shared lunches with me. I would have been a lot hungrier if not for that.   The whole adventure lasted only four days, but it made a deep impression, so much that a half a lifetime later I can still recall details. This was the first time I was really alone and unconnected. I realized that a guy could just disappear. The most disturbing part about wandering is looking around for a place to bed down at dusk, hoping that it doesn’t rain, or you don’t get rolled. It is nice to be able to come & go when you want, but in the words of that great country philosopher Kris Kristopherson, “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”   The old man was surprised to see me when I showed up home. He was unaware that we were on spring break. When I told him, he asked me where I’d been. When I told him Alabama, he said that I was stupid. Hard to disagree. But he allowed that he had hopped trains when he was a young man and once ended up in Montana. Young men are stupid. He told me that I should have stayed in Chicago overnight, since people there were so friendly that they would probably buy me drinks and give me a free meal, although he imagined things might have changed since 1945.   There is a coda. I went down to the Air War College in Montgomery in 2009 to do some talks about U.S. foreign policy. I took an extra day to drive around. This time I had my own rental car and a hotel for the night. It was better. I wrote a note re at the time.