Skip to content

It takes a lot of patience

Allene Stovall told me she'd be driving from her house in town to the old family farm to check her cows that evening, so when I first walked up to the abandoned property – two barns, a house, a wooden tool shed, and an old mud-brick stable – it was just me, and the hot late afternoon sun, and Thunder, a 4-year-old dog. Thunder was sprawled in the shade and barked once, stood up, then lay right back down to sleep. I took it as a welcome. An hour of warm breeze in a patch of shade of my own, and then Allene drove up the farm road in a beat up blue truck with tools all over the cab. Allene, who celebrated her 83rd birthday in January, normally drives a newer truck but needed this for its lift. She cleared a place for me on the bench seat, and we drove north on a dirt road, heading first to check some irrigation lines. One line was leaking, so Allene threw the truck into park, grabbed a wrench, and whacked the lid. We looked out across the flat brown field at the wind turbines running north. Allene has four on her land, and likes them. Brings in a little money. But the energy company wanted to burn the old house she'd grown up in a few miles away to run electric lines over the area, and that, she told me, was hard to watch. Allene turned the truck west along the edge of her 640-acre section, then south to see the calves. The sun was falling fast, then, and Allene drove on, stopping in the center of the section above a slope that ran to a creek. Calves and cows idled, except for one, giving birth. The calf was halfway out but stuck. A young man hopped off an ATV to give a tug. The cow, spooked or just wanting nature to run its course, rose and bucked, the calf going for a wild ride before sliding out completely, hard onto the earth. It took two men on ATVs to coax the cow back to her calf. But after 30 uncertain minutes, the mother had come around, licking the newborn, and then nudging it upright to nurse. Allene pointed at a small pond, created by a dam built by her father decades before. She looked back at the newest calf, wobbling, and said of keeping cattle, "It takes a lot of patience." #texas #wind #travel #journalism #instaessay #unh808

A post shared by Tom Haines (@twhaines) on



The answer, my friend, is …

Sorry for the predictable headline. I get punchy out there walking. But the ¬†point is…

Before I lay on my back beneath the blades of this turbine spinning in the wind, I had spoken with an 87-year-old writer and rancher named Delbert Trew, who works land 30 miles to the east. Our conversation took me back, as Delbert described windmills in the 1930s with 6-volt chargers that brought electricity to the plains. Said Delbert, "If the wind blowed, we got to listen to the radio that night." But a decade later rural power lines meant windmills were again mostly just drawing water from beneath the ground, if even that, and the Texas panhandle, too, progressed on coal and gas burned in distant power plants. Now we know that consuming so much carbon comes at a toll, and with the wind still blowing, things are beginning to come full circle. This time, though, the turbines stand 80 meters high, equivalent to a 24-story building, to catch the best breeze. After a long day of walking, I thought about pitching my tent beneath the blades. But the whomp, whomp, whomp felt too primal for such proximity, and what if a bolt broke loose? A wind energy expert had explained to me that in the panhandle the wind often blows fiercest 80 meters off the ground at 2 or 3 in the morning. So as I slept in a cotton field safely between two turbines I woke to hear the whomp echoing in the night. I looked from my tent to see red lights on hundreds of other turbines blinking into the distance, like buoyed boats at anchor on the sea. But a full moon also lit the sky, recalling a moment 12 hours before when I'd watched Sandhill cranes migrate north. They floated a half-mile or more above the turbines, beating wings and shifting course on the currents. The cranes are a prehistoric species, similar in many ways to fossils of ancestors millions of years old. Now here we are down on the ground trying to capture those currents to move us forward. Not so different from the cranes, up there riding the wind, like they always do. #travel #journalism #wind #energy #texas #plains #coal #gas #instaessay #unh808

A post shared by Tom Haines (@twhaines) on


Seems I was meant to be walking

There have been times, during the two years and hundreds of miles walked far from home as part of this project, that I have wondered: What am I doing? Why am I shouldering a 45-pound pack, picking up my walking stick, and wandering off into the unknown? Plenty of answers to that, of course, but a big one came courtesy of a 20-ton farm machine just before I was to begin walking in Texas wind country.

It was a quiet Monday in Groom, Texas, population 563, and I was only a quarter mile or so from the grain elevator where I planned to leave the rental car and begin walking across the prairie. The streets were empty, except for the big machine rolling down Business Route 40. A Terragator, I later learned it is called. Who knew? But there it was, steaming west on the real Old Route 66, so I idled at the stop sign to let it pass by. A contraption that weighs 13 tons, even when empty of its load of fertilizer for the fields, as the Terragator does, is an odd thing to see on a town street. Its dimensions make it seem out of place anywhere but above a big expanse of brown pasture, and even there. // It took me a moment to realize, then, what was happening, as that big front wheel began to swivel in my direction and the Terragator swung into a wide turn, the arc of its journey accelerating into my lane. You can swipe the photo above to see what that wheel – which measures nearly six feet tall – does when it hits the front of a Hyundai Accent. In the moment before impact, I'd had an internal conversation that ran something like: "Weird, looks like that big thing's turning this … whoa … whoa… coming right this … what the fuck!" I recall my hand grabbing the gear stick and throwing the car into reverse. I don't know if it got there, or if I slammed my foot on the gas, because just like that the Terragator was over the hood and only because of the angle of its impact am I able to sit here, hours later, and type this, uninjured. The weight of that big wheel popped the little Hyundai back a few feet, and soon the young farmer and I were standing on the side of the road, waiting for a state trooper to write the farmer's words on his report: "I just didn't see him." // Will, from A-1 Wrecker Service – "We don't want your arms and legs, just your tows!" – gave me a lift to the only motel in Groom. I told the woman behind the counter that tomorrow I would continue on to White Deer and Panhandle, a journey of nearly 50 miles. How will you get there without a car, she asked. "I'll just walk," I said. She tilted her head: "Oh?" #travel #writing #unh808

A post shared by Tom Haines (@twhaines) on


Traveling again through Turtle Island

Every few minutes, after the automated train arrives, the escalators heading down are thick with people in a moment of insulated transit. Moving alone and together through a world of our creation. In one batch of passengers, three in a line: a man in a blue tracksuit jacket, white earbuds dangling to an iPhone, which he keyed with two thumbs; a middle-aged woman in custodial shirt with a mid-distance stare; and, just a step behind, a businessman in gray suit and soft green tie, checking his nails as he stood on the stair. I joined the procession, having just arrived in Dallas from a four-hour flight. The woman next to me had been excited to visit her grandkids, who live in a 6,500-square-foot house. She makes the trip from Boston four times a year. I was carrying on to Amarillo, so as she headed to baggage claim I had shuffled through the sliding doors of the train for a ride from Terminal C to Terminal B. Ever moving without any effort. // Behind me in New Hampshire, single-digit temperatures would soon brace the maple trees outside my home. Up ahead I would walk across prairie fields beneath turbines taller than 25 story buildings, the blades turning in the late winter wind. The energy they capture gets fed into a power line and shipped back toward Dallas, where the shuttling never stops. // On my second flight, suspended one mile above the earth and bound for Amarillo, I was numb to dimensions of time and place. I shifted in my seat. A father and son sat behind me. The jet descended through clouds and banked above Palo Duro Canyon, making its final approach. The land beneath was soon flat pasture and strip mall, a blur of brown earth and neon bright. The plane glided low past the big box hotels and the Bell Helicopter assembly plant. The wings bobbed as the wheels waited to touch pavement. The boy, his face pressed tight against the plastic window for the view, did not turn his head, but said to his father, or himself, "some toy airplanes can fly higher than this."#travel #writing #instaessay #texas #energy #fuelwalk #unh808

A post shared by Tom Haines (@twhaines) on

Time turning at the edge

Idle ideas looking out to sea…

The turbines sit on a bluff up above the ever-shifting sea. The blue tarp – what's that? Some kind of protection against time? But that keeps turning. So the tarp is tired and torn, the turbines exposed at rest. // The company that put them in the ocean to try to harness the power of the tides learned a lot. But they needed more work. Not quite the right materials. Not ready to mass produce. So, more tinkering with new ideas. And the old turbines sit on shore, almost forgotten, like lobster traps pulled for the season, or a boat up on stilts, its engine uncovered. Who knows if the turbines, or others after them, will descend again into the currents. // This place at the edge of America is quiet, and it can feel like nothing is happening here. That idleness can be a tonic. But of course even Eastport is moving forward, and it needs energy, and we need energy. Clean energy. So we look out at the tides, those big swings of 18 to 24 vertical feet of water, two times a day, everyday, in and out – unbridled energy doing its thing. And you think, wow, it's a dream, right, those turbines, if we just put them back down there, if we just found the right mix of materials, the right performance, the right price per kilowatt… That's what it is, right? We want to replace what we've got. It will take big solutions and lots of little ideas. But how do you compete with oil, coal, and gas – oof – with the whole big superstructure all around the world, always digging, digging, and everyone – everyone – already paying for that constant comfort. //So we look out at the tides and think, 'that's just a dream.' Oh, but to dream is the idea, to gaze out and wonder if that wouldn't work one day, if that couldn't be just one thing, moving us closer to natural rhythms. #maine #tides #energy #fuel #travel #journalism #future #instaessay

A post shared by Tom Haines (@twhaines) on

Piloting the tides

Going out to sea to help a ship come in to port. A serendipitous encounter while walking the tidal coves of Eastport.

It was 8:08 a.m. and Captain Bob Peacock and four other men were untying Zeporah, a pilot boat, at the dock in Deep Cove, on the back side of the island. The men were there precisely at that time because it was four hours before 12:08 p.m., the ideal target time at which Peacock, who has piloted more than a thousand ships into Eastport, hoped to maneuver Star Lima, a 670-foot-long ship flying the Norwegian flag, alongside the port. The ship would pick up thousands of pounds of wood pulp and sail the next day for Savona, Italy. // I didn't know any of this at 8:08 a.m. when I happened out to Deep Cove to look at the sea and saw the crew climbing aboard Zeporah. I had been in touch with Peacock before arriving in town and when I walked down the steps to the dock and introduced myself, he said, "want to go for a ride?" // Soon we were motoring around the south end of Eastport toward Campobello Island. James Smith, at the wheel, picked up the radio: "Fundy Traffic. This is Eastport pilot boat. We are entering Canadian waters." Peacock, who would be climbing aboard the Star Lima with two cadets, sat behind Smith. He looked at the ebb tide rushing past Windmill Point. It travels 4 knots per hour in one direction and then, just past the point, 3 kph in the other. That morning, as the tide rushed out to sea, the water level around Eastport would drop more than 18 feet. "We plan everything by the tides," Peacock told me. Smith steered Zeporah past East Quoddy Lighthouse and into the open water of the Bay of Fundy. A mile or two away, Star Lima was steaming at 12 knots per hour toward the rendez-vous point. Peacock grabbed the radio and told the Star Lima captain to hold his course. "We are dead ahead of you," Peacock said. Star Lima slowed to 8.5 knots and Smith swung Zeporah around to come parallel to the ship. The current coming off the hull of Star Lima danced on the surface and deep below. Smith worked the throttles as Peacock and the cadets went to the starboard side, where they would climb onto the Jacob's Ladder hanging down Star Lima's hull. "When I first started doing this," Smith said, "my knees would shake." #maine #tides #travel #journalism #fuelwalk

A post shared by Tom Haines (@twhaines) on

On moving along

An encounter on the trail …

"Oh, I'd love to do what you're doing right now." That's what Frank said when he saw me walking past his yard with my pack and walking stick. "I've got a canoe, and I've always wanted to go, just me and my dog, and paddle." "Where to," I asked. "Everywhere." But before that reverie, Frank told me it was his birthday. "How old?" I asked. "Guess," he said. I looked at his lean and nimble frame, the sparkle in his eyes, and said, "81." He smiled: "83. Born November 18, 1932. When I was a kid, we didn't even have electricity. Just kerosene lamps, and an outhouse. So we've come pretty far, I guess." When I passed by his yard, Frank was out raking some soil into a ditch to smooth out his lawn, which was tidily mowed. "You're on the reservation now," he said, referring to the tribal land on Pleasant Point. Frank's lawn has an intimate view down a tidal creek, a tempting place to linger. But Frank has done a lot of going himself, from six years in the service, to 44 years at a chemical company in Massachusetts, and a lot of walking of his own along the way. He hiked Zion National Park from the back end, and trails all through Colorado's Rockies. "A lot of people move along so fast they don't know where they are," Frank told me. "I try to look around." His favorite place, one that has drawn him back six times, is the Grand Canyon. "I celebrated my 80th birthday there." He talked about camping on the open ground down in the canyon, "looking up at the stars turning." Frank has gout in his legs now, and his wandering days are winding down. He just gave away his three pairs of cross country skies. "It was either that or look at them all winter." So he talked more about another trip out to the desert, when the cacti burst into bloom one morning. "I got lucky," Frank said, his voice quieting at the memory. "I stood there and looked out at all that beauty." #travel #journalism #maine #instaessay #fuelwalk

A post shared by Tom Haines (@twhaines) on