Death and the Minutemen in The Badlands

Esteban Writes from Somewhere

The flat plains of South Dakota suddenly descend into the Missouri river and after crossing it the horizon changes dramatically until it breaks into the Badlands. “They should actually be called ‘the pretty-cool-lands,’” I tell Autumn, who rolls her eyes at me. “You missed the opportunity to call them Badass-lands,” she responds, walking away in search of a quieter place to see them. Damn, she’s right as usual.  
The Bad-ass-lands aggressive landscape consists of silver formations that cut through the green and blue horizon with the fury of a punk song. From their trails I feel like I’m a particle zoomed into the crevices of an old elephant’s skin.
The hills at the badlands hold the secret to earth’s millions of years of existence. There are yellow, silver, red, and white lines in these mounds, all geological layers lining up from mound to mound confirming earth’s age like the rings of a tree. The presence and absence of water and its lifeforms fossilized forever into strips.
Despite their testimony of unfathomable past times the Badlands also present signs of fragility: when standing among them you can see their cracks and the sediments they shed with each rainfall as a testimony of their disintegration. It’s a pretty little exercise, to compare your own brief existence as a fragment of a second in the life of these rocks. If those geological formations were shown in a fast forwarded video we would see the water flowing and draining and flowing again, the mountains rising and deflating like pimples, and somewhere in the middle I could try to press the “pause” button to see the moment we all stood among them with our mouths open, but probably couldn’t find us as those VHS remote control wheels are really tricky to operate.
We should try to be okay with being minuscule and accept our existence as a blink among mountains. A speck of dust in the next layer. Knowing that I will die is terrifying, but paradoxically there’s a sense of relief in the certainty of those mountain layers, their ability to continue with their million-old formations, and the new creatures that will roam them long after we’re all gone. And that’s how I would’ve liked to feel when I visited.
Here’s the tricky part: Latest reports on global warming assure that our collective irresponsibility will cause irreversible damage to the prairies around this place and these layers. Autumn shares a report from the Audubon society, which claims that in 30 years the ecosystem of the place will irreversibly change. “My nieces and nephews won’t be able to experience this,” She tells me while looking out a viewpoint. In a hundred years or so of industrial progress we have managed to scorch the earth to the point where even the testimony of its existence is in peril. This is one of the worst things we’ve done, almost as bad as adding artificial flavors to coffee. Layers of millions of years of water and fossilized life that will collapse in the geological equivalent of a nano-second because of our irresponsibility? Now that’s what I call truly terrifying death.

A couple of miles down the road, away from the silver edges and in the flat nothingness of the prairie lies the Minuteman museum. During the height of the Cold War the US established several nuclear sites with atomic rockets capable of destroying the entire planet in less than 30 minutes. Russia had a similar arsenal, of course. To me, the idea of mutually assured destruction was not only shocking in its ability to obliterate all life, but in the fact that the decision to end it all was (is) in the hands of a couple of human beings sitting next to a telephone and a couple of buttons.  
The site tells stories of how close we got a couple of times to complete annihilation if it weren’t for some operators in submarines who refused to follow orders when correctly guessing their radars may be wrong. I would love to meet the man who made the mistake to play a rehearsal tape in a real control room and almost started Armageddon. “Whoopsie!” He probably said to the disapproving grin of his commanding officer. “You little rascal, you!” he must have reprimanded, with his fists in his waist.
Anyway, these Domino’s pizza guns –ready to be launched in 30 minutes or less and really, really bad, –were called the minutemen. This was also the name given to a civilian militia group that was ready to kill and die in any given moment during the US revolution.
In 1980 two young kids from California, D. Boon and Mike Watt, chose the same name for a punk band that wrote fast, eclectic songs that lasted a minute or so. They seemed set on the idea of destroying the structure of the music business and to tour and perform as organically as possible. The human connection between these two kids and their ability to share their youthful and honest despair makes their music very endearing. While touring in Arizona, D. Boon laid in the back seat to rest from a headache. When the car axle suddenly broke he was thrown off the back window and died instantly. He was 27 years old.
The call to action and possible death of the 19th century revolutionary Minutemen happened with little warning, but the idea and accomplishment of independence carried on as a testimony of their existence. Boon’s life ended in a flash, but the music of the Minutemen carries on as a testimony of his existence. In the badlands, prehistoric water creatures have been extinct for millions of years, but their fossils carry on as testimonies of their existence. It’s a bit scary, just a bit, to think that we’re very possibly approaching an era when death and destruction will have no follow-up, no testimonies.
The US government still has the ability to literally blow away the earth into pieces. Every form of life, every mountain, every punk song ever recorded, every single layer of the badlands, could be gone in an instant. On the upside, this is the only way you’ll ever get the cinnamon flavor out of your grandma’s coffee maker. It’s strange to know, as we learn in this place, that there are federal employees right now whose entire job is to go into an underground control center and sit for hours, waiting to see if today is the day their phone will ring and the day their fingers will push the last buttons on Earth. What a job. Not only it must be hard to balance their stillness with the significance of their jobs, but also I bet the wifi sucks down there.

Similar to the trash we produce daily, all these bombs we humans have built can’t truly be disposed of. They exist now and will continue to exist, their overwhelming power sitting inside a secret bunker like a very scary version of Chekhov’s gun. As our environmental impact produces economic uncertainty, massive migration, and unprecedented famine and despair, will the world tension rise up enough for these handful of employees to get a call and push some buttons? Or will we agonize a bit slower, letting the planet disintegrate by the buttons we are all collectively pushing –the actions of us all, who can’t or won’t take immediate action to repair the damage we’ve created?
Whichever happens, two things are certain: one, the geological VHS video that shows the history of the planet will end abruptly regardless, as in geological times the difference between instant nuclear annihilation and the accelerated consequences of global warming is minimal, and two, nothing will remain as the testimony of the existence of life, except perhaps for a bit of artificial hazelnut flavor in an old coffee maker.

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Esteban Writes from the Mackinac Bridge

Esteban Writes from Somewhere

Last week felt like our trip had not officially started, as we were been waiting for our final piece of equipment to arrive.  Which means we were going around in circles around West Michigan, waiting for it to arrive. It’s a solar panel! And we think it has enough wattage to give us sustainable power through several days of off-the-grid camping. Our trip is in a big part motivated by sustainability, so we’re excited to use it. 
While waiting, we decided to spend the weekend at Silver Lake Dunes, as my father-in-law has a cottage there. Most of Autumn’s family came, including Felton, my brother-in-law’s dog, who baptized the place by running out of the car, right into the central part of the living room, and taking a shit in front of everyone. Yeah, Felton is a… special dog.
On saturday we left our camper there and drove back to Muskegon, to meet with two of our closest friends, Beth & David, who were on their way back to Wisconsin via Lake Michigan ferry. We had dinner at a place that had an “award winning” soup. Just like that, in quotation marks. The soup was basically liquified cheddar, and it was “good.” We then walked through Pere Marquette park, a beautiful beach on the lake. We hadn’t seen each other in a while but it was as if no days had pass. I’ve grown to love them in a special way, as their relationship, their curiosity, and their itinerant life reminds me of ourselves.
“Special things happen when we’re together,” I say as we watch the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen. What a cliché, to feel emotional over a sunset, but what can I tell you, it was a pretty good one. Now I’m convinced I’m not the kind of person that would cry over a sunset, and I didn’t. But I could have if I would’ve allowed it.
We head back to Silver lake, and on Sunday we walked in the dunes. Several sand dunes surround Lake Michigan and Silver lake, and it’s such a powerful landscape. While walking there I told my niece Hannah, queen of the eye-roll, about the Star Wars composer who came to Silver Lake, and it was here where he felt inspired to write the Darth Vader theme song.
She knew it was a set up so she just looked at me, already annoyed.
“Yeah, apparently he pointed at the landscape and went ‘dune, dune, dune, dune-dune-dune, dune-dune-dune!'”
Both Autumn and her were not impressed with my ¨award winning” comedy.

Then we headed out to Manistee National Forest, and arrived at Condon lake, a small camping site where we camped for free. And this was a big part of our plan: to live in shared land they belongs to you, me, and Woody Guthrie. That night I finally reorganized the car while Aut prepared dinner. When she called me in we set a table with spaghetti, a side salad, and wine, and that tiny table in the middle of the silence of an isolated forest was suddenly home. That dinner was more powerful than a sunset, apparently, because I cried.  

Not everything is overwhelming beauty. A couple days later we slept in the parking lot of Camping World, an RV store by the side of an intersection in a town called Houghton Lake. Instead of birds chirping we were woken up by a delivery truck backing up right next to us at 7 am. That morning, in the store lounge, we had a conversation with an older couple from Alabama, who after a friendly introductory chat asked me if I was illegal. She made some pretty strong comments about immigration. My first instinct was to respond aggressively, and show how upset I was. But this woman was legitimately curious about my opinion so I calmly expressed the importance of immigration, and when she talked about assimilation and people speaking English I talked about the multicultural background of the people that have been living there long before the United States was founded. “That’s a good perspective” she said, and while I doubt 15 minutes of conversation in the lounge of Camping World of Houghton Lake was enough to make her go back to Alabama to let all friends and family know how mistaken they are, I felt proud to have had a conversation that may have helped someone understand a new point of view. Whenever I think of people like her, hardcore conservatives with deep held beliefs against immigration, I try to remember that for the most part there’s no ill will in them. The majority of them are not intrinsically hateful. We just live in different realities, and the moral convictions that were imposed onto her are different than the ones that were imposed on me. Their isolation from urban areas with more immigration limits their understanding of other spaces, and it’s good to have opportunities to share experiences with others. Reaching out to the other side with empathy and compassion is the only way to build a healthy society. Hard to do it though, as sometimes with those comments my mind just wants to go to the dark side (queue the Darth Vader dune song).

We then spent two days in Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes National Forest, where the weather was rainy. Which meant spending a lot of time together in our little house. We made it work by pretending we live in a normally sized apartment, so when I needed something I would yell to the other side of the house. We had an awesome hike through the woods that lead to a dramatic view of lake Michigan. Aut saw a really cool bird and got so excited she hurt my arm.
Yesterday we had dinner at Petoskey, an artsy, touristy little town, where we splurged with dinner, a brewery visit, and incredible gelato. And then slept in another parking lot, this time in a casino.
We have crossed the Mackinaw bridge today, so we’re officially in Michigan’s UP! Next week we’re taking a break while I fly to San Francisco for 5 days, because I got a couple of gigs with a company called “Comedy Central”? Never heard of it. I should be writing for these gigs, but haven’t had much time. My mind is focused on this trip!

Up next:
Saint Ignace
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Marquette, MI
And San Francisco!

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If you want, reply to the letter and let me know if you have questions, comments, or insults. Thanks for reading this. Love you all!


Esteban Writes from Central Michigan

Esteban Writes from Somewhere

Hey, welcome to my newsletter! Thanks for trusting me with your email address. Expect updates from places I’m visiting, profiles of people I’ll meet on the road, and lots of lots of spam, as I’ll be selling your personal information to the highest bidder.
Last weekend we had to fit everything we decided to keep in a Toyota Highlander, which was not an easy task. So I would like to take a moment to thank the people that stopped at our garage sale, the St. Vinnies thrift shop for being located so close to our house, and my younger self for all those years of Tetris. I don’t know if there’s something deep in our primal instincts but packing that car made me feel like the monkey that throws the bone at the end of the first act of 2001:A Space Odyssey (except the bone was packed under the seat along with the toolbox).
We left Madison on Sunday, after paying tribute to the city that saw us change so much. I performed at the club that weekend, so they put us in a hotel for our last day. We suddenly turned into tourists, walking down State St., standing at the center of the Capitol and looking up, eating some spicy cheese bread… It helped us assimilate we were leaving, which still feels surreal. We drove out crying like babies, listening to a playlist methodically engineered to squeeze every teardrop possible. Songs included “Two of Us” by the Beatles, “This will be Our Year” by the Zombies, and “It’s Time to Move On” by Tom Petty.
We’re currently near Lansing, MI. If you don’t know where that is, ask someone from Michigan. They’ll pull their palm up, near your face, and point at the exact location, showing you precisely how annoying they can be. I’m among those people right now! My family in law live here, and we’ve come to drop our stuff and get last minute arrangements done in order to hit the road. Love them all. We’re having some family time before we head out. So so far our journey has felt like a family visit.
However we are getting things done and getting ready! We’ve already had some unexpected stuff happening: 400 miles of uneventful travel only to get to our storage site, try to open our camper, and breaking the key inside the lock. If you’re ever in the area, hit up Ionia Lock and Key, and ask for John. He’s a sweet, lanky, redheaded man who came from the pastoral highlands of Scotland to live in rural Central Michigan because he fell in love with this place. Yeah, I don’t get it either.
But we have already visited some interesting places! Yesterday for example we started our trip right by visiting the breathtaking wilderness of a DMV. A lush place filled with untamed noises, with some menacing creatures that came too close to us even though you’re not supposed to feed them. Just what we signed up for: a place to sit and do nothing for hours.
Coming up:
A weekend in Silver Lake Sand Dunes
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
A drive back to pick up a solar panel
And finally I need to fly to San Francisco at the end of the month to perform there for Comedy Central (!). I’ll be performing at a comedy festival called Clusterfest, and I’ll appear on a Comedy Central TV show. Yeah someone there screwed up so I get to go.

I feel there’s more I should be sharing but right now I’m at my brother in law’s and we just bought a dozen donuts so I have priorities. Also, wow, really impressed you made it this far.

Thanks again for taking a moment to go through your spam folder and reading this. Love you all.