July 7, 2018: Thinking About Walter Benjamin in the State Park or Don’t Go back to Garberville


I’m guessing most folks are familiar with Larry McMurtry if only because they know The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove, or Terms of Endearment, all of which were made into films, but very few people have read Reading Walter Benjamin in the Dairy Queen, his book about doing exactly that, the Dairy Queen being in East Texas. I know Dr. Jun Liu, esteemed professor and all around excellent man, at least tried to read it because I foisted it on him after I read it. I suspect some readers may say “Walter who?” in which case, the Google may be helpful. I am tempted to go off on my riff about Benjamin—I believe one’s level of pretension might be measured by the pronunciation of his name, from Ben-ja-min like the common name to a guttural Ben-ha-meen—but this is not the place for that discussion.

I bring Benjamin up because he wrote a very famous essay entitled “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that I often think of on trips. This is a little complicated and likely annoying, so you are welcome to skip ahead to the bus updates. Anyway, Benjamin argues, among other things, that art’s aura is lost in being mechanically reproduced, but I have always thought of it as being related to our desire to capture experience. How many among us have watched parents filming or photographing a child’s birthday party to such excess that they miss the entire event? And this tendency has obviously worsened as our technological prowess has advanced. One of the first big lessons I learned and recorded in a Trip Book was that you cannot capture the important moments. Hiking near San Simeon, we once came upon a stag perfectly silhouetted in the marsh. It was a breathtaking sight, as close as the elk we saw yesterday and this morning, but when we fumbled with the camera, the stag bolted and we got a picture of some waving grass.

Upon re-reading this, I realized that my connection to Benjamin here is pretty intellectually flabby, so I feel I should clarify but with the caveat that I do not have the essay in front of me right now. In my memory, Benjamin argues that mechanical reproduction harms the aura of art, an almost ineffable thing, but tied to the means of production, or the human connection. I would argue that our obsession with documentation—and yes, MLA obsessives, I am specifically including you—harms out ability to experience the present, the real, the part that is connected to an actual human. In other words, it harms the aura of reality, may alter it, and at the very least acts as a filter through which we see, but which does not necessarily reflect reality as we have known it for hundreds of years. Case in point: Twitter. However, I fear I am becoming a bit of a scold in reference to technology, so I promise more geology, less technology.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that as we travel on the actual trip as opposed to waiting for the bus, I need to enjoy the trip and be here, not worrying about writing or photos. That said, I am committed to continuing this blog if only because I enjoy it, but we are also encountering technical difficulties. Wildberries Market in Arcata has long been a stopping point because we always make a point of visiting local co-ops and natural food stores to stock up and enjoy the vibe, which reminds me of my childhood in Ashland, but their free wireless is very slow, and I don’t want to sacrifice hours of waiting for a picture to upload when I could be making more memories and taking more pictures.

I fear some among you would remind me that a smart phone would solve some of this, but that is simply not my way. When I make my mobiles (I call them memory catchers) on the trip, I use a hand driven drill. I do not want to be tempted by the smart phone if only because now that I have left the home computer and gone on news blackout, I realize how addicted I am (sidebar: some news filters through: Scott Pruitt should have resigned before this). None of this will surprise anyone who knows me, and while I realize it vexes folks, I am stalwart in my rejection of smart phones, cameras at my door, and anything like Alexa.


Today started misty north of Humboldt and ends warm in Richardson Grove, on our way to Mendocino. Here are the salient lessons from today:

  1. The bus goes up hill much more easily if the parking brake is not on.
  2. Hardware stores are great, and Arcata has a nice one.
  3. Don’t stop in Garberville. Just don’t.

We worked this evening on re-organizing the bus, and Robert got the door cabinet attached because he is an awesome man who is smart (it was a tricky one) and he is handy with a screwdriver. I keep thinking about how Steinbeck described outfitting Rocinante for his trip, and that is what we are doing here on the road. Robert continues to talk to the Bus, including apologies for the brake issue, and today we hit 55! Our count of other busses/Westfalias sits at 19. I might also point out that we generally see them as they are passing us.

People continue to be entranced by the bus, waving, stopping by our campsite to chat, and smiling at us. The only time I remember feeling like this before was on our honeymoon when we covered similar ground. Our car was painted with “Just Married” slogans, and just seeing it seemed to bring people pleasure. Now we have met a retired forester from Mississippi who was so excited to see the redwoods and concerned that the younger generation might not care about them, and a charming camp hot who wanted to know just what exactly the bus was. “I’ve seen them, but never one like that,” he said. Robert also met quite a few hippies outside the store in Arcata. “Man, is that a 66?” one asked. “I used to have one of those.” I suspect this will continue as we head down the coast.


As for the bus, he is running fine, really settling into the trip. We were rolling across the coastal marshes outside of Arcata today, and I could smell both the swamp of low tide and the high sweet meadow notes of summer in Northern California. “I love this bus!” Robert yelled again over the wind, and I just smiled, seeing myself in the side view mirror. Everything feels both familiar and new all at the same time, and it is hard to go to sleep because we are so excited. This is what we hoped it would be, finally, and we need to make sure to be present and to enjoy it. Finally, I started with Walter Benjamin, and would like to end with him, but of course without the essay I will likely butcher this. Benjamin discusses freedom, and warns folks against those who promise you freedom, something that has always resonated with me. But then again, isn’t freedom just another word for nothing left to lose?


About the campground Richardson Grove

We haven’t had time to explore all the loops due to bus fixing projects, but this site—8 in Huckleberry is too slanted for the bus and too near the road. I think some of the sites are likely awesome, and I know there is Eel river access, so it is worth checking out.

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