Why I Walked to Moscow, Idaho & Why it has Nothing to Do with My Carbon Footprint

The Pullman airport is six miles from the city of Moscow, Idaho, and it takes me just under two hours to walk it.  A taxicab running trips between the airport and town passes me five times, back and forth, and I use the time between our encounters to gauge how far from town I must still be.

The first time she sees me, the taxi driver pulls over.  Once she’s ascertained what I’m doing, where I’m headed, and that yes, I do know how far away it is and no, I really don’t mind the walk, she offers me a ride.

If you don’t have money I’ll do it for free, she says.  (She makes this offer both times she passes on my side of the road.)

When I politely decline, she says, “Walk safe, girl,” before she drives off.

I wonder if I should have taken the ride.

Between the airport and Moscow, there isn’t much in the way of vertical landmarks.  Corporate offices, under construction. A mini golf course, and across the street from it, an Evangelical church; it’s Tuesday afternoon, and the parking lot is full.  For the church, that is.  As near as I can tell, there is one family playing mini golf.  There is a trailer park, and a few houses.  Mostly, it’s land–rolling green hills I’d later learn were a form called palouse, separate from a dell or a hillock or any other term for grassy places you don’t tend to read in books published after a certain decade.

Of course, on returning home to write this I’d learn that this was entirely false, that the area as a whole was called The Palouse, for the Indians it once belonged to (and still does, depending on who you ask. I was in town for an academic conference and at the opening reception a tribal member opened the festivities with a Nez Perce song; the Association president acknowledged the University as a land grant institution, sitting on what was formerly Nez Perce land).

In fairness to the New Hampshire scholar who’d expressed his excitement about seeing palouse, Wikipedia suggests the spelling is derived from the French pelouse, “land with short and thick grass.”  So there’s that.

I don’t know what The Palouse looked like when the French-Canadians trekked through, but most of it now is agricultural land, and has been for some time.  I saw the designs from the DHC-8 I flew in on, rectangular Lego blocks of differing greens or Target Store polka dots in the same shades.  From above the shapes were so sharp and the colors so uniform you’d think they’d been drawn–and drawn lazily.  It hadn’t looked real.

Not that I was particularly looking for truth on the ground.  Mostly, I’d just wanted to walk away from an airport for the sheer novelty of it.  How many chances do you get to do that?

So even though I was attending the biennial Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment conference, walking into town didn’t have anything to do with reducing my carbon footprint.  I mean, I’d just disembarked an airplane.  A small plane, but the one I’d taken from the Silicon Valley to Seattle had been large; and the one I’d taken from South Africa all the way to San Francisco only two weeks before had been larger still.  After over 3000 miles in the air, it’s not like my carbon footprint was going to thank me for the six I wasn’t driving.

At the conference, people talked a lot about our own individual carbon footprints, and our consumptive behaviors, and our guilt at casting shadows (or footprints, as it were), and how we ought to deal, or help our children deal, with the bleak and dispiriting threat of climate change; and yes, even the limitations of all of these foci.  Environmentalism comes in many stripes, ideologies, and degrees of radicalism, and I saw a healthy cross-section of that in Moscow that week.

But honestly, I’m not that concerned about my carbon footprint, though I recycle and I don’t waste food and I’m usually not wasteful with my energy.  (During Dark Sky Week this year, I didn’t use lights in my house.  I’ve spent two of Michigan’s coldest winters completely without heat.  My preferred form of transportation is walking.)  I don’t spend a lot of time facing down the hopelessness of the fight against climate change, though.  I don’t fuss over environmental apocalypse, and I tend not to find literary dystopias unsettlingly close to home–as I heard one described, that week in Moscow, Idaho.

Because we’re on a truth kick, I should add that my favorite television show is a road narrative–a genre which, in her monograph Living Oil, Stephanie LeMenager enlists as one of the driving factors in developing the oil-imbricated, problematic environmentalism the United States is still trying to shuck.  To boot, this TV show takes place in a car that’s older than the Clean Air Act itself–that is, the Act which established the US’s auto emissions standards.  In a similar vein, my favorite movie franchise has spent the last 15 years making movies about fast and furious cars that didn’t meet those emissions standards in 1999 and certainly don’t now.

I prefer most National Forests to National Parks because they offer unwritten leeway in terms of what parts of them are open to human access; to rock-scrambling, bush-tromping, and erosion.

I also eat cheap meat and inorganic produce, and not because I can’t afford the “better” stuff. I’m a grad student and my income reflects that–but I also don’t have kids, and I have health insurance, and live in an accessible area, so grass-fed locally-sourced farm-to-table beef isn’t necessarily out of reach. I buy the factory-farm, mass produced stuff anyway, because I can’t ignore a sale deal and because I like to get on planes and cross vast distances on hundreds of gallons of fuel, and I also hope, one day, to own a car of my own (albeit one that passes emissions standards and doesn’t 1) explode, or 2) launch Vin Diesel into the air).

This is my reality as a person, and as an environmentalist; as someone who prefers the forest to the Strip, the ocean to the swimming pool, and Moscow, Idaho to NYC.  I still love the ”bad” stuff.

Now, I don’t want to misrepresent ASLE, though it did give me lentils when I registered and there were an awful lot of bearded, lumberjack academics on the prowl.  Within environmental discourse there’s a lot of nuanced talk going on about allegedly “environmental” and “non-environmental” objects, behaviors, and beliefs.  I am not the black sheep among a uniform throng of back-to-the-landers.  There’s a lot more to this community than that.  And what I’m about to say speaks to throughlines already extant in the discourse.  Tim Morton’s description of ecology as “urban”–and inclusive of cities as well as forests.  The understanding that “pristine nature” is a human construct, religiously infused and binary in ways that suggest humanity is, indeed, not nature.  I’ll spare you the rest.

I just walked six miles down a one-lane highway and into Moscow, Idaho because I wanted to see what it was like. Compare what I saw to what I’d seen up in the clouds, from my little Bombadier–not to privilege my walking view over my aerial view, but to join them into one. I wanted to know the place as it was, which comes part from learning its history, and (being told to worry about) its future; and part from agreeing to converse with its present.

Is it hot in Moscow? (Yes.)

Is it allergy season? (Definitely yes.)

Is it a hard walk? (No. It’s dusty and the asphalt is hard, unforgiving on the joints, but the road is flat–notably unlike the hills around it.)

Is entering Moscow elegant? (It’s a strip mall and then a gas station, and then a McDonald’s staffed by kindly teenagers who smile at you extra wide if you look like you’ve just dragged your pack from all the way from South Africa to Moscow, Idaho, and give you extra barbecue sauce with your order.)

Later on in the week, I’d get on a bus and tour Nez Perce reservation land with a large group of other scholars, some of whom were surprised we were on a bus and not hiking, and others who wouldn’t have settled for anything less than a luxury touring bus with A/C and window shades.  It wasn’t entirely pleasant, because I don’t do well with the dissonance that comes from being cold in a bus when you know for a fact it’s really a hundred degrees–on Earth, and not in a bus-shaped bubble of outer space.  For me, accepting how hot it is is part of knowing a place, even if it sucks balls.

Still, I loved the highways as much as the grass, the construction and the quarries and the gas stations and the casino and every other glaring imprint of human life on The Palouse.  Because this is the place as it is.

Maybe the sheer passivity of my politics is showing; and maybe that passivity is irresponsible. I don’t believe our current trajectory toward environmental collapse is inevitable, and I don’t believe that technology alone will save us.  I don’t believe aggressive environmentalism is pointless.  But I also don’t believe a metal trash can mars a picture of a mountain, or that we should be Photoshopping telephone lines out of sweeping vista shots.  These things are part of place as well.  And as an environmentalist, I get “all environmental” about these things, too.

Of course, I’ve gone with my mother to remove invasive bullfrogs from vernal pools, and I pick up trash where it doesn’t belong, and yes, I wonder about fracking, and arctic drilling, and deforestation.  The world is full of hypocrisies and contradictions, and I am no different.

When I visit a place, I make a map of it in my head–not a cartographic one, but a personality map.  Like the small mental notes to take when you’re trying to figure out who a person is; and you’re not interested in judging them, or deciding what about them you like, what you don’t, what you think they’ll be up to in ten years or what you wish hadn’t happened to them.  When you just want to know who they are.  If they have scars or freckles or rashes or piercings or tattoos or boils or stitches or makeup or bikini waxes or threaded brows or hairy pits or stretch marks or bruises or train tracks or monocrops or clear-cuts or landfills or restoration areas or reintroduced species or fire or drought, I don’t think about which of these things they should or should not have, which of these things should or should not have happened. Certainly, there are things that should not happen–to people, to places.  But they do, and whatever else we can and will do to fight that, and maybe someday right that, in the meantime a place is a place.  And it will live its life, scars and all, somewhere between this or that idea of its past, and this or not conception of its future.  Whether I need to to X or change Y or support this place by making sure Z doesn’t happen is secondary.

I walked The Palouse because I wanted to get to know it–to be a part of its right here, right now.  And for the time being, that’s all.

You wear your humanity well, Palouse.


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