Friday, January 6, 2012


One of the joys of living in sparsely populated northeast Missouri is the dearth of traffic. That's especially true at 4:30 am, which is when I aim to pull out of Rutledge to catch the early train to Chicago—departing Quincy IL promptly at 6:12 am every day.

I took that trip this morning, but the ride didn't turn out to be quite so mundane as I have become accustomed to finding it. There wasn't any more traffic than usual; there just wasn't as much fuel as usual either—and when the dashboard pinged to inform of us of that inconvenience it was too late to swap out cars. We needed diesel at 5 am and were not in a position to drive very far out of our way to hunt for it. Suddenly, things got a lot more exciting.

As we quickly decided to detour to Edina, the 15-minute cushion built into our schedule evaporated in a blink. Worse, we weren't sure we had enough fuel to reach Edina. As if that weren't challenge enough, we were also not sure the BP station would be open that early even if we made it that far.

While biting our nails, we quickly calculated our options for rerouting if we missed the Quincy train. We had the possibility of catching the eastbound Southwest Chief in La Plata MO, or the eastbound California Zephyr in Ottumwa IA, both of which were due in circa 10 am and would still get us comfortably to Chicago in time for our 9:30 pm departure on the Lake Shore Limited tonight.

(Amazingly, we have access to three daily trains to and from Chicago within a 60-mile radius. We almost always take the Quincy train because: a) it arrives earlier and can easily make all same-day connections with other trains; b) this train originates in Quincy and is thus almost never late, while the other two originate in California and have plenty of time to get into mischief en route; and c) it's half the price, due to subsidies from the state of Illinois.)

While changing trains wasn't our preference (it would take a gob more running around to make the connection and we'd pay an arm and a leg for last-minute tickets), it helped to know it wasn't Quincy or nothing.

Even after we glided into Edina on fumes and were lucky enough to have the station turn on its lights as we pulled in (we were their very first customer this morning), there was still a matter of hightailing it to Quincy in time. After refueling, we had exactly 68 minutes to cover 50 miles. It was going to be tight.

While it wasn't the most relaxing ride I can remember, Alline (our driver this morning) was up to the challenge and successfully eluded all wildlife and vehicles (including deer and highway patrol), and the train was blessedly still in the station as we skidded into the depot. After jumping out of the car, popping the trunk, and rushing aboard with our sundry baggage, we gratefully plopped into our seats and exhaled. The train pulled out two minutes later. Whew!

Tragedy of the Commons: Motorized Division

All the while we were doing this Keystone Kops routine, we were wondering why the car had so little fuel in it. At both Sandhill Farm and Dancing Rabbit we maintain a community-owned fleet of vehicles and the refueling norms are clear: Don't (as in never) return a car with less than a quarter tank of gas.

As you can easily imagine, it doesn't take many experiences like the one we had this morning to motivate folks to promulgate such a norm. The trick though, is getting people to follow it. When you're the only one using a vehicle, you're much more likely to be attuned to the fuel gauge. When you it's a vehicle you seldom use, you tend to be less diligent. If you're only going for a short ride, you may not even look at the fuel gauge at all.

Unfortunately, this kind of casualness translates into someone occasionally being caught short with few corrective options available. This morning, that someone was us.

While we dodged the bullet today, this story poignantly illuminates one of the challenges groups must face when resources are shared: how do you maintain the level of responsibility associated with sole ownership while at the same time enjoying the substantial economic leveraging of joint ownership. This is a work in progress.

• • •

Meanwhile, today is the start of a 23-day road trip, during which Ma'ikwe's and my wanderings will describe a giant circle (actually, it will look more like a basketball with one side stove in) around the eastern third of the US: Quincy IL to Chicago to Rochester NY to Gettysburg PA to Afton VA to Waynesboro TN to Fairhope AL, then back to the Windy City and home. Roughly 4500 miles all told. Who says you have to stay at home in the dead of winter?

We'll be doing a little of everything: visiting family, conducting a facilitation training, participating in FIC Oversight Committee meetings, and presenting a public award. It's a wardrobe challenge packing for both upstate NY and Mobile Bay in January, but we're tough (and so is Ma'ikwe's suitcase).

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