Saturday, September 14, 2013

Unpacking the Dynamics of a Packed Car

I'm about halfway through a five-week road trip that has me on the East Coast until October. When I pulled out of Missouri at first light Aug 28, it was still full summer, with the hot weather getting old and the hot peppers just starting to roll in. When I finally make it back to Sandhill's driveway (34 days and 3400 miles later) it will be in the final minutes of September, the foliage will be assuming its fall mantle, and the sorghum harvest will be well underway.

I've been a road warrior for decades and long-distance drives across time zones is nothing new for me. Conscious of the non-renewable nature of the gasoline that powers our vehicle fleet, I try to take the train whenever I can, and try to fill the car with passengers and products when I can't—to make the consumption of gasoline as righteous as possible.

In this blog I want to explore the uneasy intersection between energy efficiency and sustainable relationships, of which my current trip has been an illuminating example.

Anywhere from three to six times a year, I attend community-related events as a speaker, workshop presenter, and/or general resource about community living. (For more on my fall calendar, see An Eventful Time of Year, my blog of Aug 23.) Where possible I look for opportunities to represent Community Bookshelf, FIC's bookselling arm. If it can make suitable arrangements with event organizers and it makes sense otherwise, then I pack a Sandhill car with boxes of books and drive to the event (in lieu of taking the choo choo).

Such was the case for my current trip, which is bookended by the Twin Oaks Communities Conference on the front end (Aug 30-Sept 2), and by a northeast regional cohousing summit in Cambridge MA on the back end (Sept 28). In between I have the following itinerary (skipping the social parts):

o  Sept 2-4        FIC fall organizational meetings (Louisa VA)
o  Sept 5-8        Weekend III of a NC-based facilitation training (Floyd VA)
o  Sept 14-15    Ecovillage Network of Canada meetings (Caledon ON)
o  Sept 16-17    Meet with Tamarack Institute (Waterloo ON)
o  Sept 22         Consult with Mosaic Commons (Berlin MA)
o  Sept 23-24    Conduct trainings for a forming cohousing group (greater Boston area)

Thus, on this particular junket, I'll be able to rep Bookshelf not once, but twice (for which I'll surely get extra credit in the Akashic Records, Sustainability Division). Once having set up the trip and reserved the vehicle, I made it known that others could travel with me on a  space available basis. Then the fun began...

My trip essentially divides into four segments:
Leg 1: Missouri to Virginia
Leg 2: Virginia to Rochester NY
Leg 3: Rochester to Boston
Leg 4: Boston to Missouri

Here are the logistical considerations that I tried to balance:

—While Ma'ikwe was attending the same three functions as me on the front end of the trip, and she had the inside track on reserving space in the car, she doesn't do well on long-distance drives (because of chronic Lyme disease) and she opted to travel to Virginia by train instead—avoiding the 900 miles of Leg 1.

Despite that, she reserved car space for her and Jibran (her 16-year-old son) for Leg 2, a distance of 900 kilometers. To be sure, kilometers are less than miles, though only by two-thirds. It can be a fine line.

—My pattern for long distance car trips is that I take whatever Sandhill vehicle is the least popular one at home. Often this means a car without air conditioning, and that can make a significant difference to passenger comfort when negotiating the long, hot days of late summer. Ma'ikwe had recently challenged me about that, and thus I made sure to secure a car with air conditioning, giving up some carrying capacity to do so. (Let's face it. I'm trying hard to re-establish an intimate relationship with my wife, and there's no way I'm going to emphasize payload over her comfort.)

—Alyson Ewald is an FIC Board member who also lives in Rutledge MO, at Red Earth Farms. She wanted a ride east for Leg 1 and I was happy to oblige. To sweeten the pot she asked for—and got—permission for her partner, Mark, and their five-year-old daughter, Cole, to join the party. While Alyson was attending the Twin Oaks Conference and the subsequent FIC organizational meetings, Mark & Cole would visit Mark's father in Virginia. 

Alyson lobbied for taking the Sandhill vehicle back home (so that their travel would be subsidized both ways), but I told her that wouldn't work. I needed to keep the books on the East Coast for the cohousing summit at the end of September. While disappointed, she understood.

—I had also been approached by a person visiting northeast Missouri who was a member of Twin Oaks on a personal affairs leave. He wanted a ride back East also, but I turned him down for lack of room (excepting that I was willing to ferry a knapsack of his to VA).

 —FIC has recently hired a Business Manager, which is a role we had not had previously. In pursuit of his mandate to boost sales, he asked that extra copies of our books and magazines be shipped East for the events. The problem was where to put all that stuff in the car. When I reported the space limitations, the order was adjusted downward but we I still schlepped a few boxes more than we usually take to events.

—At the outset of Leg 1, we had to squeeze everything in the car to the point where the front seat passenger had a guitar case riding on their legs the whole time.

—All the space liberated by selling the equivalent of four boxes of books at the Twin Oaks conference was eaten up by the need to back haul surplus products that had accumulated at our Virginia Office and needed to be transported to our Missouri Office. That meant that Ma'ikwe and Jibran were just as sardined into the car for Leg 2 as Alyson, Mark, and Cole had been for Leg 1. Ufda.

• • •
So far (the trip is only half over), I've manged to disappoint everyone. The Business Manager was hoping that more product could have been delivered to the events. All of my passengers were hoping for more spaciousness (less crowding) for their rides. The guy on leave from Twin Oaks didn't get a ride at all (only his rucksack did). And our Virginia Office was hoping that I'd be able to take some boxes of Communities Directory back home, for which there was no room at all.

In this context I was tense when loading the car for Leg 2 (knowing that Ma'ikwe, Jibran, and I would be traveling in a packed car all day, and already weary of people being disappointed by how I was balancing the requests made about the vehicle's use). Ma'ikwe & Jibran graciously tried to offer suggestions to aid in the packing and I turned them down brusquely, which behavior Ma'ikwe properly labeled as unhelpful when we processed the exchange the next day.

She was right—both in the observation and in making the choice to point it out. While it wasn't awful, and we all got in a better mood once we were underway (for 11 fun-filled hours together in a jam-packed car), I could have made better choices about how the day started.

Now four days removed from that experience, I'm wondering what I've learned. I still want to help people out, and I still want to get the most out of burning gasoline when I make long-distance trips. How will it feel to turn down requests for a ride so that more product can be shipped? How will it feel to ship less product so that passengers will be more comfortable? I'm not sure. At the very least, I can involve other affected parties earlier in the process, so they can make more informed decisions about what to ask for and what to expect.

Upon reflection, it occurs to me that it's a good thing I didn't move to community to avoid facing hard choices.

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