The Power of One Writer
Back Yards, Ethiopia and Children's Books

Travel is fatal to prejudice: Mark Twain

Only when I travel do I tend to remember the role that clever, well-planned, well-designed infrastructure plays in getting us the things that matter most in shaping the good life: food, water, work, stories, and the like.

Traveling in Ethiopia often has the zing of adventure.  I’m thinking today of my brother and good friends who are there right now and (I think) soaking up the joys of an eco-lodge that got high marks from the Fulbright Hayes group of educators who stayed in Yirgalem last summer–after hard days on the road. Hard travel sometimes makes for a great landing.  And great stories.

 When I was a kid in Ethiopia, the road from the savannah up up up into the high and beautiful Maji mountains created breath-stopping adventure.  On one short stretch, my sisters and I would stand and let the wind blow our pony tails and scream, “Super highwaaaaaay.”  Other times, the Jeep crept so slowly that we could hop out the side and walk for a while.  Except for the most local travel, though, we moved place to place by plane.  One day someone pointed out that for many people in Ethiopia, the first glimpse of a wheel was one attached to an airplane.

Getting goods and services–including ideas and books–to the places where you want them to go requires a lot of planning.  A lot of asking hard-headed questions.  A lot of letting-go of assumptions and old rhythms.  Things are gained and things are lost as we shrink the world efficiently.  It’s easy to treat fellow human beings and animals as the pawns in the scheme…or as the things in the way.  Read the stories of the enormous push of transcontinental railroads, and you’ll know what I mean.

 My drive from the Midwest to the coast last week made me think about all of that.  Trains still snake across the prairies.  I listened, as we drove, to a radio report about how Chinese engineers may well be the ones to come in and design high speed rail systems–ironic, of course, given that Chinese workers laid so much of the rail we still see as we drive through the western states.

How the world turns.

The landscape of the drive had so many greens: Christmas tree green and lily pad green and garbage can green and the green of a lemon peel that hasn’t quite gotten the message that it should be bright yellow.  In places, the delicate gray-green or silver-green of cottonwood trees or sagebrush blends with rocks and grass of beige and tan, painting a paleness that stretches all the way to the horizon and smushes up against the…well…have you noticed the sky in these pictures?

In that vast, pale world, it’s startling to see the crayon-bold reds and blues and yellows of so many of the trucks that trundle along in the opposite lane.  Sometimes that lane seems scarily close.  Summer time, after all, provides the months when much road work gets done.

Each piece of the puzzle must be planned and laid down.  Each bit floats together with other bits to make a whole that sometimes makes us say, “Wait!  How did we get to this?”

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