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Update: The Middle of the First Week

Posted on Saturday, May 20, 2006 at 09:40AM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in | Comments2 Comments

I seem to be stuck in Creston, Iowa, for a few days.

One nice thing about being thus halted is that it gives me time to catch up on reporting to this blog site. The fact that I cannot make progress on my walk for a while is much harder on me, though —

Let me take up where I left off last weekend.

My hostess in Glenwood, Iowa, the second night out, and her friend, were both deeply concerned about my blisters, and in the morning, as I was still very footsore, I took my hostess up on her offer to drive me part of my third day’s distance, so that my feet might have an easy day and a chance to rest and recover. She took me fourteen miles, to the place where my route departed from the main highway and followed a side road into the town where I planned to spend the night.

It was a gorgeous morning on a quiet back road at the height of an Iowa spring. Eat your heart out, reader: you should have been there. All too soon I’d reached my destination: the town of Emerson, which was maybe a hundred old houses, with a small factory of some sort tucked out of sight, the inevitable railroad tracks, and one old fashioned country restaurant next to the post office. The restaurant offered the sort of old fashioned country fare that I, a vegetarian, mostly couldn’t eat.

I ordered a couple of the items that I could eat. The townspeople in the restaurant said hello and returned to their private conversations. I idled an hour, paid my tab, and walked back outdoors into a darkening sky and a rising wind. A cold front blowing in! Up an embankment I went, onto an overpass over the railroad tracks, and down half a mile on the other side to the tiny park (sans amenities) that was my intended campsite. The wind stiffened and grew colder; I put on all the cold-weather gear I had, napped a bit on a park bench, woke, shivered, and checked the time. 2:30 in the afternoon. It looked to be a long, slow, cold evening. I didn’t fancy spending it huddled in my tent for warmth. Nor did I fancy dinner at the restaurant.

Well, did I have a choice? I checked the map: ten miles to a much larger town, Red Oak, that would probably have a real motel —

I set out walking. Yes, this meant I’d be walking fourteen miles that day — but of course, the walk on the following day would be that much shorter —

The sun came out and disappeared again. Two cloudbursts gathered up blowing topsoil from the sky and deposited it in frigid coffee-colored drops on my pack and eyeglasses.

The one motel in Red Oak had just three vacant rooms left when I hobbled in. There’d have been no place else to stay anywhere near the town! I took one of the rooms gratefully, and dined, vegetarian, at the Pizza Hut next door.

From Red Oak to Stanton the next day was now just six and a half miles. I set out late, on rested and improved feet. The cold front had brought blessedly cool air and steady wind; I could not have asked for more.

A Friend in Des Moines had found a peace activist in southwest Iowa, not a Quaker, who had a network of good friends willing to give me lodging for a few nights at this stage of the trip. Stanton, a very Swedish-American little settlement (“home of the world’s largest Swedish coffeepot!”) was where this little network kicked in. A rather courtly gentleman picked me up at the town convenience store and gave me a driving tour of the town and a walking tour of the very impressive Swedish-American museum he was director of, and then took me to a farm couple’s house, where half a dozen dinner guests had gathered to see the Quaker environmentalist who was walking across the country.

Both the farm couple, who were my host and hostess for the night, and I myself, had been led to believe that these dinner guests would grill me fairly intently about what I was doing. It didn’t happen that way. They asked a half dozen basic questions and then spent the evening discussing their own lives with each other. This was fine with me, since my leading on this trip is less to speak than to listen. My host, who arrived late in the evening after his work let off, was much more interested in talking with me at length personally, and told me of his farming and his work for UPS, and about the local community and what it was doing. We talked of new farming methods coming into use.

Onward the next day across the Nodaway river drainage (one long green rolling ridge after another) to a highway turnoff near Brooks, where the aforementioned peace activist’s brother picked me up and took me down to guest at his house near Villisca.

On the way we looked at a new ethanol plant going in at Brooks. Brooks is another of rural America’s endless supply of fast-dying little towns: thriving a quarter century ago, but only a few houses left now, and those not in good condition. It’s yet another victim of federal economic policies that bleed the rural populace for the enrichment of agribusiness. The ethanol plant going in there is much larger than it is, consuming at least a couple hundred acres. Corn stubble here will be converted to auto fuel. My host told me there’s big money involved: “Bill Gates is one of the investors.”

I raised a concern: “Long ago I interviewed Barry Commoner, and he told me that the American farmer needs 10 calories of input energy, mostly fossil fuel, to produce 1 calorie of corn. I know that for ethanol we use the corn stubble, which is bound to improve efficiency; but how much of a gain is there in using fossil fuel to grow corn for ethanol?”

“There’s very little gain,” said my host. “It’s nearly a break-even proposition. But there are government subsidies.”

“So these are really tax farmers,” I guessed, “like the out-of-staters who buy Iowa farms and exploit them for the tax advantages.”

My host did not disagree. He was obviously uneasy with what we were looking at.

I would ask those of my readers who are ethanol enthusiasts: is this a realistic description? And if it is, why deprive the land of the corn stubble, which at least somewhat rebuilds the soil, for the sake of such a small gain?

On the way from the ethanol plant to his Villisca residence, and again after a dinner at his house, he drove me around the region, showing me what was being done with the land in various hands. He took a keen interest in new and innovative uses, in land being set aside for undeveloped woods, in the ebb and flow of animal populations. Here was one who looked at his small region as a whole, and thought about how it functioned.

His bookshelves were dominated by authors I knew well: John Muir. Edward Abbey. Aldo Leopold. Peter Matthiessen. Edward O. Wilson. Rachel Carson. He had posters of Iowa wildlife in his bathroom. He was excited about the wild turkeys coming back. I could hear some consciousness of Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic” in his life and conversation. It made me thoughtful.

In the morning my feet seemed almost fully recovered, but my hips were raw and starting to bleed where the seams of my pants and the belt of my backpack rubbed against them. I had taped bandages over the raw spots a day earlier, but the tape had done more harm than good; it concentrated the stretching of my skin at the edges of the tape, and that was where the damage was now worst.

Well, yuck. You don’t need details, do you? I walked from the Brooks turnoff into Corning, an easy four miles, and sought out the clinic there….

(I’ll continue the story later today. Right now I have errands to run.)

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Reader Comments (2)

Marshall, I’m glad your journey is going fairly well so far.
I’ve been interested in ethanol since my father helped his company, Farm Service (Farm Bureau), get involved in the use of ethanol many years ago.
While the efficiency of ethanol energy input to output is still debated there is growing consensus that, especially with improved production technologies, use of ethanol results in a net energy gain. There is a nice summary of this at


That link describes a peer reviewed model developed at Argonne National Laboratories to help researchers explore this issue in a consistent manner. Basically, currently it takes 0.74 BTU of fossil fuel to make an amount of ethanol that delivers 1 BTU of energy as opposed to 1.23 BTU of fossil fuel to deliver the same 1 BTU. In addition, corn ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emmissions by 20-30%. Also, some producers are beginning to replace the additive MTBE, which can contaminate ground water, with ethanol.

-- comment posted by Jeff Kisling
May 20th, 2006 at 3:33 p.m.
Sep 2, 2006 at 01:50PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

Thanks for the input, Jeff. I’m not convinced, from the brochure you pointed me to, that there really is “consensus”, but certainly a strong majority of studies now indicate that there is a significant energy gain. That is good to see.

On the other hand, I note that the brochure still does not address the cost to the land of harvesting the stubble instead of leaving it for the partial groundcover and topsoil enrichment it can provide. Or the environmental cost of all the pesticides and herbicides used in growing corn. That troubles me.

And then there’s the unhappy fact that growing demand for ethanol is actually driving demands for increased oil and gas extraction in hazardous and environmentally-sensitive areas like Gulf Coast waters. Why? Precisely because increased oil and gas supplies are needed to produce increased ethanol supplies.

Quote: “The absurdity of turning to our petro-soaked agricultural sector to free us from oil will, I expect, only grow more obvious and glaring in coming years.” — David Roberts, Grist Magazine website article, referencing this article in yesterday’s Des Moines Register. No doubt this can be resolved if the equipment used to produce corn and ethanol can itself be rebuilt to run completely on ethanol. And if the equipment used to build and maintain that equipment (the tractor factories, for example) can be similarly rebuilt. I hope that happens soon!

-- comment posted by Marshall
May 22nd, 2006 at 9:41 a.m.

Sep 2, 2006 at 01:53PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

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