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A 50-minute video documenting 100 days on foot from the Gulf of Mexico to Seattle, exploring transit development in the American West

Hi! My name is Owen Martel, and I’d like to tell you a story about a journey across the American West.

Starting this summer, I aim to walk across the West from the Texas Gulf Coast to Seattle, exploring long-distance transportation and communication development at the local level and chronicling the experience in a 50-minute video. The journey will cover more than two thousand miles and take a hundred days. In the video, I’ll combine my own traveling experiences with tales from Western transit history and conversations with residents of the West who help to make transit across the region possible. I’ll examine how personal transit experiences shape our sense of place, and how collective transit experience shapes the image of an entire region. These are defining issues for a mobile nation in increasingly mobile times, and using my journey as a framework, I look to tackle them step by step.    

SEEDS OF THE IDEA

In 2011, I walked 4,000 miles / 6,500 km from Istanbul to Edinburgh (http://walkacrosseurope.wordpress.com). I traveled alone, and I carried all my equipment on my back. Along the way, I learned surprising things about the ways people travel, communicate across long distances, and think about their physical homes. I was particularly struck by the paradoxical power of transit development to disorient and isolate people even while promoting connections between faraway places. Sometimes, people I met were unable to tell me how to reach the next town without getting on a bus. Sometimes, people who already knew I was walking across a continent assumed their own local shops were too far away for me to reach on foot. Sometimes, people whose families had lived in the same place for hundreds of years told me they felt their own countries were moving away from them. Often, home was a refuge under threat from forces far away, a trap to escape with a flying leap, or a safe harbor between extended journeys.

At the same time that I was catching glimpses of how people across a continent saw and negotiated the spaces around them, I was experiencing long-distance transit myself in an unusually intense and tactile way. Walking across a continent made me intimately aware of the burgeoning transportation and communication infrastructure that connects communities across the landscape. I wore out my boots on highways and slept under transmission towers. Trains hurtled across one skyline after another. I spent two days walking under an endless stream of airliners on the way into Paris, and in those two days, I walked the gradient from the open countryside to the heart of a metropolis. Booking a flight to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower, I realized, isn’t quite the same as knowing where the Eiffel Tower is, or how to get there.

When I eventually returned to the US, still thinking about the relationship between transit development and sense of place, I started digging through the traces of this relationship in my own history. As a leaf on a family tree with roots in Scotland, Italy, and Poland, I was born in California, but my family continued to move around, and for most of my childhood and adolescence we lived in Hawaii. Then I went to college in Massachusetts and New Zealand and lived in Seattle for a while. My world was in motion. People my age were in motion. My nation, such as it was, was in motion – the western part of it in particular. The more I thought about the migrations of people I knew and the migration stories that symbolized places I’d lived – about highways, airplanes, Lewis and Clark, beleaguered immigrants, and railroad spikes – the more convinced I became that there was something particularly important about motion in the American West.

Considering how much I’d gained from walking across Europe, I figured any project I might put together to explore Western transit should involve some sturdy shoes.

I began to develop my ideas in earnest in a proposal to the National Geographic Young Explorers Grant, and spent several months studying the transit history and geography of the Intermountain West, developing contacts with Western transit professionals and historians, and working on the logistics for a walk across the region. My proposal to National Geographic didn’t make it through the final round of screening for the grant, but it left me with a project worth fighting for. After another bout of revisions and research, I decided to bring it to Kickstarter.

WHY TRANSIT IN THE WEST MATTERS

Long-distance transit is the lifeblood of the American West. It’s particularly crucial in the deep inland country between the Rocky Mountains and the ranges along the Pacific Coast, the area known as the Intermountain West. Along its longest axis, from Texas to Washington, this region stretches across more than a thousand jumbled miles of dry mountains, basins, and plateaus. Its history, mythology, and livelihood all center on achievements in crossing challenging terrain, and on crossing it fast.

Each successive means to this end, from the horse to the airplane and from the telegraph to the Internet, has made it increasingly possible to cross the Intermountain West without dealing directly with its terrain, climate, or inhabitants. Thanks largely to this continuing pattern of accelerating transit, the region has a paradoxical place in the American imagination. Its wide open spaces are the home of frontier legends, full of open roads and easy riders, tireless horses and mighty engines. The West is a place where a person can go places: it’s the American dream as a landscape. At the same time, though, the Intermountain West is one of the most neglected regions of America’s contemporary social landscape. It’s become increasingly convenient for outsiders not only to cross the Intermountain West, but to skip it in their thoughts, leaving a blank spot on the nation’s mental map.

In an age when connections between people and places are increasingly frequent and fast, the resulting changes in communities, cultures, and economies can be overwhelming. Their scale and speed seem to go beyond human terms. Because of its extraordinary transit history, the American West shows the causes and consequences of this kind of change in especially dramatic and comprehensive terms. I want to see what this change looks like up close, right at the ground level, while crossing the West from coast to coast at a speed my own body can manage.    

THE JOURNEY

Walking across the West alone and unsupported, I’ll examine the ongoing process of long-distance transit development from a consistent, basic, and gritty perspective. Fundamental Western challenges of terrain, climate, and sustenance will shape my experience throughout, from the moment I turn my back on the Gulf of Mexico to the moment I reach Puget Sound. Over the course of the journey, I’ll cover an average distance of about 24 miles per day, the pace that saw me across Croatia, France, and England on my Europe walk. I’ll use a handcart to carry sufficient water and adjust my daily regimen as necessary to cope with mid-day desert temperatures.

My route will thread together defining landmarks of the Western transit landscape. I’ll start on the shore of Galveston Bay in Texas, where the first known continuous journey across the West began after a shipwreck in 1528. From there, I’ll walk through lands where travel between the US and Mexico has become a source of perpetual and complex tension toward Santa Fe, built with the horse and the mule; through Utah’s canyonlands, where Ute and Hispanic trails led to railroad boom and bust and then to red-rock tourism; past the nation’s premier communication surveillance site, in Bluffdale; to Salt Lake City, the Great Basin’s transit hub, and Ogden, the splice in the first transcontinental railroad; through the heartland of the wide-riding Nez Perce; past waypoints and barriers on the Oregon Trail; to Pasco’s pioneering Tri-Cities Airport at the confluence of the lifeline Columbia, Snake, and Yakima rivers; and along the Yakima Valley rail and highway corridor to a last climb over the Cascades. At journey’s end, at the opposite corner of the West from where my walk began, I’ll reach Seattle – the dominant port of the American Pacific Northwest, the birthplace of Boeing, and the metropolitan home of Internet giants Amazon and Microsoft.    

THE VIDEO

As I walk, I’ll record the foundational material for a 50-minute video. Once completed following the walk, the video will combine a chronicle of my traveling experiences with background on local transit history and conversations with residents of the West about their own transit experiences. I particularly look forward to speaking with people who work to develop, maintain, and exploit long-distance transportation and communication systems, from airport staff, truck drivers, and horsepackers to internet service providers, radio technicians, and postal workers. I aim to combine the thematic style and slightly eccentric, headlong circumstances of the Michael Palin travelogues that helped fuel my earliest interest in far-flung journeys with the fast-and-light possibilities of current small-scale video equipment.

I have previous experience with fast-and-light documentary video work. A short video overview of my walk across Europe, as well as examples of interview-based videos I’ve produced for nonprofit organizations in Seattle and London, follow below; and a gallery of stills taken from additional video shot while crossing Europe is up at http://walkacrosseurope.wordpress.com/pictures/.

WHAT YOUR HELP MEANS

A total pledged amount of $2,500 on Kickstarter could yield as much as $2,300 to the project itself after fees – almost $1 per mile of my walk. This would cover three of the journey’s most substantial and fundamental costs: food, shoes, and a cart to carry water. If the project surpasses its funding goal, I might be able to add sporadic lodging costs to the list, or travel to and from the walk’s start and end points. As with all Kickstarter projects, though, if the project doesn’t meet its goal by the deadline, it comes to naught – it’s all or nothing. If this journey sounds interesting, I would be very grateful for your support, whether in making local contacts and spreading the word or in the form of a pledge on this site.

This is a storytelling project, and in return for a pledge, I offer stories from the journey. Kickstarter divides pledges by amount, and each amount corresponds to a different set of stories.

Pledge $10 or more, and I’ll send dispatches from the thick of things as the journey unfolds – for examples from my walk across Europe, please see http://walkacrosseurope.wordpress.com/letters/. You’ll also feature in the credits on the project website.

Pledge $20 or more, and in addition to the dispatches and thanks on the project website, at journey's end I’ll send you a short poem from the road, illustrated with a photograph, in high-resolution digital form. Each of these pairings will come from a specific place and belong to a particular day. Below is an example from day 47 of my walk across Europe, near the Iron Gates on the south bank of the Danube:

Detail
Detail

Pledge $25 or more, and in addition to receiving the dispatches, you’ll be able to download the 50-minute video of the journey once postproduction is complete, in a file format of your choice. You’ll feature in the credits on the project website and in the video credits too.

Pledge $30 or more, and you’ll receive the dispatches; an illustrated poem at journey's end, sent in high-resolution digital form; and the 50-minute video of the journey for downloading in a file format of your choice. You’ll feature in the credits on the project website and in the video credits too.

The next two variations involve postcards as well.  I would be happy to send postcards to any place on the globe with a mailing address, but do note that international mail, if applicable, involves an extra postage cost.

Pledge $60 or more, and you'll receive the dispatches, an illustrated poem at journey’s end in high resolution, the 50-minute video of the journey for downloading in a file format of your choice, and three physical postcards mailed to you from different states along the walk. You’ll feature in the credits on the project website and in the video credits too.

Pledge $100 or more, and I’ll send you an anthology: the dispatches; the collected illustrated poems in high resolution, including one specifically for you; a physical postcard mailed from each state on the walk; and the 50-minute video of the journey for downloading in a file format of your choice. You’ll feature in the credits on the project website and in the video credits too.    

Thank you for your interest in this project and for your curiosity about the world we’re collectively making. You’re welcome to visit the project website at http://walkthewest.wordpress.com/. If you’d like to lend a hand, please consider spreading the word or making a pledge. I look forward to being in touch with you down the road.    

Risks and challenges Learn about accountability on Kickstarter

The foremost risks stem from the Intermountain West’s harsh environmental conditions: scarcity of water, extreme temperatures, and relative lack of shelter. Tourists backpacking in the West regularly fall victim to dehydration, heatstroke, hypothermia, and sunburn. Prudent route planning, vigilant navigation, careful provisioning, and appropriate clothing, along with the ability to recognize signs of trouble and respond effectively, go a long way toward mitigating these risks. Like most people who walk fully across the West, I’ll travel with a handcart in order to carry sufficient water between resupply points. I plan to be able to transport ten gallons of water at a time in the desert Southwest, which should be enough to cover the longest waterless intervals on my route with a buffer to spare. In the likely event that high temperatures in the desert make steady progress difficult in the middle of the day, I’ll adjust my daily routine to cover the necessary distances in the morning and evening.

Walking across the West also involves risks born from human activity. Much of my route will follow road shoulders, so one of the most consistent and dangerous hazards I’ll face is automobile traffic. I’ll practice safe pedestrian usage of road shoulders as outlined in state department of transportation guidelines, and I’ll also make continual use of basic caution and the lessons I learned while walking thousands of miles of road shoulders in Europe.

One constant challenge I’ll face during my journey will be my task to collect good material for my video, despite the constraints of working alone and the pressures and stresses of the road. I’ve kept a close eye on developments in low-budget travel video production over the past few years, and I also have a thorough hands-on grounding in the difficulties of shooting while continually traveling on a shoestring. I know the strengths and limitations of my tools, and I know how to keep myself critically and creatively engaged even when the going gets tough.

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    In addition to the dispatches and thanks on the project website, at journey's end I’ll send you a short poem illustrated with a photograph, in high-resolution digital form. Each of these pairings will come from a specific place on the walk and belong to a particular day (see project description for example).

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