To Kansas to film an old friend of the way.
ASTORIA, New York- It seems funny to me how important we thought our film project was then. We were like a robin obliviously chirping away on a telephone wire on a sunny day just before some brat beans it with a slingshot. We didn’t even see it coming.
I laugh now at how lackadaisically, how much for granted I took my last bout of travels before the global lockdown. It was mid-February, and the novel coronavirus was a Chinese thing. But as I now sit here at my command station in Astoria, surrounded by monitors, computers, a wall of hard drives, and a pile of video cameras, I’m struck by just how precious those travels now seem.
It was the first leg of a quick circuit through the inner regions of the USA — Kansas, Texas, Michigan. The first two stops were for a documentary series that I’m working on with a Portuguese production company about the digital nomad movement. The last stop was to give a talk at the University of Michigan, which I already blogged about.
Read more: Watch my talk at the University of Michigan
After boarding the plane I began wondering what the weather was like there. This came as kind of an afterthought, as I didn’t bother checking before packing. I truly wasn’t concerned — it was the middle of winter but the temperatures in NYC hovered between 30 and 50 degrees. I expected Kansas to be even warmer. I was going south, and south = warm, right? But when I looked down at the weather app on my phone I experienced a jolt of panicked confusion: the thing said 3 degrees Fahrenheit. I laughed — there had to be something wrong. This had to be Centigrade, right?
Nope. It really was freezing.
I’d only packed a thin leather jacket. No knit hat. No gloves. No wool socks. I began thinking through how I was going to manage this. I would be out filming on a ranch; I would be outside. There would be no time to go shopping. I had no solution.
But then I met Anne at the airport and looked her over: thin little wind jacket, flimsy cotton slacks. She wasn’t prepared either. Actually, she was more surprised than I about the weather, as she was coming from Argentina and had spent the past two weeks sweltering in the summer. She was even less prepared that I, and something about that made me feel better — I guess we’d just be cold together.
We went over to the rental car depot and picked up our vehicle. I rented a giant pickup truck. I wanted Anne, who is from Germany, to have the proper American experience. We were going out into the heartland of the USA, and we weren’t going there in a fucking Chevy Spark. I thought I was just being funny, but as we walked out into the parking lot and felt the three-degree weather and looked at the ice coating on the highway I realized that I’d unintentionally made a very sound decision. Traveler instinct? Probably not — I don’t really plan like that.
Besides realizing that it was incredibly cold in Kansas I also realized that I’d forgotten a quick release plate for my shoulder rig. I had an entire backpack and suitcase full of filming gear, but the absence of this small, cheap hunk of metal rendered my shoulder rig moot. I prefer using a shoulder rig over a gimbal for filming documentaries — you need to be able to shoot live scenes as they happen, and life doesn’t wait for you to balance your gimbal.
So we made a detour to a camera shop and I picked up a quick release plate for $15 and then we went over to a Home Depot to get a bulb for my key light. I’d rather repeatedly buy bulbs at my destination than attempt not breaking them while flying.
We then got some lunch at a natural foods store. Anne wandered around the place looking at the bags of nuts and the piles of burritos as though they were exhibits in a museum.
“I really like looking around grocery stores in different places,” she said.
Supermarkets truly are a litmus test for travelers — the ones who can find them interesting are the hopeless ones who will keep going.
But we lost track of time as Anne browsed the aisles, pondering the cabbages. We still had a four hour drive out to our filming site and Rolf’s sister was making dinner for us, so we shouldn’t be late. I pounded some gluten-free burritos and Anne had some weird microwaved soup stuff.
I sent a text to Rolf with our ETA.
Rolf Potts is one of the most influential travel writers of the A–>D (analog to digital) era. He wrote the book Vagabonding, which essentially showed the world what perpetual travel looks like in the 21st century. It was probably the first book that promoted the idea of geoarbitrage — that you can earn money from a high wage country while physically existing in a low expense country — and was a fundamental influence on Tim Ferriss and inspired his Four Hour Workweek.
For travelers my age, Vagabonding was an era-defining kind of book. Even if you never actually read it, you would still see it everywhere — sitting on the bookshelves of every hostel on the planet next to the Lonely Planet Shoestring guides. It was the kind of book that a traveler would pick up in one place, read, and then leave it somewhere else for another traveler. It was a book about travel that traveled. The copies that you’d find would almost invariably be twisted and beat up, soaked in beer and speckled in crud, dog-eared and have cryptic notations in the margins from previous readers. It was the On the Road of the A–>D age, and planted the idea in 100,000 heads that you really don’t have to go home.
Vagabonding was also a book that defined a generation of travel — my generation — which started out in the analog era of Lonely Planet and transitioned into the digital era of Skyscanner, Google Maps, AirBnB, and Booking.com. It resonated with those who were acculturated into a world of the printed page, magnetic tape, and phones tethered to walls who comfortably transitioned to ebooks, ubiquitous internet, and smartphones.
I would eventually do a review of Rolf’s second book, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There. I interviewed him. He interviewed me. We somewhat kept in touch over the years. However, this would be the first time that we would meet in person. As I drove along the interstate deeper and deeper into Kansas, I felt myself getting a little excited — I was going to meet a friend of the way.
The road itself was absolutely, 100% straight. Straightness and right angles are hallmarks of America. The rest of the world weaves and swerves. The landscape was completely flat and dusted with snow. The fields were empty and seemed frozen stiff. Anne and I talked about the film that we were making and discussed filming strategies, lighting, angles and shit like that.
My name is Anne von Petersdorff, I am a scholar, writer, filmmaker, and educator from Berlin, Germany.
I received my Ph.D. in German Studies and Digital Humanities from Michigan State University where I created my hybrid dissertation which consists of a feature-length, bi-autobiographical travel documentary, and a theoretical-historical exploration of film aesthetics.
In the past I have also produced TV commercials for international brands like NIVEA and Lindt, drove a forklift truck in the Netherlands, worked with NGOs in the US, supervised teenagers in a summer camp in Croatia, studied documentary film in Cuba, and decided that being a multi-hyphenated human being, connecting people and merging experiences and skills, is the way I can best create, learn and contribute inside and outside the academy. I sporadically share my thoughts, experiences, and reflections about travel, artistic-scholarly practice, and other types of border crossings on my blog.
Anne reached out to me some years back after reading a 2011 post on this blog called Digital Nomad or Economic Refugee?. She was working on her phd at the time and told me that she was going to make a film about digital nomads. I was originally supposed to have been a character in it, but as we talked more I somehow found myself on the other side of the camera.
In a few hours we pulled off the highway onto a deserted country road. After a few minutes the paved portion of the road transitioned to dirt. The truck rumbled over frozen clumps of mud. Suddenly, we came upon an archway that welcomed us to the Potts family ranch. We drove in along the 500-meter-long winding driveway that cut through golden fields basked in pinkish twilight. Rolf’s log cabin rose up in the distance.
As we pulled up he stepped out of the cabin to welcome us. His appearance was more lumberjack than academic — flannel shirt, carhartt pants, big brown leather work boots; what writers look like in real life. He gave me a big hug and I felt like a shrimp — dude is 6’3″ or so.
We entered his hermitage and he gave us some coffee and broke out a copy of an old travel publication called Holiday magazine, and we leafed through it as curiously as I imagine my kids would my old Lonely Planets. I began filming. Rolf speaks as fluidly as he writes.
We then went over to his sister’s house, who fed us beans with beef and rice and green salad. We drank some wine and hung out in the living room in front of the fireplace with Rolf and his sister’s family. We talked about transitions in the travel lifestyle, digital nomadism, and the places we’ve been. They told us about the hermits they had living in their woods.
I woke up early and went out to shoot some outdoor scenes. It was about one degree out. Yes, a single degree. It was so cold that I missed my focus on a couple of shots because the screen frosted over … and I didn’t want to take my hands out of my pockets to turn the ring anyway.
We got some shots of Rolf trying to feed his donkey. His donkey didn’t like Anne and I very much and and wouldn’t come over to get his carrots. He grunted and groaned. Rolf pleaded and reasoned. It didn’t work out as we planned, but something about the realness made the scene better.
Anne and I took turns interviewing Rolf as he sat in a big green sofa chair in his cabin. The contents of this will be included in the film.
Rolf’s cabin is like a museum of himself. His accolades, achievements, photos of the places he’s traveled and the people he’s met. The temporal markers of his life surround his work station. It left me sort of inspired.
I’d never collected anything in my travels other than stories, photos, and videos. I never thought about the environment that I work in or the places I stay as anything other than walls and a roof to keep out the rain and cold. It just never really occurred to me that I could hang things on the wall. So when I gave my talk in Ann Arbor a week or so later I was sure to grab the poster advertising the event. When I returned to Astoria I framed it with the intention of hanging it up above my work station … like Rolf.
Two months later it’s sitting in a pile somewhere.
Next post: First Time In Austin, Texas
Previous post: Corona Diaries: Nomadic Backpacker Stuck In Kenya, Part 2