Instructables Nation

The community that now calls the site home, is an amazing mix of wonder from around the world. Every day we continue to be amazed by the imagination, curiosity, and simple awesomeness of everyone who shares their creations with us on Instructables.  The Instructables, Our Story

Let there be light.

Let there be light.

This week, on the National Public Radio (NPR) blog, author Marcelo Gleiser mused that the time feels right for a New Enlightenment.

The central message of the Enlightenment, which took place in the 17th and 18th centuries, says Gleiser, “was the need to create a global civilization with shared moral values. This overarching intellectual framework was far removed from traditional religious precepts. In fact, the Enlightenment declared war on the excesses of religion and blind nationalism.”

Gleiser believes our contemporary globalization of free-flowing information “has realized part of the Enlightenment program. Political frontiers still stand, while ideas move at light speed across the planet. There is an emerging perspective, that of the planetary citizen.”

Will this move us to a new Enlightenment, he wonders? Or simply amplify our existing global discord?

I’m staying optimistic for an eventual new Enlightenment myself, hopeful that, perhaps, we’re on the path now, and I like to think my new found intellectual and social playground, the Instructables, might be a good model for the planetary citizen’s neo-Enlightenment community.

If it’s true, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, that “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds instructables statsdiscuss people,” then the Instructables Nation is one of great minds.  The basic idea is that people make things and then share step-by-step instructions on how those things were made, so other people can make them, too. That’s it : Create, share, repeat.

With a global readership of nearly 24 million, about half of which hail from the U.S. and the rest from around the world, the Instructables Nation is a diverse but egalitarian one, with nearly equal usage among men and women, people of low income and high, families and those with no children, those with college and no college experience. Ethnic diversity lags, but it’s still a relatively young Nation, barely 10 years old.

be niceOne of the things that makes the Instructables such an enlightened community, to my mind, is it’s very civilized rule of conduct.  Be Nice.  Share, and feel free to discuss – but keep it constructive.

We experienced the Power of Nice first hand, when we recently posted an Instructable on making an “Itty Bitty Mini Forge“, an idea inspired by someone else’s project, which we credited, and expanded on a bit.   The Itty Bitty Mini Forge Instructable was posted on July 2.   In the two and a half weeks since, the Forge has been viewed over 63,000 times, and favorited over 1000 times.  I’ve written two books and hundreds of articles in major newspapers and quality journals and magazines, and if my work has been viewed more than a few thousand times in 10 years, I’d be surprised. There is something deeply reassuring that instructions for simply making something were viewed and enjoyed that many times.

Of greater import, I think, is the thread of conversation it inspired – compliments, which are always nice, but also a wealth of intelligent, helpful and nuanced discussion about forging, glasswork, metalsmithing, improving the build, expanding the build, and building new, related things.

Make the FutureBrowsing the massive “How-to” library that is the Instructables, with all the related discussions, is thought provoking and inspiring.  That the Instructables Nation is built around this huge Library of openly shared knowledge is uplifting – a new age Library of Alexandria with the shared skills of a global community.  Sure, some of these shared skills may amount to little more than the cobbling together of tchotchkes , but that’s okay, too. We all want beauty and amusement in our lives, along with the useful and necessary.

“We matter because we are rare,” says Gleiser (and countless philosophers throughout human history), adding, ” A complex molecular machine capable of wondering about its existence should also celebrate and respect its existence.”

A community like the Instructables does just that, and empowers us all to be the makers of our own Enlightened future.


Jim Carrey and the Life Authentic

AristotleMindHeartWhen you are authentic, transparent, you will stand out as you are truly seen. When you are transparent, others can “see through” you into you as your heart and true essence shines. You are clear, direct and kind. You are not an enigma; you don’t leave people scratching their heads wondering what you just said and did. You do not hide. You are honest to the bone. You are courage enfleshed… Authenticity happens in the guts and bowels of your life. Being authentic is the grunt-work of the soul, of any deeply human, spiritual path.

Being half here, half there, half-hearted, faking it to look good, strategizing to make things easier for your self — that’s the common way of the unconscious clotted middle, driven by our egoic, addicted culture. It’s a way that lacks wholeheartedness. Lacks real courage to let the heart break. Shatter. Broken whole and holy open to finally know compassion for self, others, earth. To live and love — on-fire, fully alive, juiced and ready to serve. © 2014 Melissa La Flamme,  Excerpted from the article: Authenticity: The Juicy Mess of Our Human-ness


Passion-based learning, and its hoped for result, passion-based living, are relatively new terms in the education passion based learning info graphiclexicon,  but a natural component of the sharing economy – things like peer-to-peer networking, Zipcar , and Airbnb – that are growing all around us.  It may seem easy to  dismiss it all as some Millennial feel-good fad, that fails to take into consideration the harsh realities of the lives most of us lead, lives that require 9-5 (or more) in jobs we may not like, doing work we’d prefer not to do, for the very basic purposes of buying food and paying for rent.

But let’s posit there’s something bigger going on here, a slow dawning of consciousness among small  but increasingly connected groups.  Paul Ray wrote “The Cultural Creatives: How 50 million People Are Changing the World,” in 2000, and in 2002 Richard Florida brought a socioeconomic look to bear on the idea with his landmark book, “Rise of the Creative Class.”  The inexorable march of the maker movement, culminating with the recent White House Maker Faire, would seem to bear out these now decade old contentions that there just might be something to the idea of a passion based life of creative engagement.

Actor and comedian Jim Carrey’s commencement address, this past May, to the 2014 graduating class of  Maharishi University of Management (MUM) adds yet another compelling layer, not the least of which is the facility at which he spoke – a business school in Iowa that specializes in “Consciousness-Based education,” combining traditional post-secondary school subjects with things like Transcendental Meditation and Vedic Science.

“So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality.” Carrey told students.  “What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect, so we never dare to ask the universe for it.”

Carrey’s message to students is, essentially, a call to authenticity, to that wholehearted life of transparency Melissa LaFlame talks about, that way of being that is “on-fire, fully alive, juiced and ready to serve,” a way of being as true for a plumber or a taxi driver as it is for an artist or an engineer.  Can we always be or do what we want to be or do? Maybe not. But can we try? Can we live openly, honestly, with curiosity and interest in the world around us? Carrey suggests it’s the only way to peace of mind and light of soul.

“You can join the game, fight the wars, play with form all you want, but to find real peace, you have to let the armor fall. Your need for acceptance can make you invisible in this world. Don’t let anything stand in the way of the light that shines through this form. Risk being seen in all of your glory.”

This call to the life authentic, to passion based living, is nothing less than a call for a civil society, to a world in which we are honest, compassionate, and creative, where we share our resources, our skills and our knowledge, where  there is less posturing and more productivity.

Ultimately,” Carrey says. “We’re not the avatars we create. We’re not the pictures on the film stock. We are the light that shines through it. All else is just smoke and mirrors.

Life doesn’t happen to you, Carrey contends, it happens for you. Make it Real.


In Celebration of Questions & Red Bull Creation

RBCIt’s that time of year again, when we get together with a motley collection of friends for the annual running of the Red Bull Creation challenge!  This is the third year we’ve participated in the competition, a quirky contest of ingenuity, endurance and good humor.

The first year we participated, we made it IMG_5570into the semi-finals with our Red Bull Alarm Clock entry.  We were cheered on as the Little Red Bull Team that Could, competing against a dozen bigger, better equipped and more experienced teams, largely housed in big makerspaces across the country.  Our goal, beyond having a really good time (which we did!), was to raise awareness of the maker IMG_1359-ccommunity and the value of spaces to build and create together.  (Now they’re blossoming all over the place!)  Last year, we were just happy we didn’t flood the Land O’Lakes Library with our Spectrapiano entry , a wonderfully elaborate and fate defying concoction of electronics and water.

This year,  the qualifying challenge is more cerebral in nature:  Identify a specific need in your community, or something you think could be improved, and propose a solution. It could be an idea that makes the world a better place, or if nothing else, a more fun and interesting place.

What? one of our team members asked.  Nothing to build?!   Just brain cells.

The fun – and power – of contests like Red Bull Creation is the game based knowledge-making the competition inspires, and opportunities to think not just creatively, but critically, especially with the qualifier this year.

In a recent opinion piece for the New York Times (Young Minds in Critical Condition),  Michael Roth, President of Weslyan College, observed, “Liberal education in America has long been characterized by the intertwining of two traditions: of critical inquiry in pursuit of truth and exuberant performance in pursuit of excellence. In the last half-century, though, emphasis on inquiry has become dominant, and it has often been reduced to the ability to expose error and undermine belief. The inquirer has taken the guise of the sophisticated (often ironic) spectator, rather than the messy participant in continuing experiments or even the reverent beholder of great cultural achievements.”

A good education he says, should “foster openness, participation and opportunity. It should be designed to take us beyond the campus to a life of ongoing, pragmatic learning that finds inspiration in unexpected sources, and increases our capacity to understand and contribute to the world — and reshape it, and ourselves, in the process.”

Not to over invest pure old Red Bull fun with the burden of existential purpose and meaning, but creative exercises like RBC require exactly that vital “messy participation” that finds inspiration in unexpected places.

In this particular qualifier, teams are being asked to basically do a thought experiment, starting with a really broad topic:

Identify a specific need in your community

and then asking for the team to propose a solution and describe or illustrate that solution in a three minute video.

To have any chance of being successful, teams are going to have to take that challenge from the vague to the specific, Susan-Engel-320x240and that in itself is a creative exercise.  In Tackle any Problems with these Three Questions, Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question,  says the best way to solve problems is to ask good questions, to exercise thoughtful inquiry.

He suggests asking Why, What if, and How, in that order.

““Why” questions are ideal for coming to grips with an existing challenge or problem–helping us understand why the problem exists, why it hasn’t been solved already, and why it might be worth tackling. “What if” questions can be used to explore fresh ideas for possible improvements or solutions to the problem, from a hypothetical standpoint. When it’s time to act on those ideas, the most effective types of questions are practical, action-oriented ones that focus on “how”: how to give form to ideas, how to test and refine them with the goal of transforming possibility into reality.

We accept a lot without challenge – the things we hear on television, read in popular media, see on the Internet – and when we just accept without questioning, we become complacent or, as Michael Roth said, simply cynical commentators with uninformed opinions.  Both outcomes can lead to a life on auto-pilot, says Berger, where we feel un-empowered, at the mercy of life instead of in control of our lives.

Getting in the habit of asking questions – and knowing what questions to ask when, says Berger, “is good for us. It can help to open up new possibilities in our lives. It’s a first step in solving problems. It makes us more successful as leaders. People who ask a lot of questions tend to be more engaged in their lives, more fulfilled, and happier.”

So now our Eureka! Factory Team has before us the wide open question of “What is a specific need in our community?” The possibilities are endless!


The Maker Effect

Alumni Awesome-c

FIRST Robotics Alumni – Engineers, filmmakers, roboticists, tinkerers all

The Maker Effect is the sum of the personal growth, professional success, community development, and continuous innovation that results when makers learn, educate, share, and create together. ”  The Maker Effect

The Maker Effect Foundation,a Florida nonprofit headed up by some veteran Florida makers and community leaders,  in collaboration with the Leadership Development Institute at Eckerd College, has undertaken a research study “to understand the personality characteristics, motivations, and behavioral skills used by makers when working alone and in teams. We hope to answer questions such as: “What are the common behavioral and personality characteristics of makers?”, “Why do maker communities work?”, “Why should I hire makers?”, etc..”

These are all good questions, because there’s a lot going on here, both within and without the maker community.

“Today’s makers,” say Maker Effect organizers, ” are providing the knowledge, skills, and tools to anyone willing to take ownership of their own future – democratizing innovation in the way that the invention of the printing press, the rise of personal computing, and the proliferation of the internet did in previous innovation cycles.”

The phrase “democratizing innovation” is an important one.  As with 21st century blended learning  that began democratizing education through online content and virtual classrooms a couple of decades ago, the Maker movement provides a wealth of opportunity in every sense of the word.   The “Maker-Entrepreneur” is the empowered  everyman and everywoman who can become an instant small business person on the strength of his or her own elbow grease and ingenuity. It’s the new Personal Industrial Age,  3D printed in the garage.

But there’s another “Maker Effect”, a sort of shadow presence that hangs around the periphery of the maker community.  As with the advent of MOOCs and virtual schools that  made every space potentially classroom space, and conceivably freed us of the “experts” who previously controlled knowledge,  come new “experts” trying to capitalize onthe glass blower our new found Maker freedom, as they did with open education.   Becoming your own expert can be threatening to some people, especially those whose livelihoods are dependent on some form of expertise that others can now access or develop for themselves.

These new “experts” trail in the wake of the grassroots maker movement, selling their wares and their services to people who originally distinguished themselves through their ability to fill their own needs.

  • Makerspaces literally started in people’s garages and empty building spaces. But now there’s TechShop franchises providing a makerspace in a box for the well heeled.
  • The Instructables were freely sharing how-tos for years.  But you can also pay for glossy how-tos with a Make Magazine subscription.
  • Early makers scrounged parts in junkyards and scavenged dumpsters.  Although many still do, today, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of suppliers for every possible tool, part and electronic and mechanical need.
  • Makers have always been able to sell things through Ebay and Etsy and Kickstarter. But now there’s a fleet of experts promising to make every Maker a Maker Entrepeneur and a successful start-up.

KThese aren’t bad things, of course. TechShop does cool stuff with DARPA. MAKE Magazine has a great community and provides terrific and very instructive hangouts and contests.   It’s nice to be able to shop at Adafruit.  And it’s helpful to have entrepreneurial support if you want it.

But here’s the thing:  Not every maker wants or needs to be an entrepreneur.

Many, if not most, makers simply want to – make stuff.  They’re  hobbyists and tinkerers, artists and explorers. They want to  build a widget, fix a motor, sculpt or paint, make a video, create a game, craft a costume, command a robot uprising.  Many makers already have jobs.  They’re engineers and fry cooks and writers and taxi drivers and parents and store managers and cashiers and mechanics and programmers and designers and students and any number of other things.

The exercise of making something  provides  intellectual enrichment, personal fulfillment and creative entertainment and relaxation.  Making things in a safe, accessible and collaborative environment like a makerspace provides community development and capacity building,  empowering ordinary citizens to be self-reliant, capable individuals who can take control of their own lives.  Sometimes that means selling their own products.  Oftentimes that just means being able to fix their own car or paint their own walls or play with their drone.

The real Maker Effect should make experts of us all, in a million different fields, empowering us to collaboratively improve our communities and to care for each other through the exercise of our shared skills and knowledge, as entrepreneurs, and as capable individuals.

Sometimes, Making is just the end in itself, and that’s a perfectly fine Effect.

Make Glorious Mistakes!


by Daniel Dennett

Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before.” Neil Gaiman

Brain Pickings, one of our favorite sites for inspiring thought and introspection,  shared a look at philosopher Daniel Dennett, on the recent anniversary of his 72 birthday.  Dennet is often considered one of our greatest living philosophers.   What? You didn’t know there were still philosophers?  Allow us to introduce you to Mr. Dennett.

Daniel Clement “Dan” Dennett III is an American philosopher, writer and scientist with a particular interest in evolutionary biology and cognitive science.  He is currently the Co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, and the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. Among other things, he has been referred to as  one of the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism“, along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens- a sort of evangelical atheist, a phrase he’d probably disdain.

More to our interests, though, he’s a huge proponent of failure.

“Mistakes are not just golden opportunities for learning, Dennett wrote in his essay, How to Make Mistakes, “They are, in an Oopsimportant sense, the only opportunity for learning something truly new. Before there can be learning, there must be learners. These learners must either have evolved themselves or have been designed and built by learners that evolved. Biological evolution proceeds by a grand, inexorable process of trial and error–and without the errors the trials wouldn’t accomplish anything. “

Recently, on the journey to creating something we believe is amazing and good and important, we made some big, truly glorious mistakes.  They were errors of judgement, mostly, affecting process and to some degree, perhaps the outcome of initial effort.

Dennett says, “The fundamental reaction to any mistake ought to be this: “Well, I won’t do that again!” “

That was, in fact, our reaction.  And that reaction, says Dennett, is the start of the reflection that is at the heart of the value of making mistakes.

“…when we reflect, we confront directly the problem that must be solved by any mistake-maker: what, exactly, is that? What was it about what I just did that got me into all this trouble? The trick is to take advantage of the particular details of the mess you’ve made, so that your next attempt will be informed by it, and not be just another blind stab in the dark. “

There’s a movement afoot in schools to de-stigmatize the action of making mistakes.

Credit: Hunter Maats and Katie O'Brien

Credit: Hunter Maats and Katie O’Brien

Mistakes, said authors Hunter Maats and Katie O’Brien in a recent Edutopia article (Teaching Students to Embrace Mistakes), are the most important thing that happens in any classroom, because they tell you where to focus …deliberate practice,” the exercise of “isolating what’s not working and mastering the difficult area before moving on.”

That’s one of the reasons FIRST robotics is such an effective educational program; mistakes – big glorious messy mechanical mistakes, emotional teamwork mistakes, complicated programming mistakes – are common and, thanks to the culture of FIRST, expected, embraced, documented and built upon.

When we first realized our mistake(s), we were disappointed, sad, frustrated and mad at our ourselves.  Once we could put aside some of the emotion of the experience, we were able to take at serious look at what happened and earnestly evaluate how we wanted to move forward.   And we became excited anew about the fresh possibilities presented as a result of the new knowledge gained from our big mistake, and even somewhat grateful for the experience. (Maybe we’ll be more grateful when a little more time has gone by!)

The folks at GoogleX have a “fail fast, fail often” philosophy.

“If we can get to a no quickly on an idea, that’s almost as good as getting to a yes,” says Rich DeVaul, head of Google X’s Rapid Evaluation team.  (How GoogleX Employees Deal with Failure)

If, as Dennett asserts, anyone who can say, “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time,” is standing on the threshold of brilliance, then we’re near geniuses!  But a critical part of making the best of mistakes, Dennett points out, is to not hide from our mistakes, nor to hide our mistakes.   Dennett says we should savor our mistakes, suck out ” all the goodness to be gained from having made them, (and then) cheerfully set them behind you, and go on to the next big opportunity.”

It is that indomitable spirit that builds character and resilience, and makes good ideas become workable realities.

Back to the drawing board!

The Power of Nice

survival of the nicestA new book,  Survival of the Nicest: How Altruism Made Us Human and Why it Pays to Get Along, by Stefan Klein,  is revisiting the idea of  “survival of the fittest,” and just what that might really mean in terms of human social interaction.   Reviewed in the wonderful journal,  Greater Good: the Science of a Meaningful Life, ( Does Nature Select for Nice? ),  reviewer Joseph Ferrell says, “Klein argues that selflessness, not selfishness, creates more genetic success, and that proof for this has been gaining momentum among scientists, gradually challenging the “survival of the fittest” model in evolution.”

“If our ancestors had not learned to follow common goals, they would never have become sedentary, never have crossed the oceans and colonized the entire earth…never have invented music, art, and all the comforts of a modern life,” writes Klein, suggesting that the rise of civilizations are likely the result of a selflessness that  is vital to our species’ continued success.

Oftentimes it doesn’t feel that way – that selflessness leads to more success than selfishness.  Big business, big government, brute strength, loud propaganda, steamrolling bosses and coworkers, drivers apoplectic with road rage,  and pushy people on the street and subway would seem to suggest  otherwise, that nice people get kicked to the curb while the self-absorbed rise to the top and reap what often seem to be undeserved rewards.

But if you feel you’re one of the “nice” people – and probably most of the people reading this would feel they fit that category – think about your day, about your circle of friends, about the stranger who smiled at you, or said “excuse me,” or who helped you pick up something you dropped.  More likely, those folks outnumber the others,  who typically substitute volume for substance.

Our work with FIRST youth robotics teams reveals to us regularly the power and promise of selflessness.  In FIRST parlance, it’s known and celebrated as “Gracious Professionalism.”  FIRST students together Coined by Dr. Woody Flowers,  FIRST advisor and Pappalardo Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Gracious Professionalism, or as the kids call it “GP”,  is “a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community.”

Gracious Professionalism, Dr. Flowers says, is  a vital part of pursuing a meaningful life, and he  urges FIRST students to “Go be kind and creative.”

Dr. Flowers gets the power of compassion in a competitive world.

And, indeed, a FIRST tournament can be one big noisy nerdy,  love fest, a combination of fist pumping, chest thumping, gear grinding competitive robotics mashed up with those same competitive kids line dancing with linked arms  happily caterwauling to 80s karaoke.  They understand that even in a field of obvious winners and losers, they are still all friends, bound by their unique shared community that endures beyond the field competitions.

They have learned that they can be nice and successful, and the wonderful schmaltzy rewards of their larger community reinforce that understanding.

No less that Charles Darwin himself pondered the question of altruism and its role in natural selection. In “The Descent of Man,” Darwin wrote, “He who was ready to sacrifice his life, as many a savage has been, rather than betray his comrades, would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature.”

The question is not, then, “Why is the world so cruel?” But perhaps more appropriately, “How can there possibly be so much kindness in such a cruel world?”  That is the miracle, made abundantly obviously by a nature video gone viral over the last few days, of a hippo gently shoving an injured gnu ashore.  In what way would helping the gnu benefit the hippo?  And yet, the hippo helps.

Clearly, compassion and kindness persist in the most unusual and trying of circumstances.

Instances of heroic selflessness are legion throughout human history, and everyday acts of random kindness are abundant.  Cooperation and collaboration – “Coopertition” FIRST kids know it as – ensures not only individual survival, but the success of a community.

It’s not hard to see what drives some people to ruthlessness.  The real wonder is what makes so many, so nice.

Join us on

Lives of Holy Curiosity

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAAs with all great journeys, there are more questions now than answers, not the least of which is, where shall we go from here? As that remains to be answered, all we can do now is keep living life to its fullest.  – Andrea Willingham, our daughter

Life is a work in progress.  We’ve always told our children that.  Sometimes we need them to remind us of that, too, when we lean towards sedentary thinking.

We’ve also always told our children to “Question everything,” to not make a habit of accepting things at face value. Sometimes, as you get older, it’s easier to just accept things. Questioning – and dealing with the sometimes complicated answers – can take a lot of energy, not to mention brutal self honesty in assessing situations and deciding how to proceed with both the questions and the answers sometimes.

In a recent article in Mindshift (Why It’s Imperative to Teach Students How to Question as the Ultimate Survival Skill ) author Warren Berger ( A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas (Bloomsbury)) . observed on “Pi Day,”  the anniversary of Albert Einstein’s birthday, as well as my own, that questioning “was a big theme for Einstein, who told us, “The important thing is not to stop questioning,” while also urging us to question everything and “Never lose a holy curiosity.”

Berger designated March 14 “Question Day 2014″ , which I think is my new all time favorite holiday.  I hope this trends!QuestionDayHeader2

Apparently at one time it did.  In  2008, Einstein’s birthday was observed as  “National Question Day”  by the Inquiry Institute, a consulting organization founded by Marilee Adams.   But it didn’t seem to catch on.  I hope Berger’s effort meets with greater success.

“Questioning is a critical tool for learning,” says Berger. ” It helps us solve problems and adapt to change. And increasingly, we’re coming to understand that questioning is a starting point for innovation. In a world of dynamic change, one could say that questions are becoming more important than answers. Today, what we “know” may quickly become outdated or obsolete—and we must constantly question to get to new and better answers.  Questions also spark the imagination.”

With our children grown, and asking new questions that only they can answer, my husband Steve and I found ourselves reevaluating some of  our life and work, and asking hard questions about our own way forward.  It can be especially difficult to set free the things you’ve created.  Like children, the creations we birth often take on lives of their own; bending,  and sometimes breaking,  under the influence of other forces, and other ideas, becoming things other than expected.  If these creations are meant to be, they’ll persevere, follow the course of their own history, unfold in their own way. If they’re not meant to be, they won’t.

What remains is us: The Creators.

And we have so many more questions about so many more things! So we forge onward here, in the next chapter of the next stage of our lives of holy curiosity.

We hope you’ll join us!

-Terri Willingham

Join us on

Avoidances Enabled: Highways

Old Baton Rouge Capitol

Storm approaching over Baton Rouge Capitol building

My GPS has this wonderful “Avoidances” feature that allows me to select any of several driving obstacles I’d like to avoid: U-turns, toll roads, traffic, carpool lanes, ferries (?).   When I’m traveling -at least, after I reach my destination – I choose to avoid “Highways.”

bluebonnet swamp

Bluebonnet Swamp

Toodling around  Baton Rouge for the last few days, “avoiding” highways has taken me to some great places in some interesting ways. I’ve seen sights and neighborhoods  that I’d never have enjoyed had a I just hopped up on I-10 or I-12 and puddle jumped between exits.


Raccoon in Bluebonnet Swamp

Taking city streets to the Old Capitol area took me through some gritty areas of Baton Rouge, but also gave me an intimate sense of the history and layout of the city.   Driving main roads to Bluebonnet Swamp richly illustrated the wonder of this fantastic urban greenway, bordered on all sides by homes and businesses and busy roads that give no clue to the wild lands they embrace, or the diversity of nature the park protects.

Baton Rouge statue

Statue on LSU Ag Center grounds

In the same way, entering the LSU Rural Life Museum and Ag Center grounds – an amazing 40 acre oasis of history and botanical beauty – along residential roads that give way to boundless fields and acres of forest made the experience of time travel offered by this unparalleled museum of folk architecture and culture even more powerful.

baton rouge

Baton Rouge, LA

Baton Rouge, like all communities  large and small, is more than the sum of its parts.  It is powered by the energy, perseverance and creativity of  its people, made manifest through that people’s architecture, industry and artistry.  Exit hopping on the highway makes it convenient to forget and easy to miss everything in between those exits that makes it all possible and, more important, that makes it all meaningful.

Tomorrow, I have to disable my highway avoidance and make use of those high speed interstates, at least for some major stretches,  if I’m to have any hope of getting back home in a day, which work and life necessitates.  But I’ll be keenly aware of the lives and livelihoods, of the history and communities, that I’m passing by.  And at the first opportunity, I’ll be taking the first available exit off the highway and getting back to the roads that really take you places.

Back Road Reflections

AR back road Last year around this time, my oldest daughter and I headed out for a road trip to Arkansas, where she was competing in the National Taxidermy Association event.  We love our time together, out and about and exploring, and the event itself was fun and edifying and my uniquely talented daughter had a good showing. But the trip turned trying, and painful, when we were in a bad car accident the day before we were to returnIMG_4025 home, struck by a good person but a careless driver.

Things went from bad to worse after that – our dog died before we could get home; our house flooded a couple of weeks later, due to a roofing job gone bad; and a recent lay off just added to the somber (and damp) atmosphere.

But the trip itself, when all was said and done and accounted for, was still good and memorable and meaningful, as road trips often are.   We took the “blue highways” home – America’s slower and more scenic back roads.  The Natchez Trace proved especially an especially calming and thought provoking drive, ambling along the eastern spine of the country, through deep woods and rolling hills, through centuries of history.

road home by Rob McGinnisThinking about that trip, as the date for this year’s journey approached, I ran a “Blue Highways” contest on Fine Art America and the submissions provided a thoughtful look at back roads scenery and history around the country.  The top three winners are featured here in this post, but the rest are all worth enjoying.   Because despite the harrowing start to our trip home, personally detouring ourselves off main highways to take a slower drive home made that journey far more memorable than the accident, providing a soothing balm to its scary precursor.

The back roads of America are the ultimate roads home – through the Autumn Backroad View by Alan Grahamboroughs and little towns and fields and farms and cottages and cottage industries that lie at the heart of who we are, a diverse and multifaceted people, self-reliant, independent spirited folk.

Sometimes we make mistakes – we check our cell phones when we should be watching the road; we get out of our car when we should stay in it and change the course of our own and others’ lives; we say something when we should remain silent, or conversely, we remain silent when we should speak out.  Sometimes we’re foolish and short-sighted, impatient and intolerant.

And other times we are magnificent – our back roads speak to some of that higher purpose, the way they trace ageless tracks throughGlacier National Park by Glenn Barclay our countryside, past the monuments and signs through which we memorialize our past,  and the way the artists among us capture the canvass of our classic  landscapes, or turn a vista into a turn of poetic phrase.   There are always the “helpers” Fred Rogers spoke of, the people you see in every community who alleviate blight, waste, loss, anger and heartache with the stroke of their brush of  compassion and kindness – an art in itself.

And so as we set out on the road again tomorrow, northward bound to Baton Rouge, LA this time, we’ll be angling again for those back roads, taking the opportunity and the time, to travel carefully (defensively!) and thoughtfully.

“Life is a highway”, Tom Cochrane sang.

Sometimes it’s a rough ride.  But if you take the back roads – the roads less traveled – and don’t let the set backs sideline you, there’s a good chance you’ll not only go places and see things, but learn a bit on the journey.