Tales from America

Joe Mack SUBW 1971-4 (Ph.D. Biochemistry)


Above – Joe Mack and son Austin, 1996. Photo – Joe Mack

I came to the US in ’75 thinking I’d be here for 2 yrs and return in a blaze of glory to a nice job to Oz, where I could bushwalk every weekend to my heart’s content. I was in no rush to leave Australia – it had all I needed and unlike many of my age, saw nothing in Europe or the US which was any better than what I already had. The things I would miss most would be the bushwalking and my friends.

I was told that I’d need overseas experience to get a job back in Australia. In fact there were no jobs back in Australia for a research biochemist and I had wasted my time at university becoming good at something that no-one wanted. In the US, every academic produces a PhD a year for 30yrs. The academic is replaced once in the academic life cycle and the other 29 PhD’s have to go elsewhere. Where you go, at least initially, is into post-docs or “training positions” with low pay justified by your “need for more training”. My first post-doc was at the University of California, where we were paid fulltime for 66% of the time and for the other 33% we were unpaid consultants, so that the department could hire more post-docs. When someone complained, we were lined up and asked which ones wanted to leave, so that the others could be paid full time. (No one over here realises what the trade unions have done for people’s living standards – United we bargain, Divided we beg).

As a post-doc, you have to move every 2 years, an expensive proposition, which entails leaving friends again finding a new dentist, doctor… and you are back to 2 weeks annual hols. You usually cannot contribute in any substantial way to a pension scheme till you are with a company for 5 years, so companies have a large interest in getting rid of you after your “training”. You cannot buy a house during this time and your money goes on rent.

Unlike Australia where most people live in big cities which nominally are nice locations, in the US, a city’s location is chosen for business reasons. I lived in Memphis TN for a while. It was flat in all directions for at least a day’s drive, -20C in winter and +40s in summer. Its raison d’etre as far as I could tell was a “cliff”, a few acres of mud on a bend in the Mississippi R. that was above flood level and whose location enabled business to continue. (All of modern Memphis is on the flood plane and protected by levies.) On the east coast of the US below New York, the foothills of the coastal mountains meet the coastal plains at a line called the “fall line”, a line of waterfalls and rapids that river traffic (trappers and people trying to get goods inland) had to negotiate. All of the big cities are on this line, started from trading posts. The cities aren’t on the coast with nice harbors, or sea breezes, they’re several hundred miles inland, in the middle of nowhere, with hot humid summers, and freezing cold winters. People in the US have no concept that a town should or could be a nice place to live, or that it should be made better for the next generation. It only matters that you can make money there. I would like to think that Australians would never start a town in any of these places. Because the towns are smaller, almost any job change requires a move and thus you spend your life in disruption, with your savings going to real estate agents and moving fees and all your spare time goes to looking for the next job. When I walk around Sydney, even after all the time I’ve been away, I can recognise people I’ve known from earlier days. Over here, I never see people again and you’re perpetually in a sea of strange faces. Americans seems to understand that the opportunities to make friends in adult life are small, because they marry right out of high school. When I arrived here, most of the people my age (28 then) had already been divorced, while back in Australia most of my friends had not yet married.

You do this until you leave the system, either by being bumped out or rarely, by wising up. Most people leave the system after working on a project that is fatally flawed. Either the project has errors that an undergrad would laugh at or you’re sent off on a fishing expedition (a “sacrificial post-doc”) with high rewards if successful, but with remote chances of success. You hear a lot about “academic freedom” in this context, a cover for mediocrity, where the supervisor is insulated from the consequences of disaster, but the student exits from the system, with the shame of having not done anything productive with their 2-3 years, and with the responsibility for the failure of the project. Heaven help you if you point out the flaws in the project, its low possibility of success, or its irrelevance even if it succeeds. I did this twice and had to leave science for several years. Despite the researcher being in a “training situation” the supervisor is not assessed by the “training” the researcher receives – no-one looks at the fate of people leaving the lab, or whether they get jobs or not. When success comes, it’s to the supervisor and the researcher usually cannot take the project with them; failure belongs to the researcher alone.

The american myth is that anyone can make it, by hard work. The fact that some people make it and are very rich, justifies the myth. Thus the myth plight of the people on the bottom of the ladder, no medical insurance, 2 weeks of holidays a year, no job security… is seen as a consequence of not taking opportunities handed on a plate. When I came here in the 70s I was appalled by the poverty and the great differences between the rich and the poor.

People in this situation realise that their only hope of a job is in the success of their project and they work very hard and routinely solve almost impossible tasks. In 25 years it’s hard for me to think of a case where a project has failed because of the limitations of the researcher. In the end these people who generally taken out loans for their own Ph.D. and work at minimal salary are discarded as failures and have to start again elsewhere.

It took me 10 years to realise that I would not be going back to Oz at the end of the year in the promised blaze of glory and 20 years before I realised that the system didn’t work the way I was told. Now I’m programming computers and figuring out how to get into a more lucrative job in the computer industry.

In the meantime about 8yrs ago I got an american girlfriend (Mardee Delahunty) and now have a 1 yr old son Austin Mack. He’s a happy little bundle of energy mainly thanks to all the time Mardee puts into him.

I’ve bushwalked in Alaska and in most of the National Parks in the country. Most of the country is paved over and there’s no bushwalking ethic like I knew in SUBW. You have to go a long way to find anything remotely like a wilderness and then you have to book up ahead and sign on and sign off on the trail. You usually aren’t allowed off the trails and have to bring a stove (no camp fires, the population pressure on the “wild” areas is enormous, and most of it is cold/alpine, where there’s not a lot of wood produced to burn anyhow).

In Australia I received much training in Boy Scouts and in outdoor clubs like SUBW and was well equipped to deal with most situations and to know my limitations. In my first trips I was hot/cold, wet, hungry, thirsty, scratched and miserable. As I got more money I gradually bought things and figured out what to do to have a good trip. It didn’t come overnight. In general the people I went into the bush with, didn’t do anything stupid or dare you to do anything stupid, despite the fact that two of these people killed themselves running into a telegraph pole in a car back in normal life. You weren’t allowed to do climbs out of your reach and if your belays pulled out a few more times than was thought reasonable, no-one would climb with you anymore. Similarly you wouldn’t be allowed on a bushwalking trip unless you were in reasonably shape and had done trips of similar difficulty. A person who carried a light pack was held in high regard (unless it was a bludge trip, in which case a watermelon was regarded as a nice touch). Perhaps related to the American ethic that everyone can make it on their own, Americans don’t join bushwalking clubs and tend to go outdoors with friends, who aren’t necessarily the best partners in the outdoors. Education about the outdoors comes from things like Backpacking Courses taken at the local college in the evenings, rather than by going on many trips with clubs where someone would keep an eye on you. These graduates of evening courses would boast of the weight of packs they’d carried for weekend trips (I remember one of them carrying 60lbs).

(Over here a Sportsman is a fat guy with a campervan, fuel stove and TV, who shoots defenseless animals for fun).

My first outdoor trip in California was rockclimbing in Yosemite Valley. I was amazed at the number of people walking around with new complete kits, bought in one hit – pack, shoes, tent, sleeping bag, all absolutely new. They’d decided to have an outdoor experience and being Americans, could buy it all and get a plane ticket and go there. These people had obviously never walked off a footpath in their life. I was climbing in my volleys and King Gees.

On the first afternoon, after a morning climb, we got to a ledge to find 2 bodies, dead. The leader must have pulled out, taken all the belays with him and then 2nd pulled out. All their equipment was new. The next afternoon after another climb, I was observing a class of the Yosemite Climbing School, a school that will give anyone with the right amount of money a “Rock Climbing Experience”. There was a tangled pile of rope on the ground, with the students trompling all over it in an effort to get a better view of the action on the rock face. An instructor was belaying from in the middle of the pile of rope and a young woman in her 20’s on the other end was up on the rock going through her paces. Suddenly there was a loud crack and a scream of pain and a “god help me” from the woman. She was lowered and from the angle of her leg I saw that her femur had snapped.

I’ve been very wary of going outdoors with Americans since. Still I once spent an unplanned night at 12,000′ after climbing Mt Ritter at 14,000’+ in the Eastern Sierras, with a “friend” who was too pigheaded to admit that he didn’t know where he was. I spent the night with him and walked out his way the next day.

Being in California when I first arrived and thinking I only had 2 years to see the place I did a lot of travelling initially (much to the ire of the person I was working for). Much of the travelling was alone and this way I found that all of the country was inhabited and owned. You couldn’t just hop a fence, roll out the sleeping bag and sleep for the night. You aren’t allowed to sleep at rest stops (you’ll get fined, robbed or killed – you are supposed to get a motel at night and drive all day without having a snooze). There aren’t any Youth Hostels (although Canada has plenty). The US is not a convivial place for travellers doing it alone on the cheap.

In Alaska, I hiked the Chilkoot Trail from Scagway (Alaska, US) to Whitehorse (Yukon, Canada), following the trail of the gold miners who were headed to Dawson City in the Yukon. The trip starts in Seattle taking the ferry up behind the chain of coastal islands to Scagway – it’s 2 nights and 3 days. The ferry is somewhat like the Princess of Tassie but with luxury cabins for the nobs, who either look out of their port-holes or sit and look out of the heated state room. For less than the price of a bus ticket for the same distance I got to camp out on the back deck with the proles under a large fibreglass awning which protected us from the weather. There I ate my dehydes and got a 270 deg view of the passing glaciers for 3 days. The ferry stopped at each village along the way and dropped off supplies for the week. Each village was a linear strip built under the shadow of the mountains and glaciers behind them, with a single road the length of the town. From the number of float planes, it was obvious that they were the only way out of town.

In Scagway (US) during the time of the gold rush, there was an average of a shooting a day. The Canadian govt, having the precedent of the California gold, and not wanting similar troubles, sent mounties to the Chilkoot Pass and only allowed people in to Canada if they’d brought enough food and supplies for a year. No guns were allowed. The miners carried their stuff over the pass, in winter (< -40degC) taking many trips to get their quota of supplies, and assembled it on a lake at the other side, where they built rafts to be ready for the spring thaw to take their stuff down the Yukon R. By the time they arrived in Dawson City the best claims were already staked out and the only jobs left were working for the 3 or so companies who already owned everything. With no guns, there wasn’t one killing in the Yukon gold fields. The trail over the pass takes about 3 days, and is very pretty. On the coastal side, it’s very green and many glaciers. On the inland side, it’s brown and dry. The trail has many sign posts and photos showing the incredible conditions under which the miners labored to get their supplies over the pass in winter.

I then hitched a ride to Mt McKinley (Danali) Park in Alaska. I did a trip just walking about the base of Mt McKinley. I talked to a ranger on the day I left and asked about places to go and what he thought about doing a solo trip out there. Not knowing whether I was a nitwit or not, he really couldn’t advise me, but just said “we allow every man his right to go out and be eaten by a bear”. In the first hours I saw a mother bear and her cubs, a moose and a wolf. I realised I didn’t know anything about the place and how out of my depth I was. All that training in the Blue Mtns (which rocks are slippery, which plants are prickly) was of little help here. Bears think they own the food in your pack and don’t bother to ask for it. Often they don’t care about subtle difference between the food in your pack and you. I wasn’t sure what wolves thought and was not comforted to know that no-one on earth even knew where I was. So I walked very carefully along a knife edge ridge for a while and then went down to the tundra for a snooze at 3am in the midnight sun. I was glad to find that no-one had visited me when I awoke the next morning.

I hiked in the Grand Canyon (the Big Ditch) 3 times. It’s beautiful, it’s huge (the Budawangs through to Colo would fit inside it), the Colorado River is a torrent, and it’s also a long way from anywhere. Amazingly the rock is rotten and while you can find some place to get through most cliff lines in the Blue Mtns there’s only about 3 places you can get into the Canyon from the South Rim and no new routes have been found for a long time. Isostatic uplift has dramatically displaced all the plateaus at their necks (just like with Narrowneck) resulting in necks of rubble. So access is to the Canyon is limited. Because of the population pressure, you have to book up several months ahead for your turn on the trail. The first time you’re only allowed a down and back to the river, on the trail that carries the cut-lunchies on mules to the ranch at the bottom. I told them I’d already done it and instead was able to spend 3 days walking along the middle plateau with a side trip to the river. I left the rim on top in snow and was prepared for the same weather for 3 days. Within a few hours as I descended into the canyon, with the sun reflecting off one side of the Canyon or the other, I was sweating in the high 20s C. By the time I got to the river, it was really hot and I spent the whole trip with my long pants in my pack and to maintain couth, I stuffed the tail of my shirt up the elastic of my underpants. (In a subsequent trip a little earlier in the year, I spent most of it below freezing.)

One thing I never got used to was the cold. Back in Sydney, cold was something you visited, not lived in. You didn’t need much behavioural modification in Sydney for winter, it was shorts for half the year and a pullover in winter. You could go outdoors all year around and have your lunch outside if you found a sunny spot (like the geology lawn). If you were lucky you could do a winter trip in the Blue Mts in your shorts and you could find patches of snow. I went to the Snowy a fair bit and didn’t think a thing of it. I applied to go the Antarctic one summer. I thought I was as capable of handling the cold as the next person. It never occurred to me that there were places on earth where I would die if I lay down for too long. (Over here stranded motorists routinely die in their cars in winter.) I associated snow with xmas cards, xmas roast din-dins and watching the Davis Cup tennis or the Sydney to Hobart Yatch race start. I remember the first time I looked out of a house window and saw snow. It took the longest time to figure out what was wrong, but I eventually realised I expected to be warm. Twenty years later I still expect to be warm looking at snow. In winter here you have to do major behavioural modification and get dressed up in enough clothes that you look like an astronaut with your arms sticking out horizontally sideways if you’re going to be outdoors for very long. I’ve sat at bus stops for 30mins at -20C and nearly frozen while the others around me seem oblivious of the temperature – and this isn’t the outdoors where only the tough SUBW types go, it’s in a town where people and little old ladies live and go about their business.

While a weekend in the Blue Mts requires minimal equipment, a light sleeping bag, a poncho, and a bag of peanuts and dates, a weekend in the snow is a major event. You have to take a polarguard sleeping bag that takes up most of a pack that is fine for a 10 day to Tassie trip. As well you have to have a jacket, gloves, thermal underwear and a stove and fuel. A Sydney type pack is really full at this stage and then you need food. You spend a lot of time making sure you’re not getting wet and aren’t developing white spots on your cheeks. In particular I have to make sure I don’t loose circulation in my hands otherwise it’s hard to start the circulation in them again and it’s very painful when it the circulation returns.

When I moved from Vancouver to Connecticut, I drove across Canada in December at -40C in December. It was about freezing when I left Vancouver, wearing sandals, in a car that had only been to -10C, but as I went over the Rockies the temperature dropped to -40C. I’d never been at -40C before and thought that once it was cold you just had to put clothes on and that was that. I found that for every change of 20C you have to make a major change in behaviour. At -40C, regular rubber boots and 2 pairs of wool socks will give you irreversibly numb feet in short time standing on snow. You need insulated or double boots. As well a car won’t start much below -10C. I installed an electric heater into the heater hoses on the first night, in the parking lot of a car parts store, or I wouldn’t have been able to start the car again. I blocked off the radiator with cardboard, to minimise the air flow over the radiator and engine. Still it was cold enough in the cabin that the snow I kept bringing into the car never melted and I needed to wear a sleeping bag for the whole trip. I opened one of the back windows to keep ice from forming on the inside of the windows. I kept the spare oil for the engine next to the heater outlet inside the car, or else it became like toothpaste. I know Canadians in the Great White North live in conditions like this for much of the year, but it was all new to me. I felt like Scott in the Antarctic. I was very pleased when I reached the eastern half of the country at -20C and only had to wear one layer of long underwear. (It’s a sign of great macho in Canada to walk around at -40C in T-shirt and jeans. People do it but I don’t know how – you can get white spots on your skin pretty fast at that temperature.)

I had a reunion with several people from SUBW in Yellowstone Park in Wyoming one winter. Peter Hatherly came over for a ho neymoon for one of his previous marriages with his current bride. Chris Cosgrove, Dick Hain and I and wives or S.O.s of the moment (well except for Dick, he was afraid his would leave him if she met us), converged chez Chris and then adjourned for a week to a summer ranger hut thermally equilibrated with the invigorating air and snow outside. By day we cross country skied and bathed in the sulphur hot springs. By night Pete impressed us with his current abilities to do Ali-Baba’s and the rest of us impressed our women with the talents and guileless arts we’d developed in our SUBW past. We also explored the delights of an outdoor dunny with a metal seat at -20C. After the week was over, my S.O. of the moment asked me “Are all Australians like that?” I said “well all the ones I like”. None of us are with those women any more (Dick may as well have brought his woman with him for all the difference it made). I guess I have Pete to thank for that, otherwise I might still be with that one. (Just goes to show how hard it is for women to keep up with SUBW men.)

Several years later Chris Cosgrove and I wound up on the East Coast of US, and I would visit him twice a year in the Adirondack Mountains in NY, once in summer for a trip and once in winter for a trip. The hiking was OK, but you’d only do it if you were desperate. It was good to spend time with friends even if the hiking was only just OK.

About 8yrs ago I met Mardee and on our first holiday together, she took me to Mt Katahdin in Maine. It’s a nice long day trip, climbing a few thousand feet, walking a knife edge around back of a cirque and then a climb down the other side. It takes 3 days of driving each way to get there. It’s the only thing I’ve found worth doing on the east coast, but the drive and having to book up months ahead to get a turn take the fun out of it. Mardee goes downhill night skiing at -20C, knows how to look for white spots on skin and has a great time at low temperatures. When she was an undergrad (college town in Wisconsin) she used to walk downtown at night to the town square to see how far the temperature had dropped (it was usually around -40C). Mardee came with me to Australia in ’87 for a visit and had a good time in Claustral and on several other trips.

Another thing I’ve not got used to is the heat on the east coast of the US. When I was in Australia, I used to laugh at the news reports of the number of people in NY who’d died without their airconditioners in a power failure. I lasted about 3 summers without A/C. The temperature and humidity is like summer bushwalk in the Blue Mtns with the plants transpiring at full blast. There’s no breeze and no afternoon shower and it doesn’t cool much at night. One year, I ran 10k every lunch time when it was over 40C for 17 days in one July. It’s just no fun being outside in summer or in winter here and you have to retreat indoors.

About a year ago I got a staff position managing computers at Duke University where by chance Dick Hain is a full blown professor. I thought I would have a good time hanging out with Dick, but I arrived just in time to find that Dick has fallen and in love and is getting married again and have barely seen hide or hair of the bloke. Dick seems to be very happy and I wish the lucky woman all the best. I’ve lost track of which number woman this is, perhaps Dick remembers (go look in his entry).

When I left Oz, I expected the rest of the world to be like Sydney, that people would be doing similar things and having similar recreations. I expected there to be canyons like Claustral in the mountains behind the University of California at Davis. I almost bought a wetsuit at Mick Symmons before I left Sydney to be ready for them. Not only were there no canyons, but there were no mountains. I was at an agricultural campus in the middle of the optically flat Central Valley, perhaps 100 miles wide and 400 miles long. The Sierras were 3 hrs away at least. Davis was another uniquely american invention, the college town, where there is nothing else but the university. 50% of the population of 30,000 are the students, the rest faculty, staff and people who run the shops to serve the students. There’s no adults, no businesses who would employ students when they graduate, no-one from the world into which they hope to step when college is over. While in Australia, 50% of my friends did not go to university and I had all sorts of different people to talk to, here there was nothing but undergrads concerned only with exams and parties. I went nuts and I was very lonely.

Sydney is the only large city in the world that I know of that has a wilderness that you can drive to leaving after work on Friday afternoon, have a good outdoor experience and return on Sunday night. In the US you have to use part of your measly 2 weeks annual holiday to drive 1000miles to queue up for your turn on the trail. Around Sydney the bush is benign; it has no bears, mountain lions or wolves. The snakes only bite when they think they’re being attacked.

I’m sad that I’ve come to this country to make the world a better place through research, to find that no-one cares, and that many people want to destroy you, and to find the things I care about, my friends and bushwalking in Sydney have gone. My friends all have got married and their children grown up, without me getting to know their children or being there to see it. I didn’t really want to leave Australia and if there’d been a way to stay I would never have gone. I’ve often thought that if I’d known what was going to happen I would have stayed behind and been a postman in the Blue Mtns or a cashier in a supermarket and gone bushwalking every weekend, but at each stage here, I stayed wanting to do the best I could do and knowing that I could do a lot better than the system was letting me do.