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Techno-whipped? I pity the fool

In our eighth month of bouncing about this expansive and expensive country, Ace and I seemed headed for our most frugal stretch yet – thanks mainly to lucking out and finding some free housing upon our return to Baltimore.

For the first time, in our continuing effort to see America while spending less than what we were while sedentary and housed – about $1,500 for rent, food and utilities – we were looking at a three digit number instead of four.

Now, thanks to my stupidity, and with an assist from Verizon, we’ve blown it, and somebody has some explaining to do.

Before we left on our journey, I canceled my home Internet service (through Verizon) and signed up for wireless mobile broadband (through a different part of Verizon), allowing us to get online no matter where we were for $59 a month – the package they suggested for a heavy user.

It worked pretty great. There were only two or three locations in our 22,000 miles of travels, where service was non-existent or spotty.

I was so pleased, I even eventually sent Verizon the payment they were seeking from me for home Internet service for the month following the date I moved out of my house. It was basically a choice between paying the money I didn’t really owe, being regularly harassed by the credit agency to which they turned the matter over, or spending far too much time on the phone, holding and then some, to try and straighten it out.

All was going smoothly with my wireless mobile broadband — or so I thought until last week, when Verizon informed me that for the past two months I’d gone over monthly limit, and that I owed them more than $400. Read more »

BARCS waives adoption fees for rest of 2010

For the rest of 2010, adoption fees are being waived at BARCS (Baltimore Animal Rescue & Care Shelter) for all dogs and cats over six months old.

Included for free with any adoption during the holiday special are spaying and neutering, rabies vaccination, DHLPP vaccination, bordatella, de-wormer, flea preventative, a general examination, a food sample, a month of free veterinary care insurance, and Felv testing for cats and kittens.

Normal adoption procedures apply, and Baltimore City residents will need to purchase a $10 pet license. Puppies and kittens under six months old are available for adoption at $65, through December 31, 2010.

People who would like to give the gift of an animal to some one else can purchase a BARCS gift certificate for $65.

To adopt an animal from BARCS. stop by the shelter (behind M&T Bank Stadium)  Monday through Friday from 2 to 6 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., call 410-396-4695 or visit BARCS  online.

BARCS is hosting a Holiday Open House at the shelter this Saturday, December11, and Sunday, December 12 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., featuring cookies and punch and, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., photos of your pet with Santa. Photos are $10 each for a digital print and the proceeds will benefit the animals at BARCS.

Life among the slabs

John Steinbeck would have loved Slab City.

It wasn’t on his route. It’s rarely on anybody’s. But on an abandoned military base in the desert of southeastern California, there are some highly colorful characters among the snowbirds and squatters who call it home, for now.

Dubbed “the last free place,” Slab City is a collection of loners, losers and lovers, of the freewheeling and the freeloading, of people on the run or simply on vacation, of vagabonds and vagrants, of the rebellious and the rebounding, of dreamers and drifters.

It is full of tumbleweeds — and many of them are human.

Steinbeck — between his compassion for the destitute, his distaste for bureaucracy, his sense of social justice and his love of a good story — would have found the barren desert fertile ground.

Here’s how another author, Jon Krakauer, described it in his book, “Into the Wild:”

“The Slabs functions as the seasonal capital of a teeming itinerant society — a tolerant, rubber-tired culture comprising the retired, the exiled, the destitute, the perpetually unemployed. Its constituents are men and women and children of all ages, folks on the dodge from collection agencies, relationships gone sour, the law or the IRS, Ohio winters, the middle-class grind.”

There was no teeming when Ace and I rolled through on Thanksgiving; likely, most residents were inside enjoying the same big dinners people in real houses have. We spent most of our time — after driving around the community of RV’s, campers, trailers and live-in school buses — trying to coax what appeared to be an abandoned Chihuahua, laying on a huge pile of help-yourself clothing, into taking a treat.

Slab City is named after the concrete slabs and pylons that remain from the days that the land was part of a World War II Marine barracks, called Camp Dunlap. After it shut down, some servicemen remained, and others — seeing it as a place where one could both be free and live free — arrived.

It’s estimated that several thousand campers use the site during the winter months. Several hundred people live there year-round — tolerating the brutally hot summers in exchange for free rent. There is no charge to park a rolling home in Slab City. There’s also no electricity, no running water and no toilets, portable or otherwise.

To Imperial County, and the state of California, it has been a thorn in the side, but at the same time — because of the tourists it and neighboring Salvation Mountain attract — it contributes to the economy of surrounding towns.

At one point, the state considered turning it into an official state camping area, and charging fees, but because it includes Salvation Mountain — one man’s unauthorized monument to God — that was seen as too much of a link between church and state.

Instead, the county and state seem to be taking a hands-off approach — not kicking anybody off the land, but not going so far as to supply even portable toilets.

Meanwhile, Slab City has managed to cement itself into American culture.

In addition to appearing in the book and subsequent movie, “Into the Wild,” Slab City served as a setting for one of Sue Grafton’s mystery novels, “G is for Gumshoe.” The Shooter Jennings music video, ”Fourth of July,” was partially shot there, and British photographer Leon Diaper focused on it for his documentary series, ”The Last Free Place.”

At the same time, it has evolved into a community,  with its own social organizations — people that get together in real life, as opposed to on the internet. It’s not all peace and harmony. Conflicts arise between the year-round permanent residents, and those just passing through, especially those passer-throughers prone to leaving their garbage behind.

Some think it needs more rules; others say that’s the sort of thing — like taxes and rent and police — that they came there to get away from.

It’s a fascinating little social experiment — every bit as unplanned as the formation of the nearby Salton Sea, and every bit as impromptu as Salvation Mountain, which we’ll tell you about tomorrow.

Beagles rescued from bankrupt lab

One hundred and twenty beagles who faced lifetimes being used in medical research experiments have been freed — just in time for the Fourth of July weekend.

On Friday, the beagles — owned by a research facility in New Jersey whose parent pharmaceutical company went into bankruptcy — were released to the care of animal rescue groups that, after socializing them, hope to adopt them out as family pets.

Beagles are bred especially for use in medical experiments and are used in research because of their affable and passive natures, their relative lack of inherited health problems and their mid-range size. These particular beagles are estimated to be between two and five years of age and have lived their entire lives in a laboratory.

Best Friends Animal Society headquartered in Kanab, Utah, and Pets Alive Animal Sanctuary, based in Middletown, N.Y., and Elmsford, N.Y., worked together on rescuing the beagles, who had been left locked in the facility operated by Aniclin Preclinical Services in Warren County, N.J.

The facility closed in April, after Aniclin’s parent pharmaceutical company couldn’t pay its bills, according to the Times Herald-Record in New York’s Hudson Valley.

A judge ruled that the beagles could be handed over to animal rescue organizations. Fifty-five primates were also removed from the facility and sent to a simian rescue organization

Pets Alive Animal Sanctuary welcomed the beagles to their new home this weekend, decorated in red, white and blue.

Best Friends, according to a press release, was made aware of the beagles’ dilemma through its Community Animal Assistance national helpline, which fields requests to help animals from around the country. Best Friends contacted Pets Alive, a sanctuary in the Lower Hudson Valley region of New York, which offered to take ownership of the dogs. Several other animal rescue organizations have stepped forward, each offering to take some of the beagles.

Best Friends is paying for veterinary care, food and transportation of the dogs from the facility. It will  be bringing back as many as 30 dogs to its sanctuary in Utah, including those who may need  more time and help before transitioning into family living.

“Best Friends is teaming up with Pets Alive in the New York area to help these beagles get the fresh start they deserve … one that’s long overdue,” said Judah Battista of Best Friends Animal Society.

“These dogs have been in a laboratory, too long without friends,” she said. “Since these dogs have never had the opportunity to discover their true lovable, comical, often boisterous nature, which makes beagles such a favorite family dog, Pets Alive and Best Friends are committed to helping these dogs discover their true personalities.”

“In this case, the cruel and unnecessary practice of animal testing was compounded by the abandonment of these innocent victims,” said Kerry Clair, executive co-director of Pets Alive Animal Sanctuary.

Those wishing to donate to the cause can visit www.bestfriends.org. or www.petsalive.com.

People who live near Pets Alive in Middletown, N.Y., are invited to volunteer their time to help feed, care for and socialize the beagles. To do so contact volunteers@petsalive.com.

Couchsurfing in Albuquerque

At 56, it’s not every day I spend the night with a 25-year-old woman, and if it ever did happen, you’d normally be the last person I’d tell.

But, on Thursday night, that’s exactly what I did.

A “complete stranger” invited Ace and me into her home in Albuquerque, went out to dinner with us at a dog-friendly restaurant (Kelly’s Brew Pub) and, though still a kid (relative to me, anyway) taught me a few things about trust and keeping the doors to one’s life open enough that new people can get in.

And she saved me a few bucks, as well.

For this, I can thank couchsurfing.org, a website that, realizing not all of us have money to spare for mint-on-the pillow accommodations, unites people looking for a place to stay with local people kind enough to offer one — on a global scale.

I first heard about it through a comment left on ohmidog! — offering me, a penny pinching traveler with a dog at my side, some advice on finding dog-friendly, cheap, even free, lodgings.

I went to the website, created a bare bones profile, paid a $25 verification fee (though they — see comment below — prefer to call it a donation), and explored the options, especially those members who lived along my somewhat fuzzy route who were open to opening their homes not just to travelers, but their dogs as well.

Jen Walker in Albuquerque was the first one I found. Through the website, I sent her a message, told her a bit about myself, and what Ace and I are up to, and inquired as to whether I might crash — a word I haven’t used in 25 years or so — on her couch.

Sure, she wrote back. She was cool with that.

She’s got a charming little dog of her own, an Italian greyound-Chihuahua mix named Cali who likes to hang out on the roof of the apartment that joins hers, and a cat named Autumn, who likes to crawl into suitcases and more than once has almost been accidentally abducted by a departing couchsurfer.

Ace, once spotting Autumn behind a pillow, immediately hopped in Jen’s bed to better stare at her. Jen was cool with that.

Jen, as she has been with the 67 previous couchsurfers she has taken in, was the consumate host — and even supplied an air mattress for me to sleep on instead of the couch. She’s working, and going to school at the University of New Mexico, and is a delightful young woman — God, how old do I sound? — with a laid back aura, a kind heart, and a curious and open mind.

Taking new acquaintances into her home, she says “allows me to meet people I probably otherwise would never meet.”

It occurs to me that, by hosting couchsurfers, she’s doing what I’m doing — both by taking this trip, and when I made the career choice to be a journalist: ensuring I would see new things, meet new people, keep learning, and not live the insulated life.

She’s made some lasting friends, and — one of the big side benefits –  accumulated a long list of places to stay around the globe. As with those who stay with her, she knows those she stays with will offer her much more than any hotel, or even hostel, ever could. Staying with a local person or family provides much better insight into local culture, far more tips on where to go and what to see and allows one to make a more intimate connection with the place they are visiting.

The concept is based on a slightly hippyesque, pay-it-forward kind of philosophy — taking in others leads others to take in others, and so forth. And it gives credence to the belief that in this world there are no complete strangers, only partial ones … friends we haven’t met yet, as I like to think — at least when the cynical journalist, untrusting, worst-case-scenario side  of me doesn’t get in the way.

Jen, in her two years as a member, has only couchsurfed once, in Durango, Colorado, but she’s hosted close to 70 times, many of those being visitors from other countries. They might stay a day, or even a week. (Jen is cool with that.) For her, it has led to many long term friendships and not a single negative experience.

In college, and even afterwards, she notes, she had a core group of friends — all with similar backgrounds and interests. Through couchsurfing, she has expanded her friend horizons, and met lots of different types of people.

Jen grew up in Hastings, Nebraska and at first was hesitant to tell her parents about her involvement in couchsurfing. When she finally did, “they thought it was great,” she said. “Some of my friends think I’m crazy, but I’ve met a lot of cool people.”

She’s now averaging two to six visitors a week, and I — who am sitting, not surfing, on her couch right now, Cali on one side of me, Ace on the other (Jen is cool with that) — am number 68.

As couchsurfing.org explains on its website mission statement: “For one reason or another, some of us may not have the opportunity to explore. There could be any number of obstacles that keep us from venturing as freely as we might otherwise, whether it’s economic limitations, cultural constraints, or simply fear of the unknown … If we could address and overcome those barriers, more of us would naturally tap into our own curious nature and actively explore the world.”

That philosophy, too, is sort of similar to the one behind my current journey — having no money is no reason not to travel; maybe, even, it can be a reason to travel. (Bear and his famiy notwithstanding.)

Couchsurfing.org got its start when founder Casey Fenton bought a cheap ticket to Iceland for a long weekend. Rather than stay at a hotel or hostel, he came up with idea of e-mailing over 1500 Icelandic students in Reykjavik and asking them if he could crash on one of their couches.

That led to numerous offers from Icelanders offering to show “their’ Reykjavik.” After his week in Iceland, he vowed to never again get trapped in a hotel and tourist marathon while traveling.

Originally, I planned to stay two nights, but after one I’m heading to Santa Fe to see an old friend who — assuming her three dogs get along with mine — might let me house/pet sit when she and her veterinarian husband are out of town for a week in July.

I’ll send Jen an email, and leave her a note — in case she’s not back from work by the time I have to leave. I’m sure she’ll be cool with that.

(To read all of “Dog’s Country,” click here.)

You, too, can get an online degree in dogology

Classes are underway at Dog College.

What is Dog College? It’s a series of free online courses — not for real college credits — being offered by Dog Fancy magazine in conjunction with DogChannel.com. It’s sponsored by Iams Healthy Naturals brand dog food.

dogcollegeThis semester has already started, and includes nine courses that pet owners take over three months — including classes on physiology, natural nutrition, communication, genetics, environmental science, health science and art history.

Each course includes advice and information from dog experts, and includes reading material, video or slide shows. To graduate, students must complete all of the quizzes with a passing score of 60 percent or higher. To receive top honors, students must take all of the quizzes and score 90 percent or higher on each one.

A valedictorian, chosen from those who score 100 percent on all quizzes, will win a year’s worth of Iams Healthy Naturals dog food provided by PETCO. To learn more and sign up, visit at DogChannel.com.

BARCS Madness: Some fees waived in March

basketballBaltimore Animal Rescue & Care Shelter (BARCS) is waiving the $65 adoption fee for selected dogs and cats for the entire month of March.

Dogs and cats that can be adopted for free will be identified at the shelter with a basketball sticker on their cages.

Included in the adoption fee are spay/neuter surgery; vaccinations for rabies, DHLPP and bordatella for dogs or FVRCP for cats; de-worming, a flea preventative, a general examination, a food sample, and a month of free health insurance. Baltimore City residents will have to pay a $10 license fee.

In addition to waiving some fees, BARCS will be offering microchipping for $20 per pet – only $5 for those who were adopted at BARCS.

BARCS is the largest shelter in Baltimore and the surrounding area, taking in over 11,000 animals each year.

More information about animals available for adoption may be found at the BARCS website. BARCS located at 301 Stockholm Street, across from the M&T Bank Stadium, and is open for adoptions Monday through Friday from 2 to 6 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

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