Two Nights in the Crab Kingdom

This summer our vacation was short, but spectacular, full of Fourth of July fireworks, rich food, and Americana music. Rather than fly halfway across the country for a week in some Ecotopia we hopped a plane to Baltimore to see our son Rob’s band The Belleville Outfit open for Lyle Lovett . The concert venue was downtown on the ritzy Inner Harbor, and once on the ground we tried to keep our carbon footprint local and low by riding the MTA light rail in from the airport.

2008 will always be remembered as “The Summer of Four Dollar Gas.” I think about the price of travel all the time these days, but it’s not simply because of sticker shock at the pumps and the escalating price of airline tickets. I’m an environmentalist and my thoughts on the issue of oil are often philosophical. It’s an issue that I’ve been following for thirty years, not only when it affected my bottom line, and, as you all know by now, I’ve always had some strong opinions.

I’ve always been a believer in “peak oil,” the fact that in the early 1970s we consumers reached the peak of the oil we’ll ever pump out of U.S. reserves. Since then, U.S. production has been downhill and will continue to be no matter how aggressively we exploit our reserves. Some analysts say we’ve reached world peak oil, and the converging lines of supply and demand are closer and closer together each year.

To thicken the plot, the price of a barrel of oil is climbing dramatically. In response I formulate arguments to use with my panic-driven friends who see drilling off-shore and opening up Alaska’s ANWAR for a few barrels of crude as necessary alternatives to salve our energy wounds.

In the last few weeks public opinion has shifted dramatically in favor of domestic exploration by any means available. I still believe we should stay out of ANWAR. There’s little indication that drilling in this pristine wildlife reserve will have any affect on oil prices in the near future, and what we’d pull from under the tundra would amount to little when added to worldwide yearly consumption.

I pondered these weighty environmental issues as we flew north and headed into the city.

I was surprised there weren’t more locals or tourists riding the light rail. It was the middle of the day and only a few seats were filled when it left the station. The transit system was so casual that no one ever took our $1.60 tickets. The train ran like an old trolley on a grid of electric wires, burning West Virginia coal. Wasn’t I against mountain top removal? Life is full of contradictions.

Once downtown we descended from the train stop to the Inner Harbor and our hotel. It was like entering Disney World. This past spring we’d watched all four seasons of THE WIRE, a dark, sometimes funny HBO cop drama about Baltimore, and the Inner Harbor was never mentioned. TV didn’t prepare me for the glitz of the waterfront- thousands of tourists like us walking the old piers eating corporate food and visiting the aquarium and a handful of museums.

For 24 hours we ate blue crabs and listened to music we admired in the peaceful capitalist kingdom of the Inner Harbor, a Green Zone for commerce and tourism.

The morning after the concert we wanted to see “the real” Baltimore, so we walked up the hill from the harbor on a marked tourist trail. A mere three blocks outside of the harbor there were dozens of homeless sleeping in cardboard boxes in every pocket park. It was impossible to follow the little brass markers in the sidewalk. They led right into the middle of the squatters camps. Rather than push on, we headed back down toward the security of the Hard Rock CafeĀ©.

On the night of the Fourth of July we watched the fireworks display over the harbor, a real “rockets’ red glare” near the spot Francis Scott Key had written our national anthem. I didn’t think much about peak oil as I watched the fireworks. Now I’m back home and I wonder if the real Baltimore is in the minds of the dreamers that thought up THE WIRE and the Inner Harbor, the minds of the tourists like us, the minds of those sleeping homeless, or somewhere in between?

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