Women’s Travel Gold Winner: In Search of a Shining Moment

June 26th, 2017

By Anne Sigmon

We all call barbarous anything that is contrary to our own habits.
―Michel de Montaigne, The Compete Essays

We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.
― Martin Luther King Jr., speech in St. Louis, March 22, 1964

The front page pictured a lifeless Syrian child, dusty limbs splayed in the gray rubble of Aleppo. I felt cold and lost. That poor boy might be a little brother, perhaps to one of the mischievous kids I saw roistering on the playground when I visited Aleppo in 2010, not long before war overwhelmed the city. He could be the son of the jovial grinder in the bazaar—the boy who giggled at me when I stopped to have my pocket knife sharpened. Or perhaps he was the adored sibling of the girl who peeked out from her mother’s abaya to wave when I stopped in the spice market.

As I looked up from The New York Times, my vision blurred with angry tears. The historic medieval city of Aleppo—which I once so loved—had been reduced to a bombed-out flashpoint in the barbarous Syrian Civil War.

That newspaper story appeared in May 2013. Not much has changed since then. Sectarian violence still rages across the Middle East, much of it fueled by religious hate. The news still burns with images of dead children. Even after decades of savage bombings—from Baghdad to Aleppo to Istanbul; from New York to London, Madrid, Paris and Orlando—there seems no end. How can we humans do that to each other? I wondered. To children? Why can’t we be more tolerant?

Perhaps Andalusia might hold a clue. These days, Spain seems just as fraught as the rest of the world with religious suspicion and intolerance. But it hadn’t always been that way. Recently, as I was preparing for a trip there, I’d read about a magical time—a time when Muslims, Christians, and Jews together created a glorious florescence of art, science and literature centuries ahead of the European Renaissance. The seat was the almost mythical al-Andalus—Andalusia.

A province of southern Spain today, from the eighth to the twelfth centuries Andalusia reigned as the world’s most admired cultural center. It was ruled, not by Western kings, but by a Muslim dynasty originally from Syria. Al-Andalus was the “ornament of the worlda medieval nun once wrote. That’s also the title of a book I’d read by historian María Rosa Menocal.  Reading the book, I wondered how a feudal society, often in conflict, achieved the kind of tolerance that eludes us today. I hoped to learn more during my visit.

A month later, I was there, in Andalusia, the land the Romans called Hispania. Wandering the ancient capital of Córdoba, I meandered across the Roman bridge built in the time of Emperor Augustus, the first century CE. The old stone gleamed golden in the sun, glinting off the sixteen graceful arches that span the river Guadalquivir. A wisp of clouds drifted overhead in the sapphire-blue sky. I could almost imagine myself trailing the great Roman orator Seneca the Elder, who was born and died in Córdoba, as he made his way across the eight-hundred-foot span. In his eighties, Seneca would have walked slowly, perhaps with a staff, laboring uphill toward the Roman Forum and the new Temple of Augustus. Imperial Rome worshiped the emperor like a god.  But the Jews and early Christians in Andalusia were, nonetheless, free to practice their one-god religions, however peculiar they may have seemed to the Romans.

After Rome fell, the Visigoths ruled what was then called Hispania. At first the Goths—who practiced a liberal form of Christianity called Arianism—were tolerant of the Jews. But after they embraced Catholicism in 589 CE, things turned ugly. Anti-Jewish decrees forbade Jews to marry Christian women. Jews were not allowed to own slaves—thus barring them from slave-dependent agriculture. In 613, the Visigoth king issued an edict that all Jews must be forcibly converted to Christianity.

I felt squeamish just reading about it. Why was it so important that everyone share the same religion? I’ve never understood that mindset.

As a symbol of their conversion, the Visigoths built a grand church—the Basilica of San Vicente—on a hill overlooking the Roman bridge. All that remains of San Vincente today are some pieces of mosaic floor, a carved stone sarcophagus, odd pieces of scalloped stonework, and enigmatic crouching figures set into column bases.

The early persecution of the Jews in Spain ended, surprisingly, after a young Syrian prince escaped the overthrow and murder of his family—the Umayadds—in Damascus, hid in Morocco, and finally sailed across the Mediterranean in 755 CE to lead a vibrant new Muslim dynasty in Spain. His name was Abd al-Rahman. His dynasty, based in Córdoba, lasted for almost three hundred years.

By long tradition, Muslim rulers had allowed both Christians and Jews to practice their faiths. They were all “people of the book,” followers of the one God of Abraham. At the beginning of al-Rahman’s reign, the Muslims worshiped in the Christian basilica. But al-Rahman wasn’t satisfied. History records his great longing—shared by his heirs and successors—to recreate the lost grandeur of the Umayyad Caliphate in Damascus.  He bought the basilica from the Christians and, to replace it, started work on what he hoped would be the grandest mosque in all Islam. After seeing it for myself, I believe he succeeded.

The calming magic of the Great Mosque enveloped me as soon as I stepped over the threshold. In the hypostyle hall, a hypnotizing array of double horseshoe arches—vivid in alternating stripes of white stone and red brick—marched toward infinity. Yellow light radiated from lanterns that swung low in the dim hall. Scents of incense and earth drifted by, the mineral smells of great age. The enormous arches are lifted up, as if to heaven, by an army of 850 columns cut from veined marble, some gray, others red or green or white. Antique capitals perch atop the columns, some with delicately carved acanthus; others with broken palms. At 250,000 square feet, the space feels endless, a cavernous hymn to God. Sitting there, in the quiet, my own worries were reduced to specks of dust.

Many of the materials used to build the Great Mosque were reclaimed from Córdoba’s past. Some of the capitals had their first use in the city’s Roman temple; some marble columns graced the Visigothic Church of San Vicente—fragments of old faiths singing praises once more.

History records that Abd al-Rahman yearned to re-create in Córdoba all the grandeur of his lost Umayyed homeland in Damascus—not just in architecture, but in science and the arts as well. He hungered to build a great center of learning and refinement with contributions from the best minds, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish. This sensibility was shared by his successors, who turned Córdoba into a prestigious center of art, commerce and scholarship. In al-Andalus, almost everyone spoke Arabic, the recognized language of art and science. In the ninth and tenth centuries, Córdoba was the jewel of Europe with a library system that was the envy the world. Scholars and booksellers flocked to the city. A tenth-century chronicler, whose name is lost to history, described Córdoba as “the highest of the high … the homeland of wisdom … the garden of the fruits of ideas.”

To many historians, that was a golden age, a flourishing of spiritual and intellectual life. It’s been called “La Convivencia”— coexistence—a time when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in peace. Others say that idea is mere myth.

By all accounts, Muslim Spain was never an egalitarian society. Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived side by side, yes. But Christians and Jews were second-and third-class citizens. Among other inequities, the government forced them to pay a “tribute tax” to practice their religions. There were “intractable differences and enduring hostilities,” Menocal says in Ornament of the World. Yet “they were still able to nourish a culture of tolerance.”

The political situation deteriorated over time. By the end of the tenth century the Muslim unity in al-Andalus had collapsed. The Iberian Peninsula had devolved into a constellation of small principalities, with Muslim states (called taifas) in the south and Christian states in the north, each striving to outdo the others. Alliances weren’t necessarily drawn along religious lines. Muslim princes often allied with their Christian counterparts. Scholars, artists, poets and intellectuals of all faiths were in high demand to ornament the competing courts in distinctive Andalusian style. Despite the turbulent politics, the eleventh century was still a bright period of cultural achievement.

Then the light began to dim. In the twelfth century, fanatical Berber Muslims from Africa wrenched control from the Umayyads in Spain. The Berbers preached uncompromising jihad against Christians and Jews and, over time, stripped the minorities of most of their rights.

Sitting in the courtyard of the old Córdoba synagogue, I imagine the chilling sight of ten thousand mounted men bearing down on me, their robes billowing with speed, heads swathed in white turbans, their faces masked by blue cloth scarves trailing behind them. I see only their fierce eyes and the sun glinting off the blade of deadly scimitars. In the end, my only choices are: convert to Islam, escape the country, or die.

At about the same time, the crusade movement bred an equally zealous Christian ideology and a frenzied clamor for a reconquest of lands lost to the Arabs. In 1212, the Catholic Pope Innocent III rallied European knights to a crusade in Spain. When it was over, Christian princes had conquered all of the Muslim principalities of al-Andalus except for small far-south redoubt in Granada.

The eerie parallels to our own twenty-first century conflicts made me shudder. How little we’ve learned from history. I thought of Syria and the glittering masterpieces of architecture that so inspired Abd al-Rahman. They stood as a beacon to civilization for two millennia—and dazzled me when I visited in 2010. Now so many of these treasures are lost, blown to rubble in the madness of the past five years.

After the reconquest, the Christian capital moved eighty-seven miles east to Seville. The Muslims were now the subjugated, many of them pushed south to Granada.  Others stayed put in Christian-held areas. They acquired a name: Mudéjar, meaning unconverted Muslims who submitted to the rule of the Christian kings. It probably started as a slur, but later the term also defined the triumphant style of art and architecture that characterized the era—an exuberant fusion of gothic, renaissance, and Islamic form.

One of the most splendid achievements of Mudéjar art is the Real Alcázar, the original Muslim fortress defending Seville. Over time, the Alcázar evolved into a royal palace, first for the Muslim princes and, later, their Christian successors.

Remarkably, even after the reconquest, much of the old spirit of tolerance still survived to enrich Seville’s culture. The Christian kings of the thirteenth century fostered a cosmopolitan court that encouraged learning. Jews, Muslims and Christians all had prominent roles.

A walk through Seville’s Alcázar, especially in the late afternoon when the crowds are thin and the cicadas thrum, is more than a trek back in time; it’s a magic carpet to another world, at once more brutal but in some ways more tolerant than our own. My favorite spot is the “new” palace, built by the Christian King Pedro I in 1364. Vibrant arabesque tiles and elaborate white plasterwork decorate nearly every inch of the interior walls.

Outside on the lovely Patio of the Maidens, I sat in a corner, on a low marble platform. Water burbled in a long rectangular pool surrounded by orange trees in fragrant bloom. Reflected in the water, the building’s columns seemed to dance toward me. Tile stars shimmered as if they still hung in the sky. The breeze fluttered with the sounds of a dove calling, the flap of a bird’s wing, a riff of Arabic music from someone’s audio guide.

Arrayed among the stars, vines and flowers are cartouches in Arabic calligraphy that speak to the cultural integration of the palace’s builders. My favorite: “In Praise of Allah and our Sultan Pedro.” Other inscriptions: “Power belongs to Allah.” “There is no victor but Allah.” Allah. God.  الله. The one God of all the people of the book.

On my visit to Andalusia, I’d hoped to learn how a great society of mixed religions lived in harmony for hundreds of years and produced one of history’s greatest artistic cultures. Instead, I found that it was never that simple. That world was never harmonious. Still, even though there was almost constant conflict, long centuries of familiarity had softened religious extremism. Each community was willing to learn from the other.

Andalusia’s long experiment in multicultural tolerance failed in the end. Medieval Spain eventually succumbed to a fanatic crusade mentality that gripped both sides. In this atmosphere of paranoia, the Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain in 1492 by the Catholic Kings Ferdinand and Isabella. Al-Andalus, once the center of world culture and refinement, had lost its way.

Are we any different today? The radical hate that destroyed al-Andalus still rages around the world, particularly in Syria. The artistic patrimony of the original Umayyad civilization lies in ruins. Half a million Syrians have been killed. Half the population is homeless. Seven million people have fled the country and wander the globe, many of them unwelcome, in search of a new life. By the end of April 2014, the UN reported, almost nine thousand children had been killed in the war. After that, things got so chaotic, the UN stopped counting.

When I start to grow despondent about this, I try to think of al-Andalus. Stars still shine in the Alcázar. The art, and its message of tolerance, still speaks to us—a tribute to the one God they all worshiped and a shining beacon of hope. Christians, Muslims and Jews found tolerance once. Perhaps, one day, we will find it again.

“I go into the Muslim mosque and the Jewish synagogue
and the Christian church and I see one altar.”
—Jalal ad-Din ar-Rumi, eleventh century Sufi Muslim philosopher, The Essential Rumi


Anne Sigmon is a California writer, stroke survivor, and autoimmune patient who covers adventure travel for people with health limitations. Her stories about travel to remote corners from Burma to Ethiopia, Iran, and Uzbekistan appear regularly in magazines and anthologies, most recently Wandering in Cornwall: Mystery, Mirth and Transformation in the Land of the Ancient Celts, Bradt Guides’ To Oldly Go, and Charleston and the South (2016).

Travel Memoir Gold Winner: Life Sentence

June 19th, 2017

By Steven Law

Faced with a difficult life decision, he seeks solace in the wilderness.

The air was cold and still, a skin-tightening astringent kiss from mother nature welcoming me back. And nothing moved. The precedent stillness before the storm. Like God pausing to wrap a pull cord around a tornado. It gave me a buggy, spooky feeling. The same feeling you get when you feel eyes staring at the back of your head. The kind of nervous calm that makes birds take flight, horses run in circles around the field. Everything’s still, but there’s a barely perceptible vibration underlying it all. It’s the kind of stillness that pulls dreamers from their work-life routines to see what the hell’s going on.

But for now the sky was clear, light blue, the color of an iceberg’s shadow. Sunlight crackled off the fresh snow like sparks erupting from a popping log.  I knelt in a clearing of snow that had fallen just the day before and strapped on my snowshoes.

Snowshoes attached, I stood and stretched, my spine popping from my neck to my hips like an unzipping zipper. My head was clear, my legs felt strong. It felt good to have the backpack on again. And it felt good to be going back to one of my favorite trails, during my favorite time of year: the Virgin River Rim Trail in winter. I shuffled through the trees, a whistle personified.

The actual Virgin River Rim Trail was still about three miles south of me and 150 feet higher in elevation from my current position. I picked a north-south running canyon and hiked into it and planned to follow it until I bisected the trail. When carrying a 40 pound backpack, to travel directly uphill in snowshoes on a hill of even moderate steepness is most easily done on wet, glutinous snow. Snow your snowshoes can compress into crampon-adhering mortar. But the snow on this particular day was light, powdery and packed underneath my snowshoes about as tightly as sugar in a hot cup of coffee. My crampons were unable to find strong enough purchase to allow a straight up climb. I found it easier, necessary, to switchback my way up the mountain. It was slow, strenuous going. After ten minutes of climbing I concluded that this is the hardest physical labor I’d ever experienced.

For every thirty steps I took I stopped to rest for twenty or thirty seconds. I was getting hot. I unzipped my coat and took off my knit cap. I adjusted my uncomfortable backpack. It felt like something in my pack was trying to hatch and its eggtooth was jabbing me right in the spine. I could hear my heart beating rapidly, strongly in my ears. After 45 minutes of climbing my oxygen-deprived blood felt like it had condensed to the viscosity of honey. The going was slow, but that was okay. I stopped often to catch my breath, admire my surroundings. After two hours of snowshoeing my legs felt heavy, like those first few seconds when you’re going up in an express elevator. The sweat was spitting from my sweat glands like watermelon seeds on the fourth of July. My 40 pound backpack now felt like the caprock I was carrying to the top of the pyramid.

As heavy as was my backpack there was a psychological burden I’d been carrying since the day I graduated from college. And I wearied of carrying it.

I had graduated a couple years earlier but I still lived in Cedar City, the same city where I’d attended colleges. My friends and fellow adventurers – Drew, Scott, Jeremy, Kelly, Shane — had also graduated. But they had moved away, and started their careers. I missed them greatly. No one knocked on my door at three a.m. anymore pulling me out on an adventure. I no longer needed to keep a backpack packed with road essentials. But I still kept it packed. Partly out of nostalgia, partly out of hope. You know.

Ever since the day we had all gone cliff jumping off the 50 foot ledge I had done a lot of thinking about the question  one of our girlfriends had asked us later that day while we ate lunch at Sullivan’s Café. “Why do you guys do it?” she asked. “Why are you guys always jumping off cliffs and exploring abandoned mines and going on ridiculous adventures?”

And we gave her answers like, “Because it’s there, man,” or “We can’t help it. It’s in our DNA,” to which the girlfriend shook her head and replied. “No, it’s more than that with you guys. With you guys there seems to be something almost . . . desperate, in the amount of stupid stuff you do and the intensity with which you do it.”

And she was right.

We had all been raised Mormon. We came from the Land of Unquestioning Conformity and we were all going straight back to it. Indeed, the path of our lives had already been laid out for us; our older brothers and sisters were already well into it. We had all been to the Maproom of Our Lives and we had seen the course of our lives already mapped out for us. We saw the X on the map that said, “You are here.” And we saw what was coming next: we were going to graduate from college, start our careers, get married, start our families, at which point we’d be so busy, too committed, too entrenched with all that to pursue anything as trivial and stupid and selfish as thrill-seeking and adventure-mongering. This was why we pursued our thrills and adventures so rabidly; because the time in our lives we had to do them had an expiration date stamped on it, very boldly, very clearly. We were never going to climb Mt. Everest. We were never going to explore Aztec ruins or sail across the ocean or run with the bulls unless we did it right then, in the small window before we began our careers and our domestic lives. So our cliff jumping and our midnight canyoneering trips, our spontaneous road trips to everywhere was our protest song.

And then, just as we had foreseen, it started happening. We graduated. We started careers. Some of us got married and started families.

Since our conversation that day in Sullivan’s Café I had done a lot of thinking on the subject of adventure and I had formed a lot of questions about it. Was the lust for adventure just foolishness? Is it just something adolescent males need to get out of their systems? Would my life be better, more productive if I just grew out of it? Or does adventure actually have some inherent qualities that can make life experience richer, fuller?

I had been reluctant to enter into my own career. I had been dragging my feet trying to delay its seemingly inevitable arrival.  When I had stood with my friends in the Map Room of our Lives I saw the X marking “You are here” and I saw the recommended road ahead of us. But I also saw a lot of interesting trails snaking off in other directions away from that X.  For me the adventures and thrill-seeking had led to some new and interesting pathways and I felt like if I explored them I’d find some amazing things along the way. I saw a lot of interesting unexplored white space. And to an explorer there’s nothing more intriguing, more enticing than white space.

In the meantime I had taken a job in a factory that made ready-to-assemble furniture. The cheap crap you buy at Walmart. I worked on the laminating machine, where paper that’s printed to look like different types of wood was glued and pressed onto particle board. My job was to stand at the end of the laminator and check the boards to make sure the paper wasn’t wrinkled, burnt or otherwise defective. After inspecting the boards I attached a barcode sticker to the stack of “wood” and scanned it with a laser scanner. It was boring, spirit-killing work. It was enough to make me wonder if I had been Hitler in my previous life and this life was my punishment.

The paper veneers were printed to look like walnut, oak, alder and many other types of wood. But there was one major difference: the stuff we made never obtained that inner glow that old wood, real wood, got from years of being polished. If you polished this stuff too long you’d just rub the paper veneer right off of it.

So naturally, I spent a lot of my time at this period in my life thinking about veneers. It was partly because of my job and partly because I held this job during a time in my life when I was trying to decide how to spend the rest of my life.

I had come to a crossroads in my life. Facing a dilemma. The dilemma. Life had been nudging me in a direction that, if taken, could cause the inner landscape of myself I was just beginning to discover to go unexplored. I was being nudged onto the playing field where the young, the urban, the professional roamed. But I didn’t want that. At all. I still wanted to roam with the ravens and coyotes. I still wanted to sleep beneath the cottonwoods and junipers. The direction I was being nudged would bring me material gains but, I worried, would leave me unfulfilled in this other area, this more important, area of my life.

In recent years I had been catching glimpses of a place inside me. It’s a place I only saw when I was out in the wilderness alone. It was a place I would definitely like to explore further. I got only short glimpses of it, then it would disappear like a mountain behind a snowstorm. I was certainly not the only person to have discovered this place inside of themselves. I had read many accounts of other travelers and other explorers who had set out to explore new places and they too, usually deep into their journey, ended up exploring their inner selves.

And it was only during the past year that I’d taken the Austrian poet Rainer Rilke’s advice who says, “Things don’t truly exist until the poet gives them a name.” And so I gave this mysterious, hidden place inside of me a name. Because I felt like I could explore this place inside me forever I named it Terra Infinitum.

There were other things in my life at that time that also got me thinking about veneers. The first was a man I worked with at the furniture factory who had just purchased a very nice house. I knew because I went there to attend a barbecue he threw to show it off. But his beautiful house was expensive and this man didn’t make nearly enough money at the factory to pay for it. In order to afford his luxurious home, and all the other things in life that would make him appear successful, this man had to work ten or more hours or more of overtime a week. Every week. He really loved his house. So much so that he never got to do anything more than sleep in it. I didn’t want to become that guy.

I also had a roommate who was another good example of the veneer lifestyle. The previous summer he had purchased a new $33,000 sport utility vehicle. He bought the SUV so he could, as he put it, “be ready to hit the slopes and go camping at a moment’s notice.” He even bought a roof rack and, as the ultimate SUV accessory, a forest green canoe to match his maroon and gold Explorer. He even drove around town with the canoe on the roof rack for a week just because it made him look adventurous. You know the type.

He then bought a $700 bombproof tent, a $450 backpack, a $250 daypack, a 100 feet of rapelling rope, a harness, carabiners, fleece pants, a nylon coat with zip out fleece liner, a multi-tool pocket knife, hiking shoes, another pair of hiking shoes, trekking poles and on and on. Basically, if he’d ever seen it advertised across the pages of Backpacker or Outside he probably owned it and in different colors. But, like everyone else, he was too busy to go hiking, fishing or camping.

At the furniture plant they had a saying for that type of thing: Who cares if it’s not real walnut as long as it looks like walnut. My roommate, who sold his freedom for the image of freedom, must have a similar motto: Who cares if I’m not the outdoorsy type as long as I look like the outdoorsy type?

About three weeks prior to this snowshoe trek along the Virgin River Rim Trail I had been offered a very good job as a copy writer at an ad agency. The pay was crazy good, and the work seemed interesting. The first thing I did, after hearing what my starting salary would be, was think of the things I was going to buy. A new Subaru. Some new Doc Martens would be nice. I found myself thumbing through clothing and furniture catalogs circling the items I’d buy. The copy writing job was in Salt Lake City. I began picturing how I’d decorate the studio apartment I’d rent downtown. I began thinking how proud my parents and girlfriend would-finally!-be of me.

One day, while perusing the catalogs from which I’d soon be adorning my glamorous new life, the text read, “Do the Joneses one better.” This thought catalyzed with my life at the veneer factory.

Why do I want to keep up with the Joneses? I asked myself. Why do I want to model my life after theirs? The Joneses gave up on their own dreams long ago. They’re a bunch of sell outs. Sure they may put on a pretty Premier Walnut life but they live a hollow, particle board existence. Are these really the people I want to keep up with? Was their life the pattern I wanted to follow?

You can cover particle board with paper printed to look like oak and call it oak but that doesn’t make it oak. You can own a huge house and call it Success. You can own a boat and call it Freedom. You can own a summer cabin and call it Escape.

So . . .  was it off to Salt Lake to become a copy writer and live the Premier Walnut lifestyle or stay in Cedar City and live an Unfancy but Authentic lifestyle?

This was a decision I had to make with my heart. It was because I needed to make this decision with my heart that I went into the wilderness for three days. Solitude and wild places best allow my heart to open up. And if I didn’t make the right decision right then, this may be one of the last decisions I made with it.
The pines were hooded in white and snow-boughed, snow-bent. The smaller, young pines bent like praying monks. Some young aspens were completely bent over, encased in a rime of ice from some previous storms. Standing among the pines they resembled a cricket’s eye view of croquet hoops in tall grass.

The trees were so thick that I could only see about thirty feet in any direction, not so much a
wall as a veil I slowly passed through. After an hour or so of climbing I knew I was nearing the top of the mountain. I was finally able to see a little sky in front of me through the trees, not just above me. Between the trees I saw a jet traveling across the sky leaving a contrail, like the pin in an etch-a-sketch.

I decided to give one last hearty push to the summit. From there it would be easier going as the trail remained relatively level as it runs along the edge of the plateau. My snowshoes were only 29 inches long and 8 1/2 inches wide. Much too short and narrow to give the necessary loft to a 180 pound man and a 40 pound backpack. With each step I sunk into the snow nearly to my knees. And after three hours of this level of difficult snowshoeing my breathing was very heavy. With my snowshoes sinking and my labored breathing it gave the impression that my legs were deflating with every step and I had to inhale 15 times to re-inflate them enough to take another step.

I pushed, I slipped, I sweated. Near the top, the gradation of the hill leveled out enough that I no longer had to switchback. I could walk directly uphill. With sides heaving, backpack burrowing into me, quadriceps burning, feeling like an engine about to seize up, I reached the top. I could hear my heart beating in my ears. My entire body tingled like a root beer burp in the nose. My quadriceps and calves were twitching like Medusa’s shower cap.

I had reached the Virgin River Rim Trail. I took off my backpack and dropped it to the ground and rested. I could see the edge of the plateau about 100 feet before me. A few trees grew along the edge of the mesa. Short, stunted, wind-twisted ponderosas and catalepsic junipers. The snow here was six to eight feet deep. Pine trees that in the summer would be over my head were now nearly buried, just anthill-sized piles of snow that I stepped over. The aspens were bare. Their afternoon shadows lay across the snow like bar codes. The world was softened, smoothed out. She rested, caught her breath.

I leaned on my ski poles and rested until my breathing slowed. The cold air felt good on my hot face. Something moved out of the corner of my eye. It was one of the taller pine trees about 40 feet ahead of me and to my right. As I watched, thawing snow slid from the tree’s upper boughs onto its lower boughs. The lower boughs bent under the new weight. After bending far enough some snow then slid off the lower boughs and cascaded down the side of the tree. With some of the weight released, the branch sprang back up casting its remaining snow into the air, creating a sound like a whispered “shhh” heard across an empty library. The air filled with glittering snow crystals that drifted across the mountain towards me, over me. Sparks of chrome. The snow crystals were so small. If the old saying is true that a thousand angels can dance on the head of a pin, then these snow crystals could have been their halos. Late afternoon sunlight prismed through them into my own private rainbow.

Rested, I walked closer to the edge wanting to take in the view I’d worked so hard to obtain. I came out of the trees and for the first time I saw what had been making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up all day. An armada of dark, gray storm clouds were moving in from the west. A big storm was on its way.

The Virgin River Rim Trail looks down into the Virgin River drainage area and the backside of Zion National Park. It was so beautiful. From this vantage, I could see some of Zion’s famous towers: West Temple, Mount Kinesawa and the Towers of the Virgin.

My elevation along the trail was high enough that I could also see well beyond Zion. To the southeast I was able to see the Kaibab Plateau, which makes up the Grand Canyon’s north rim, more than 150 miles away. In the west, mountains faded into each other in translucent gradations of blue, flat and untextured as wallpaper. It felt good to stretch my eyesight beyond the borders of the workplace walls. Just like a racehorse needs to get out of the stable and stretch its legs, a dreamer needs to get out and set his sights on the horizon. I have hiked this trail several times in the summer and I already had my campsite in mind.

In warmer months this trail was heavily cluttered with fallen logs, scrubby manzanita bushes, sagebrush and rocks that did not permit a person to walk across it easily. But the deep snow changed all that. All the downed logs, rocks and ankle-entangling bushes were now buried under banks of snow. Wind blowing over the rim of the mesa had sculpted the snow into cresting waves forever (or at least until spring) ready to crash onto dunes of snow. Now that I was on top of the plateau the snowshoeing was much easier, a cakewalk. And the icing was thick.

I picked up the pace into a shuffling jog. Snow on the backs of my snowshoes catapulted over my head landing in front of me, or down the back of my neck. I left a dash-mark of compressed blue tracks, the color of pinched hail cores, glowing in my wake. I found a rhythm I liked. I kept the views from the overlook in sight. My campsite was still about two or three miles away.

I reached my campsite about an hour later and took off my backpack. Oh, sweet weightless-ness! This must be how Superman feels right before take-off.

My campsite was a beautiful little clearing about four tents wide in a cluster of medium-height pine trees. It was about 75 feet away from the edge of the plateau so I was still an easy snowshoe away from the overlook, yet far enough away that I wouldn’t get blown away when the cold, night winds came hunting over its edge. I propped my backpack against a tree and, with my snowshoes, tromped down the snow in the center of the clearing. I then pitched my tent on top of the snow and unrolled my sleeping pad and sleeping bag inside the tent.

I then snowshoed over to the edge of the overlook to have a look. Heavenly, packless reconnaissance. Everything was so silent. A ringing silence. A sound like a licked finger being rubbed over a crystal glass. When I was a kid and first heard that sound I thought I was hearing the weight of gazillions of snow crystals settling. But I now know better, since I’ve heard that same ringing silence in the middle of a snowless desert.

The Virgin River Rim Trail is thus named because it overlooks the Virgin River drainage area, a large, south-facing bowl which drains into the Virgin River in the heart of southern Utah’s red rock country. Over the millenia, spring snowmelt and summer showers emptying into the Virgin River, have sculpted the red rock into pillars, spires, fins and curtains similar to those that have made Bryce Canyon famous. The towers and pinnacles stand like dull-headed pawns and sharp-featured bishops on a chess board, protecting their king. Some look half-asleep with weary, sluffing shoulders. Others look crisp, attentive in freshly-starched uniforms alert to the advance of a parure of hoodoos  And for a minute I was their king, surveying my kingdom, looking over their heads, some bent penitently (or sleepily), others held proudly. I looked into the valley and decided it was not a bad looking kingdom.

I wanted to see what was going on with the storm clouds I’d last seen moving in from the west but there were too many pine trees blocking my view. A little to my left a narrow fin of snow-covered red rock jutted out away from the edge of the cliff like a catwalk from a stage. There was a wide, flat platform at the end of the fin that looked like a good place to watch the storm roll in.

The top of the fin leading to the platform was about a foot wide, rounded, slick. Rather than try to walk across it I took off my snowshoes, waded forward through the deep snow and straddled the fin as if riding a horse. I mounted up and pommeled forward, snowplowing snow with the crotch of my pants as I skooched forward. After a few minutes I reached the end of the fin. It was flat and square. I brushed some of the snow off it and sat down, dangling my feet over the edge. From my new vantage there were no obstructions between me and the incoming storm.

With the coming of the storm the mountains on every horizon dimmed away as if behind a steamed shower door. The storm clouds, I could see, had ripened and turned to snow. The sun setting behind it had given it a soft, reddish cast. The reddish sunset saturated the orange-, peach- and salmon-colored rock formations before me until they were sweating with excess color. They were dripping dreamsicles, size ten formations painted with size twelve colors. During most any time of day these formations glow like the embers in a dying fire but the reddish cast of the setting sun made them glow like embers being blown on. They looked ready to burst into flame. They glowed like a pregnant woman with a sunburn.

Miracle on ice.

After gazing upon the scene and scenery for a while my thoughts again turned inward. Turned once again to my dilemma I’d come here to figure out: should I take the job as copy writer and live a comfortable existence or stay in Cedar City where my life would be poor monetarily but rich in adventure, exploration, discovery and story?

I was afraid that if I took the job as copy writer I’d commit myself to a road I didn’t want to go down. And I knew that the further I went down that road the harder it would be to get off. After I started my new career I’d next buy a house. Then get married. There would be children. A promotion. A bigger house. Maybe a master’s degree. Retirement. A brief time of travel, perhaps. Then a headstone. That’s the bleak way of looking at it, I know.

But that new life, if I chose it, would also contain many positive things I’d love. There would also be getaways with the wife, birthday parties, playing with my kids. Campouts in the backyard. Fishing trips. Storytime in the story tent we’d pitch in the basement or backyard. Cozy Christmas Eves. We could have all those countless little moments when we’d laugh around the dinner table. It was lonely out there in the woods and because of it I could more achingly feel what it was I’d be giving up if I chose plan B.

I kept thinking about a night in college when I was hanging out with my girlfriend. Her roommates were gone for the weekend. She had invited me over for dinner. I sat on the couch—she insisted—while she cooked dinner. She put a beverage in my hand, told me to relax. She unplugged the TV. She turned off the lights and lit ten or twelve candles. While she cooked we just talked. About everything. Our favorite movies, our favorite books. “Have you read The Shipping News?” “Oh my gosh! Is Annie Proulx the best writer or what?” Pretty soon I was off the couch and in the kitchen, to better converse. I picked up a knife and started cutting the green onions. She was making home-made bread and I sucked the bread dough off her fingertips. The white candle wax dripped down over the sides of the wine bottles in which they were inserted, until bottles resembled snow-covered pine trees; not so different than the ones I’d pass through three years later on the day I walked into the snowy woods to figure out the rest of my life.

It turned into one of the greatest nights of my life and at that moment I imagined spending lots of nights just like that; having interesting conversations with a beautiful and interesting woman.

But say the words, Aspiring Writer, and you’ve just sprayed Sure Death on your relationship. Within four months the relationship had ended. She wanted a reliable man with a reliable job bringing home a reliable paycheck with benefits and a retirement plan and room for advancement. Yes, of course. I didn’t hold that against her at all. That’s how it should be. Yeah, I could do that, I thought. I could be that guy. But the thought made my heart feel sick.

When I’m out exploring, I always carry a notebook and pen in my pocket and I took them out and brainstormed what it was I most truly, most deeply wanted out of life. It was not a list of things I wanted then, it was a list of what I wanted to have accomplished by the end of my life. It was not a list of things that would make my life more comfortable, it was a list of things that would make my life more fulfilling.

Then I began to edit the list, circling the things that mattered most to me in the long run. I circled exploration. I circled discovery. I circled love. Then I wrote it out in a sentence. It read: My life will have exploration, adventure, beauty, wonder, meditation, discovery, joy, enlightenment and love (that rare, crimson strand). I will explore Terra Infinitum.

My life sentence.

The number one item on my list of things I wanted to do during my life was explore. I wanted to be an explorer. And that’s when it occurred to me. I had been to the maproom of my life. I had seen my life’s course charted out. And I didn’t like what I saw. But surrounding the course of my life was the brilliant, uncharted, beautiful white space of unexplored options. And there is nothing that an explorer loves more than white space, nothing he or she loves more than exploring the unexplored.

Right there, sitting on top of a snow-covered, redrock hoodoo overlooking the backside of Zion National Park and an incoming snowstorm I made the biggest decision of my life.

I would leave my life’s pre-charted course and veer off into the white space of the unexplored life of an explorer. I liked it! That’s what I was going to do. The idea of it filled me with peace. A deep, comforting peace.

And maybe, I thought, I’d find a woman who was also looking for adventure, beauty, wonder, exploration, meditation, discovery, joy, enlightenment and love and she’d join me for a grand adventure.

Nearly an hour and a half passed and the storm was now almost upon me. Stiff with cold I carefully turned around, skooched back across the redrock fin to solid ground, put on my snowshoes and snowshoed back to camp. I gathered some wood and started a fire. I added larger kindling and breathed some life into it. I moved my backpack and other gear into the tent, preparing for the snow to fall. I balanced a pan on the fire to boil water for my freeze-dried dinner then snowshoed back into the woods and brought back more sticks and wrist-sized logs for the campfire. By the time I’d gathered enough wood to last into the night it had grown dark.

I pulled my sleeping pad out of the tent and sat on it while I ate and read by the fire. The fire sank lower and lower as it melted into the snow.

Finally, the storm arrived. It was a gentle, mild storm with no wind. A soft, caring, female storm. A log popped in the fire. Sparks erupted and pinwheeled into the night. At the same time, the falling snowflakes approaching the fire took on its red-orange glow so that the snowflakes resembled falling sparks. With the bright orange sparks flying upwards and the paler orange sparks of snow descending . . . what can I say, it was gorgeous, mesmerizing. It was like the mythological River of Time that flows in two directions at once. Courting fireflies. Two galaxies colliding.

The snowflakes were large and almost weightless, big as muzzle-loader patches. They landed softly onto my face with wispy tickles.With a gust of wind from the northwest the falling snow suddenly tilted and changed direction like a school of fish.

I lay back on my sleeping pad, stared up at the sky and just watched the beautiful scene. I had pitched my tent inside a circle of pine trees which formed a porthole view of the sky above me. With the snowflakes falling down it was easy to imagine myself in the cockpit of a rocket blasting through a field of stars.

The light from the campfire turned the snow-draped pine trees that surrounded my camp reddish-orange. Thus lighted, and with their snow-covered boughs giving them a more contoured appearance, they didn’t look so different than the red-orange eroded hoodoos on which I had sat and contemplated just an hour earlier.

Once in a while I reached over and poked the campfire with a stick to release a new geyser of sparks into the snowy sky.

It was a very transcendental moment. Certainly one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. I wanted my life to be filled a thousand such moments. The experience confirmed and solidified my conviction that I had made the right decision.

I was going to be lying there watching the rising sparks and the falling snow for a while. Might as well settle in and get comfortable and enjoy this amazing show. I pulled my mummy bag and pillow from the tent and, back outside the tent. I crawled into my sleeping bag, tucked my pillow under my head and poked the fire sending another school of sparks swimming into the sky.

What a magnificent sight! Now, where’d I put those Cheetos?


Steven Law is the author of a book of poems called Polished. He’s an award-winning feature writer and columnist for the Lake Powell Chronicle in Page, AZ. He writes a monthly travel column about his adventures and travels called “Gone” for The Daily Herald in Provo, Utah. He is a contributing writer for Panorama magazine, and a staff writer for Gateway magazine. His freelance work has appeared in Outside, Backpacker, Sunset and Arizona Highways. He is the founder of Tales from an Adventurer’s Campfire Storytelling Festival. His travel essay “Swimming for Sure” won the Gold Award for Adventure Travel in the 2016 Travelers’ Tales Solas Awards.

Travel and Food Gold Winner: The Swankiest Rodent in Cartagena

June 12th, 2017

By Darrin DuFord

For one well-traveled Colombian chef, the culinary intersection of country and city is served with a side of 80s arena rock and a phantom mouthful of water hyacinth.

The structure I’d just entered loosely counted as a building—part indoor, part outdoor, depending on how much light pierced the gaps in the zinc roofing. Several turns later, a concrete ceiling appeared with its jumble of electrical mains dangling from beams. The inner sanctum, perhaps. I was inside the bowels of Cartagena’s Bazurto Market, following the steps of Charlie Otero, co-owner and chef of the restaurant La Comunión.

He was searching for a couple kilograms of an ingredient unavailable anywhere else in the city, one known locally as ponche, or more formally as the capybara, the world’s largest rodent.

The capybaras that graze around the lowland rivers of northwestern Colombia can grow to the length of a German shepherd with the stocky build of a beaver. With a liberal amount of imagination, an observer may see how they resemble guinea pigs, their close cousins, in their similarly thick snouts.

Barbecued by South America’s First Nations since long before Europeans arrived, ponche is a traditional meat in Colombia’s coastal Caribbean departments of Bolívar, Sucre, and Cordoba. Colombian cuisine is often noted for such dishes as egg-filled arepas, parrilla-grilled steak, and carimañolas—fried ovals of cassava dough filled with beef, common in Cartagena’s active street food repertoire. But I wanted to experience one of the original flavors of South America in the context of present-day Colombia.

And I had found the right chef for the mission. When I’d contacted the cofounder of tour company Cartagena Connections, Kristy Ellis, who seemed to know every restaurant owner in the city, she immediately referred me to Otero. A native of Cartagena, Otero has been enjoying ponche and other wild meats since he was a child. I was curious as to how ponche, usually prepared in rural areas and never having appeared before on his menu, would stand next to Otero’s modern creations, such as butifarra sausage ceviche with green mango puree, and his pumpkin and chontaduro (peach palm) soup with toasted hazelnuts.

I had to keep up with Otero’s hurried pace, lest I lose him behind slabs of deboned meat draped over metal bars, separating stalls like privacy curtains. On a counter between a lineup of chicken carcasses and a pile of husky, dinosaur-esque bones guarded by a stray dog, Otero found his bounty. A butcher in a stylish polo shirt (the current fashion rage for retailers at the Bazurto) brought out a quarter carcass, from which he chopped off the leg, the part Otero had desired.

As Otero had predicted, the ponche had been lightly smoked to keep it from spoiling, as finding fresh ponche meat at the market is difficult. The butchers only sell ponche meat obtained from hunters. While capybaras are bred and raised on farms in neighboring countries such as Brazil, no such farms can legally exist yet in Colombia, despite the meat’s steady demand.

Having exited under the last overhang of zinc roofing, we looked for a taxi to head back to the walled city center, several miles to the west, where tourists gently jostle on horse carriages and street musicians provide rhythm for passing grocery shoppers. But the walled city is ostensibly ponche-free. You have to roll your own, which was what Otero was literally planning to do.

A few years before, in Guyana, where capybara goes by the festively percussive name watrash, I had failed to find the meat in open-air restaurants that advertised it on their menus, their wait staffs regretfully informing me that they were sold out. A Guyanese cabbie I had befriended further teased my curiosity by characterizing the animal with the riddle-like description “it lives on land, but also in water,” owing to the rodent’s black webbed feet it uses to paddle around marshes and walk on riverbanks.

As legend has it, during the 18th century, the meat’s popularity in neighboring Venezuela encouraged local power-brokers from the Catholic Church to trick the Vatican into classifying the rodent as fish—its part-time aquatic habitat apparently providing sufficient evidence that the animal was closer to a trout than a pig.

If you are surprised by the demand for capybara in South America, keep in mind that capybara is about as far from a garbage-grazing rat as a chicken is from a vulture. A healthier choice of protein than factory-farm meats, the capybara, a vegetarian, grazes on grass and aquatic plants, and since the only capybara meat sold at the market is brought in by hunters, the meat contains no antibiotics or growth hormones. There is no such thing as mad capybara disease.

The creeping destruction of the rodents’ habitat is the most noticeable impact humanity has had on capybara. Humans, however, are also responsible for another maneuver that disrespects the animal: nomenclature. Several scientists have recently decided that the population of capybara west of the Andes is a separate capybara species from the population on the other side, owing to the former’s smaller average size. Currently, not all scientists agree. But soon, if a consensus is reached, ponche may be officially demoted, losing its claim to the title of world’s largest rodent—the Pluto of the tropical animal world.

~ ~ ~

Otero grabbed my sombrero vueltiao—a striped, wide-brimmed hat popular in nearby coastal departments—and placed it upside down on the bar. We were sitting across from one another at La Comunión, on the first floor of a renovated building inside the city’s turreted wall. “Let’s suppose that this hat is a pot,” he began, endeavoring to explain where ponche fits into Colombian cuisine.

“There were the indigenous people, then after, the colonial Spanish, and their ingredients are put into the pot.” He spoke with words and eyebrows and hands. Otero is a young 42 years old, chest buttons of his plaid shirt open, sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He had the day-old stubble and spellbinding stare of a telenovela charmer. “And after them, the Africans. Then the Arabs arrived, who brought their spices, their eggplant. They began to transform the food. That is Colombian cuisine.”

Over an electrified Colombian cumbia rhythm from a YouTube playlist churning from a laptop behind the bar, he continued. “Ponche is part of the first contribution to the pot.”

His taste for ponche began when his parents and grandparents brought him on an outing to a small town in the Cordoba department. Game meats—and especially edible rodents—were nothing new to his family. “My grandmother declared that guartinaja is the best,” he said. Guartinaja is the Colombian word for the spotted, cat-sized rodent of Central and South America, also known as paca, whose rich loins are so desirable that neighboring Panama has enacted laws forbidding the hunting of the species to maintain its population. “They were making ponche when I was eight years old. And I enjoyed it. It’s rare that kids like exotic meats.”

Such early experiences ignited his interest in cooking. Like Colombian cuisine itself, Otero’s creations reflect a mixture of influences. After he learned how to cook from his mother and grandmother, he worked in restaurants in Germany, and then traveled around Colombia to learn the country’s regional cuisines, eventually working at several restaurants in Bogota. “Traveling is the best way to learn,” he said slowly, as if to savor the words as they passed over his lips.

~ ~ ~

“Good vibrations!” crooned Otero as he grabbed a pair of tongs. We were in La Comunión’s tight-quarters kitchen. He had just rolled up the ponche leg, together with stalks of oregano and basil, inside a shawl of paddle-shaped bijao leaves, forming what looked like an enormous reefer. “I’m going to smoke the piece,” he stated.

That is to say, he was going to smoke it on a hot plancha. He began turning the bundle with the tongs, the leaves crisping and turning the beige shade of a cigar wrapper, spinning out aromas: wood, sweet smoke, ripe tropical foliage. He decided that this first step in the preparation was the most suitable because “this is as it is done in the countryside.”

After removing the leg and stewing it in a light broth of sweet peppers, garlic, and onions, he shredded the meat with a fork and returned the mixture to the pot. He began paying homage to Colombia’s two coastlines by creating two different preparations. He scooped out part of the mixture as the filling for carimañolas. Ponche atlantico.

Meanwhile, he added zinfandel, cumin, and culantro—a jagged-leafed spice, popular on the Pacific side, similar to cilantro but bolder and funkier —to the remainder in the pot. Ponche pacifico.

“It’s the final countdown!” Otero shouted, swapping out the bubbly 60s of the Beach Boys for the mulleted glam of 80s arena rock. As he revealed the mélange of his musical tastes, he also employed techniques reflecting the breadth of his culinary influences. He plated the ponche pacifico with a molded disk of cinnamon rice, drops of chontaduro puree in increasing size, and an elongated comma of deep ochre achiote sauce, incorporating the colorful, geometric sophistication his patrons expect.

Taking in the colors of the plate, I said, “That looks al pelo,” borrowing a phrase that means great or perfect in Colombia. Literally, it means “to the hair,” perhaps indicating, I imagined, that every part of someone is pleased, even out to his or her hair.

I wondered if his ponche creations would expose a clash of culture: traditional cooking in el campo versus urban, worldly complexity. I began with the ponche atlantico, which reinterpreted an inexpensive street snack as a glamorous appetizer. With a texture reminiscent of pulled pork, the stewed ponche revealed itself as a vibrant juice-bomb, the best kind of finger food, and one that was delightfully trouble-free to eat when I sat down over a plate instead of standing over my shoes. Yet I still could imagine these all-Colombian creations on the streets, wrapped in napkins, as long as customers remember to spread their legs while biting into them.

The oversized quenelle of the ponche pacifico provided a richness punctuated by the low, background ring of the cumin. The flavor of the ponche itself, while cleaner than pork, somehow simultaneously rippled with wild notes. A subtle, vegetal sweetness. Then, for a moment, I somehow imagined I was browsing the animal’s memories—a brief flash of savannah humidity at a river’s edge, a mouthful of water hyacinth. Then the flash was gone, and the drum machine-driven cumbia mix from the bar returned to my ears.

Several restaurants in other Colombian cities, such as Bogota, host barbecue joints and open-air restaurants that serve capybara. But I considered how Otero’s creation, bringing this meat into a fine dining environment, is rare. Few rodents star in such a highbrow setting, excepting a few headless, jointed guinea pigs in upscale restaurants in Cuzco, dormice goulash in Istria, and perhaps the on-the-loose Basil the rat from the 1970s British comedy series Fawlty Towers.

A clash of culture? An experiment gone too far? Is the world’s largest rodent ready for air-conditioned, linen napkin dining on a footsie-filled date night?

Chef Otero’s ponche had, in my mind, summoned many descriptions. Risky. Unexpected. But one description, perhaps settling all questions at once, rose above the others: al pelo.


Darrin DuFord is arguably the only connoisseur of both wine and jungle rodent. He is the author of Breakfast for Alligators: Quests, Showdowns, and Revelations in the Americas and Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car, silver medalist in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards. He has written for BBC Travel, the San Francisco Chronicle, Vice, Roads & Kingdoms, and Tales To Go, among others. His work appears in the anthologies Stories of Music Volume 1, Adventures of a Lifetime: Travel Tales from Around the World, and The Best Travel Writing Volume 11.

Men’s Travel Silver Winner: Paddling the Sewershed

June 5th, 2017

By Brice Particelli

Two friends, a leaky raft, and the Bronx River.

We splurged on the raft. While the picture on the box clearly showed two young kids paddling a placid lake, it also boasted a “motor-mount fitting” for an engine. It was comforting to know that this raft at least pretended to be built for rougher stuff.

My paddle-buddy, Cuong, paused in front of a cheaper one. “Are you sure this one won’t do?” he asked. It had one air compartment and looked even more like a toy. “It’s only $32.”

We should have known then that we were in trouble. Neither of us knows much about paddling a river. We are friends through rock climbing. Cuong is a photographer and graphic designer, I’m an English professor, and we became friends through outdoor adventure—climbing in Central Park, surfing in Brooklyn, and mountain biking in Queens.

It’s a ridiculous idea. We plan to paddle the entire twenty-four miles of the Bronx River, top to bottom, in two days. It’s so ridiculous that there is no evidence of anyone even talking about doing it, let alone attempting it. Only the last eight miles of the Bronx River are officially paddleable (with a permit we do not have), and there are no campgrounds anywhere along the river. In fact, I’m not sure if any part of this trip is legal.

What we do know is that it’s generally a bad idea to take a blowup raft down a shallow river. Coming from downtown Manhattan, though, we couldn’t figure out how to get a canoe through the subway turnstiles.

“Let’s get the raft with three air compartments,” I said. “Just to be safe.” Plus, at $44 it also came with a patch kit, paddles, and a pump.

“Okay,” Cuong laughed, “I guess we don’t want to end up swimming down the Bronx River.”

We picked up a $21 camouflage tarp tent as well and a couple of days later we threw on our packs, took the subway to a commuter train and headed north to paddle New York City’s last remaining fresh water river.

To call the Bronx River “fresh” is a bit misleading. Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it became a natural sewer for industrial waste. Factories, processing plants, and scrapyards lined the south, while up north, in the affluent suburbs, the Bronx was treated more as sewer than stream. In fact, until a lawsuit in 2007, the wealthy dumped their raw sewage into the river any time it rained hard. When you add in the runoff that happens when you cover marsh and stream with asphalt, you understand why the NYC Parks website says that they “commonly refer to sewersheds rather than watersheds in the Bronx.”

I’ve talked my friend into this paddle in part because I’m interested in this bit of my city and its history, but also because we’re always looking for a new adventure in this concrete life. New York City isn’t exactly known for its outdoor activities, but there’s a solid tradition of people pushing at those boundaries. Whether it’s kite surfers fighting to open beaches to kites, rock climbers fighting off liability concerns in public parks, or volunteers offering free kayaking on the Hudson, there is a growing outdoors industry in New York. And while much of it is economically driven, some of it is also rooted in social justice—the belief that access to green spaces should not be limited to the wealthy. It’s a push toward green that brings both the National Parks Service’s initiative to open overnight campsites in Brooklyn and Staten Island—at the fairly high price of $30 per night, and also the Bronx River Alliance to push for a connected and free Greenway trail through the poorest areas of the city. For outdoorspeople who’ve found themselves in the city, it’s an interesting phenomenon to explore. So when we saw a sudden window of warmer weather, we decided to give it a shot.

The train drops us thirteen miles north of the city in the suburban town of Valhalla, where the Bronx River is a babbling brook among manicured parkland. It is late March, at the tail end of a rough winter, so the snow is still a few inches thick. It’s an idyllic setting, with large homes on rolling hills, and the trails are sun-drenched and empty. We walk down tree-lined paths in old sneakers, pushing through the crusty snow, looking for deep water.

After a couple of miles, Cuong, who goes by Koon because kids in Michigan couldn’t pronounce his Vietnamese name, is getting antsy. “This looks good enough,” he says.

There are sticks and rocks popping up all along the shallow river. I hesitate, but finally agree. We pump up the raft on one of the snow-covered banks and step back.

Our boat is too small. While the box said “two-person,” apparently they didn’t mean two grown men with camping gear. They might not have even meant two adults at all. After trying a few options, we realize that the only way to fit is if we lay our packs lengthwise and straddle our bags.

Our weight dips us deep into shallow water. It’s slow going, and we’re constantly using flimsy oars to dislodge the boat from gravel bars to get into deeper channels. We’re in one of these fast-moving channels when Koon lets out a yelp. There’s a sharp stick barely below the surface pointing directly at us.

It’s too late. There’s a loud tear followed by air bubbles burping. We jump knee-deep into the frigid water and drag our limp boat to the side.

There’s a four-inch gash through the outside bladder and our patch kit is useless. We’re only a few miles in and we’ve popped one of the three air bladders that keep our boat afloat.

“I think we were a little overanxious to get in,” I say.

Koon gives me a look that lets me know I’ve stated the obvious.

We decide to walk a bit further downriver to deeper waters, and head through trees and along train tracks until we reach White Plains, a shopping center town among the wealthy suburbs. We launch again, paddling under bridges and between buildings while people smile at us from above. The sun washes snow from the parking lots, funneling water into the river through plastic drainage. The brook is finally becoming a river.

“I’ve never been so excited to see street runoff before,” I say.

As we head under a highway it’s my turn to gasp.

Just under the bridge, hiding in the shadows, is the top of a sunken refrigerator—its jagged edge a few inches below the surface. We jam our paddles to turn the boat but it’s too late. There is another horrible tear followed by the gurgle of escaping air.

We’ve lost two of our three bladders in the first several miles.

Without an outside bladder we’re almost round, and now without a bottom bladder we dip low. While the water is deeper, every time we paddle now we spin sideways. We must look like a teacup ride in an amusement park— spinning back and forth, zigzagging downriver. And we’re taking on water. The refrigerator punctured our boat all the way through so there are little pinhole tears that slowly seep water into our hull.

Koon, who has worked as a rock-climbing guide and is a gear-fiend at heart, is far more prepared than I. He has waterproof pants and a cover for his bag, while I’m in jeans that have swelled to six times their original weight. My bag is soaked and I’m pretty sure my sleeping bag is too. It is going to be a cold night.

We pass into Scarsdale where the riverbanks are lined with glistening McMansions and Tudor-styled cottages that each look like they could fit a family of forty. The river winds along private yards and town parks, past the picturesque brick and stone village. Any hint of trash that had begun to appear in the more urbanized White Plains is gone now, picked up by a vigilant town-funded parks crew. Scarsdale is one of the wealthiest towns in America, named the number one “Top Earners Town” by Money Magazine, and, along with Mount Vernon, White Plains, and Greenburgh, had to be sued to stop dumping raw sewage into this river. But the Bronx River also seems like a centerpiece here—a soothing vein of natural beauty—and we weave through the suburbs like we’re on some sort of quaint amusement park ride. Lululemon walkers pass by without a glance.

I’ve been to Scarsdale before, to their public high school. It’s an amazing place, complete with a college-level library, performing arts department, and tennis courts. I remember it as a stark contrast to my work at the time as a consultant for New York City schools. Both were “public,” but the poorer city publics struggled to recruit teachers, pay for classroom books, or offer any arts at all. Many couldn’t even offer basic health classes. They simply didn’t have the space to let students run free. It felt tragic, to see this disparity under the same term, “public,” and only a dozen miles away.

As we head south, toward the city, the trees begin to disappear. The buildings grow denser. City lights turn on and roads replace trees along the riverbanks. The change feels swift, in part because we’re losing sun and getting nervous.

“We need to figure out where to sleep,” Koon says.

We consider a small island in the middle of the river, or a crowded cemetery, but we finally settle on an embankment under an outskirt downtown. There is a small floodplain of trees below a condo complex. A hundred feet uphill there is a bodega and a fast food joint, but the embankment shields us from view. A tree-lined highway buffers the other side. We drag the boat out and pull our soaking wet bodies onto shore. We are exhausted, and I just want to get dry, warm, and pass out.

“We need to be smart about this,” Koon says. “We don’t want cops waking us up at 3 a.m. with dogs and batons.” He clears a bit of brush from behind a fallen tree. “This’ll work. No one can see us from above, and hopefully cops don’t look off to the side when they’re driving by.”

We’re trespassing. I’m not sure if this is public land or private but I’m positive that we’re not allowed to be here. Trespassing is a Class B Misdemeanor in New York, which could result in up to three months in jail and $500 in fines. People are meant to sleep in apartments and houses, not along the river.

Our $21 camo tent offers the perfect cover. The greens and grays fit with the brush, and the plastic fits with the trash. Even if you notice the tarp, it might just be a bit of plastic washed ashore.

We set it up and bring our wet clothes inside to keep them from freezing. It’s supposed to be 34 degrees and my pack, sleeping bag, and clothes are all soaking wet. Koon’s are dry. I’m tired and want to be mad at him for not talking through the gear, but mostly I’m just embarrassed that I wore cotton on a rafting trip.

We rehydrate our camp food and are halfway through our meal before Koon laughs, “You realize there are a dozen restaurants within throwing distance. I’m not saying I want to be at one, but it’s sort of ridiculous.”

I remember a girlfriend of mine who hated the idea of camping. She asked, “Why would I leave my perfectly good home to sleep on the ground?” The question doomed the relationship, but she wasn’t wrong. Whether you’re hours from a warm bed or seconds from it, camping is ridiculous. It’s the intentional self-denial of modern amenities. But there is also something serene about lying close to the soil, even in a damp sleeping bag downhill from city lights. There is a simplicity that offers perspective on need and desire. There is time to breathe.

There’s something important about it being so near, too. Historian William Cronon wrote a controversial essay called “The Trouble with Wilderness” in 1995 that traced our history of preserving the “wild” inside of parks. He suggested that we’ve built a fantasy where we live one life, in town, while we try to preserve a separate, managed, pristine wilderness. He suggested that to do so preserves “wilderness” for the wealthy. It sets up a system where you must pay to access trees and dirt. It is why charging $30 for the privilege of bringing your child to sleep on the ground under the stars is problematic. Thirty dollars for me might not be much, but for a family living on minimum wage it quickly becomes “something rich people do,” and that seems wrong. Equally bad, Cronon said, the separation of nature and civilization encourages us to destroy those areas not “preserved.” Cities become purely utilitarian—nothing but concrete, trash, and people.

The sun wakes us up as birds chirp. This little oasis of water and trees has wildlife on it and we’ve become part of their morning routine. We heat water for coffee, pack our camo tent, and get moving.

Through much of the northern Bronx, the river cuts back and forth under the Bronx River Parkway, the Metro-North commuter train, business centers, public housing blocks, and apartment complexes. It runs with high walls on either side, hiding the water from city streets filled with more fast food chains, tire shops, and carpet salesmen than you could ever want in a lifetime. The river feels more as if it’s in the way in these areas—something that requires bridges and winding roads, and it is filled with trash. What is most striking, in fact, is not the random appliances or tires, but the plastic shopping bags. They are scattered through the river like lost leaves caught on branches and rocks.

Near 211th Street, we reach the Bronx Park. This is the start of the Bronx River Blueway, the final eight miles of the river. Organizations like Bronx River Alliance and Rocking the Boat bring canoe groups down this final stretch, including local students who explore the river as a? classroom. They organize cleanup and restoration projects, pulling hundreds of junked cars and thousands of tires from the river, and they put on community events like the Amazing Bronx River Flotilla Race. While tax dollars up north can go to parks, down here public money is more scarce, and slated for other things, so community groups and nonprofits have moved in to fill the void. It’s all part of an environmental and educational revitalization of the South Bronx that tries to reconnect the river to the people who live alongside it. It is one of many recent and welcomed initiatives for a part of the city that has gone long-neglected. And as powerful as these projects are, they can only do so much. The last census report showed that this is the poorest Congressional district in the country. More than forty-nine percent of children live below the poverty line. In New York City.

The 718-acre Bronx Park is at the heart of the Bronx. Soon after the park was opened in 1884, the city allocated 250 acres to the New York Botanical Society and another 250 acres to the New York Zoological Society. That means that 500 of the 718 acres, then, are pay-to-play parks. In the poorest of districts, there is a massive park that only the wealthy can enter.

The trash slowly dwindles as we get closer to the Botanical Garden boundary. The river becomes greener and less covered in plastic bags. We paddle around a corner and see a small furry animal digging into a garbage bag on a branch over the river. “Is that a beaver?” I ask. His nose is down so I can’t quite make him out. “—or a rat?”

He pulls his head up and looks directly at us.

“That’s a beaver,” Koon says, jumping up from his pack with such excitement that I worry we’ll tip.

In 1997 the first beaver in more than 200 years was spotted on this river. During the time of the Mohegans, when this river was called the Aquehung, or “River of High Bluffs,” locals relied on small game like beaver and fish for food. When the Swedes and Dutch arrived in the early seventeenth century, they lived as trappers until they hunted the land bare. They built mills and factories next, as the industrial era took hold, and the fish were polluted out of the river.

It was a big deal when the first beaver came back, so they named him Jose after a South Bronx Congressman who helped find funding for river restoration. A second beaver recently joined Jose, and from the pictures I’ve seen, this looks like that second, nameless one. It’s a good sign for a once-dead river.

As we get deeper into the park, we reach a low bridge with a security camera pointed at the water. There are so many railings and wires that I back-paddle for a moment.

“You think it’s alarmed?” Koon asks. “We don’t exactly have the right permits.”

“It looks more like a booby trap.”

“I guess there’s only one way to find out,” Koon laughs.

We paddle through without alarm and soon see people walking along the wooded paths, snapping pictures of trees and birds and us. They smile and wave and as we get closer a young couple stops with their boy.

“Where are you guys going?” the mother asks.

“To the East River,” I say.

“Really? They’re paddling all the way down to Manhattan,” she tells her son. “How far is that?”

“Seven more miles.”

“Good luck!” the boy yells.

There are three portages through this park—dammed parts of the river where we’ll have to walk the boat around on private parkland. We reach the first and carry the boat down a thin road, past a small dam where the water cascades across a rough patch of ledges and mini-waterfalls, and then past an old Dutch stone mill.

A golf cart with two maintenance guys comes over the hill toward us.

“Is this going to be a problem?” Koon asks me.

I have no idea so I offer them the friendliest wave I can.

“Nice day to be out here,” one of the guys says, unfazed.

“They don’t seem to care,” Koon laughs.

We head down a dirt path just as a police cart comes over the hill.

“Hurry up,” Koon says, and we dip out of sight.

Past the first dam, the water opens up to a horizon filled with herons and egrets. There isn’t a single road or building in sight. It is serene and we might as well be a hundred miles away. Or four hundred years ago. We chase a flock of ducks downriver until the Fordham Road overpass, the roadway that separates the Botanical Garden from the Bronx Zoo.

On our first portage inside the Bronx Zoo we have to cross a pair of tall waterfalls among deep woods. The path around the falls is short, and we’re only on parkland for a moment. We begin to paddle away when we see two security guards on the other bank of the river pointing at us. One walks toward us, but he is on a ridge twenty feet above.

I yell a hello over the raging waterfalls.

“How’d you guys get around those waterfalls?”

“There’s a path,” Koon says. “We just carried the boat around.”

The guard smiles and watches us paddle past.

The river is widest through the Zoo and the long horizons let us realize how slowly and erratically we’re paddling, shimmying down this broad river with each paddle turning our teacup boat sideways. We paddle under the Wild Asia Monorail, which carries passengers through Mongolian Horses, Asian Elephants, Red Pandas, and Bengal Tigers. Just past, a tiny head pops out of the water. It’s another beaver, twice as big as the first. This, I want to assume, is Jose.

“I can’t believe there are beaver here,” Koon says.

We’re in the center of Bronx but it’s the very picture of sublime, as if we’ve invaded a Hudson Valley School painting. Waterfowl fly above and there are nothing but trees on either side. We’re alone here. The river in front of us seems to end at the horizon as if we could be paddling in silence for miles more to come.

We turn a corner and the serenity ends as quickly as it began. There’s a dam followed by 180th Street and rows of tenements. The dam is our third portage in the park and it’s under construction. There’s a tiny park on the other end that is getting a facelift, but the main purpose of the construction is a new fish ladder—a set of water-filled steps that allow fish to make it over the dam. The Park’s Service has begun reintroducing Alewife and Blueback Herring to the river, starting with the heartiest of species.

With the fences across the river and park, our portage includes climbing a spiked fence and walking across 180th Street. We pass our gear and boat over a piece at a time, careful to keep from impaling our fragile boat—or ourselves—on the long metal spikes.

Across the street, the riverbanks are made of a hundred yards of car tires, stacked eight feet high and holding back the land that carries the weight of a dozen tenements that seem like they’re falling apart in peeling paint and water-damaged walls. While the trash had slowly accumulated from the suburbs to the city in direct relation to the wealth of the area, here it is abrupt. Striking.

A woman is sitting in a garbage-strewn yard nearby. The building behind her looks condemned, crumbling into the river, but there is laundry hanging from a string outside the windows. She smiles at us, “That looks like fun. Can I come?”

“I wish,” Koon laughs. “Look at how small this boat is.”

The river is contained as far as we can see, funneled by tire walls, then rocks and cement. It is city drainage, and we’re to be flushed out for these last few miles. We paddle past a submerged engine block, plastic bags, discarded clothing, and tires piled as plentiful as rocks. A swelled sock catches onto my paddle.

The buildings here are often boarded or dilapidated. Under each of the next two overpasses there are homeless encampments. We startle one man who is trying to go to the bathroom in peace.

The South Bronx wasn’t always as poverty-stricken. Until the 1950s and ‘60s it was filled with middle class neighborhoods and factory jobs. Over the course of a few years, city planner Robert Moses cut up the Bronx with highways, using eminent domain to displace hundreds of thousands of people, cutting the population of the South Bronx by more than half in less than a decade. Moses wanted to make Manhattan more car-friendly so that certain people could live in the northern suburbs and drive to work downtown. He was at the forefront of a global urban initiative to partition each urban area into separated sections of work, home, industry, and poverty. Industry would be in one area, poverty in another, white collar work in another, and the upper- and upper-middle class would live on the outskirts of it all, in the suburban counties to the north and east. His mission was a devastating one for this area in particular. He gave many of those displaced families thirty days’ notice to leave their homes before they would be bulldozed for highways, and he drained the city’s public transportation funds to pay for it. As Moses famously said of his work here, he “took a meat axe to the Bronx.” And while our understanding of city planning has shifted since then, the damage done has been written across this landscape.

We paddle south through Starlight Park—a recently renovated set of athletic fields. The river is straight and contained and we pass a half-dead tree that hangs over the river. There is a rope swing dangling from it and the grayness of it all feels like a horror movie.

“There was a kid who drowned in a swimming hole near here,” I say to Koon. “I wonder if this is it.”

“Oh God, I hope not.”

But it must be. There are trash bags and tires and broken glass but this is the only place we’ve seen that resembles a swimming hole.

I remember my own swimming holes, visiting family in Kentucky, where I’d flinch when my feet hit sticks on the soupy clay bottom. I wonder what kids’ threshold for flinching must be here. At the same time, I also know that if I’d grown up here I would be the first to jump in. A swim is a swim is a swim, after all, and we all get used to our own normal.

We paddle past pockets of park that stand out like wildflowers breaking through a sidewalk crack. These parks have been popping up over the past few decades as community groups pressure city, state, and federal governments to increase park access to the area, asking why all of the parks are in wealthy areas, and wondering openly about the effects of Moses’ meat axe. “Economic degradation begets environmental degradation, which begets social degradation,” offered Majora Carter, the founder of Sustainable South Bronx, in a TED talk.

We can only wonder what kind of normal our society’s children are growing up in.

We head under a railroad bridge where two kids yell down at us, “You can do it!”

We’re three miles from the bottom, shimmying back and forth as quickly as the slow river will take us.

An older man with dreadlocks sits on the steps of a park, smoking. He yells a hello and we wave back. He’s in the Concrete Plant Park—a big grass field pocked with orange-painted remnants of a reclaimed factory, standing like sculptures against the elevated railroad tracks and highways. The city removed 32,000 tons of contaminated soil to make this park safe for use.

“Everyone’s been so nice,” Koon says. “We’ve never heard anything but positive things this whole way.” And it’s true.

“I wonder what would have happened if we were black or Latino or Middle Eastern?” I ask.

“We wouldn’t have made it five miles,” Koon laughs. “We probably would have been arrested before leaving Valhalla.”

The river widens through warehouses and factories while big box public housing units and apartment complexes rest silently on the horizon. Row houses and brownstones hide behind highways and elevated tracks.

This is the land that Jonas Bronck bought from the Mohegans in 1639—over 500 acres stretching from what’s now the Bronx River to the Harlem River, from 150th Street to the East River. According to the book South Bronx Rising, the land cost him “two guns, two kettles, two coats, two adzes, two shirts, one barrel of cider, and six bits of money.”

Bronck described his new land in a letter home,

The invisible hand of the Almighty Father, surely guided me to this beautiful country, a land covered with virgin forest and unlimited opportunities. It is a veritable paradise and needs but the industrious hand of man to make it the finest and most beautiful region in all the world.

Bronck died four years after arriving but his name stayed with the river, Bronck’s River, and the river gave its name to the borough when it joined New York City in 1898.

The river is wide here, at least a hundred yards in sections, and placid. We paddle past soot-covered factory buildings, a scrapyard, and along rusty barges. Above, there are railroad tracks and a maze of highways.

“There were seashells about a mile back, right?” I ask Koon. “After that last portage?”

He nods.

“I wonder if we’re tidal now. Taste the water. See if it’s salty.”

“I’m not tasting this water,” he laughs. “Are you crazy?”

There is an oily sheen to the black water.

“No, I don’t think I would eith—”

“Ok, fine.” He dips his fingers into the river and puts some in his mouth.

I cringe.

“Hm… Salty,” he laughs, “but that could be my fingers. Plus it’s oily. And cold.”

He spits a few times but can’t get the grease off his tongue.

We paddle around the next bend and see a massive garbage boom—a big plastic arms stretched across the river to catch the garbage. It is a hundred yards of trash, end to end.

To portage, we climb a rusty fence, and then pass our gear through a rusted-out hole in a metal wall. Our hands and clothes are red as we push off again, wiggling back and forth through the oily water.

We’re probably going fastest now but the long horizon makes our boat feel small and slow and we feel every wiggle. The shore is now a hundred yards away on either side when I remember that our inflatable boat is filled with holes. “If that last bladder pops, we’re done,” I laugh.

It doesn’t. We turn the corner and can see the East River ahead. I pull out my phone to call Lauren, a friend with a car who was planning to meet us at the New Fulton Fish Market. She says that the dock is closed and she can’t find a place to pick us up. There is nothing but fencing and food processing plants here, she says. I see a small gap in the fence at a wholesale grocer and I ask her to meet us there.

We paddle over. The shore is covered in seagull droppings, seashells, and barnacles, but we are no longer worried about adding holes to the boat. We drag it onshore and walk up toward a parking lot filled with tractor-trailers. While Koon pulls our gear out of the boat, I walk toward the road to wave Lauren down.

“I was just here,” she says. “The security guard kicked me out.”

We take a photo with our boat like it’s a trophy.

It is an anticlimactic end, standing in a parking lot, covered in mud and rust and an assortment of other things I’d rather not consider.

We hop in the car and Lauren rolls down the windows. She is nice enough to not mention our smell.

As we drive away, the security guard walks out and toward us, arms raised. I lean out the window to explain but Lauren doesn’t slow down.

“We’re leaving,” Lauren yells as we drive past.

I can only imagine what it looks like to the security guard: A woman drives in and is kicked out. Then she drives in again and when she leaves, she has two mud-covered men in her car.

The guard continues walking toward where we’d come from, toward the river. She looks at the trash bins, at the back of the loading docks, and at the rows of truck containers, but never at the river. She looks perplexed, probably wondering where these two men had come from. One of the containers? Should she call the police? Or send the surveillance footage to Homeland Security?

The river probably never crosses her mind.

She shakes her head as we head out of the lot, turn the corner, and are gone.


Brice Particelli teaches writing and literature at Pace University. He earned his MFA from Colorado State and his PhD from Columbia University. His work has recently been published in Pedagogy, Gray’s Sporting Journal, The Big Roundtable, The Common, and Fourth River. He is currently working on a novel set in the Pacific Islands, titled “Nakimoa.” More of his work can be found here.

Love Story Gold Winner: The Uncertain Certainty of Leaving

May 29th, 2017

By Kathy Harding

They discover what they’re willing to risk for love.

Buoyed by the brazen optimism of our new love affair, my Kiwi, Rob, and I cast ourselves adrift in a revelatory landscape, the South Island of New Zealand.

I was 41 years old and desperate for a baby, he was a stranger from the bottom of the planet, and nothing about our romance made sense. Spring he rented a townhouse, summer he decamped to expedition ships, fall he floated on private yachts, and on Christmas he woke atop ice floes, drifting 60 degrees south of the equator. I could be found in my bed every day of the year.

Faced with the uncertain certainty of his departure, I did the only thing possible. I rode the dopamine high. Off we flew to tour his old stomping grounds, slipping away from reality and Seattle’s dismal November rain.

Across the vast Canterbury Plains we drove. We admired Oreo cows. We braked for sheep. We explored Christchurch, a 19th century village bloomed from stone. It was 2008, and the city vibrated with commerce, oblivious to underground rumblings that would soon flatten it.

“This is the closest thing I have to a home,” he said.

“Did you used to live here?”

“Kind of,” he said. “My stuff is here. In storage.”

What a strange definition for home, I thought, yet for a man who lived out of a duffel bag, it had a pragmatic ring of truth. After ten years of marriage, he’d thrown into that storage unit the material evidence and stayed in motion ever since.

“Do you want to move back?” I asked.

“That was the plan,” he said, darkly, referring I knew not to his ex-wife but to another ex, P., his cohort in adventure, a woman with whom he’d organized expeditions to the Titanic. The one who’d dumped him without warning a year ago, crushing him so deeply he didn’t speak for two weeks.

“Is it still?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Could you see yourself here?”

I was thrown by his frankness. We’d been talking about a future together, in a helter-skelter kind of way, but our situation was complicated, to say the least. The more I studied it, the less sense it made, like black matter defined primarily by what it was not. Not practical, not aligned, not likely to succeed. Yet, refusing to be denied, one of the most powerful forces in my life.

Who knows, truly, when a story begins or ends? Let’s open the book on the day last June my adoption agency told me I’d be matched with a baby within six months. Two days later I met Rob at a potluck. He was in Seattle to oversee construction of a one-of-a-kind expedition boat, a project scheduled to end soon. By that I mean his business visa had expired, his company was facing bankruptcy, and he was at risk of being deported. Not the future I’d been dreaming of.

But there was this: Although I could barely understand his Kiwi accent, his penetrating steel-grey eyes were unfurling the tight sad core of what I’d become. It was love at first sight in the least ironic sense of that overused phrase. After a summer cast in hallucinatory sheen, I’d put my adoption on hold, striking a deep blow to my heart. Rob didn’t want to adopt. He was open, perhaps, to having his own child.

Perhaps. The word echoed painfully in my mind as I looked around.

Across an old bridge, people wearing fine wool coats bustled from cafés to office buildings, their style and efficiency giving the historic town a modern vibe. The cobblestone streets were bedecked with flowering pots. I could smell Thai food, and I could see pigeons.

Could I see myself? I wasn’t sure. “It’s cute,” I said, hedging.

“It’s the second largest city in New Zealand.”

“City?”

He laughed, before giving a funny little sigh. His cell phone rang, droning like a dying battery. I knew from the ringtone that it was Ted, his brilliant, mercurial boss, and wasn’t surprised when he hurried off to talk privately. The project was perpetually in crisis, what with chapter 11 proceedings, a corrupt construction manager, and the complexities of doing a major refit to create the world’s premier deep-ocean expedition ship.

I moved to a bench above the Avon River and watched several families playing by the water. A pack of toddlers were fearlessly throwing themselves towards ducks. I marveled at their spiraling energy. Seized by maternal longing, I forced myself to walk the green bank. I could hear Rob’s heated conversation from yards away.

“Jack said the wallpaper was fine. It’s curling. Did you hear they installed air conditioning pipes? No, not great. They slope up. Guess which direction gravity pulls water?”

There was a long pause. “Water. Will. Drip!” he yelled, and hung up.

“Everything OK?” I asked, returning to his side.

“Let’s go.” He snapped his phone back into its holder. “We’re late.”

What for? I wondered, getting in the car.

“Ted is naïve,” he said. “He trusts the wrong people. I have to protect him.”

Really? I wanted to ask. “Has he paid for your plane ticket yet?”

“He will,” he said. “Eventually.”

No, Sherlock, I thought. He won’t.

It was becoming clear to me that Ted made messes and Rob cleaned up after him. Ted was forever losing things (cell phones, chapter 11 filings, his own fortune), confusing one day for another, stealing from Peter to pay Paul, and investing in speculative deals with other people’s money. Rob organized paperwork, timelines, and people, smoothing feathers, covering Ted’s ass, and getting stuff done.

He was a good man, I thought, and hopefully not getting suckered.

“Are you sure he’ll pay you back?” I asked, not wanting to push it but wanting to push it.

“You’re going to love this next place,” he said, reaching over to take my hand.

Presto! We were back in adventure mode, I thought, feeling weary.

We drove for hours, crossing yellow plains, switch backing into snow, rising up and over Arthur’s Pass before turning inland to reach his favorite glacier. Finally, we got out of the car. My legs were stiff, my eyes tired. I couldn’t process any more amazing sights.

“This way,” he said.

We twisted past a warning sign, slipping on rocks. Higher up on the ice fields, a man was repairing a rope.

“I know that guy,” he said, and climbed the snow stairs.

Not possible, I thought, staying where I was, on formerly solid land.

Up close, the glacier was a sheet of white shaping itself into whatever imaginary object I projected onto it. Airstrip, football field, avalanche. An optical illusion, it refused to fix in my mind as a stable piece of information. Now that I had a red speck, Rob’s jacket, to give it scale, I saw that it was huge.

I watched him explore the ridge, moving as elegantly as a tightrope walker. On his way down, he bowed to the man, who saluted him.

“That guy did work for me,” Rob said to me, pleased as I’d seen him, and slapped me on the ass.

I kissed him, finding it hard to believe, just the same.

For lunch, we stopped in the township of Franz Josef, where he’d lived for four years, with 200 other inhabitants. More rest stop than village, it consisted of a few log-cabin service buildings, put up in a hurry during a short thaw, stacked beside the two-lane highway.

Of one thing I was sure. I could not live here. Buttfuck nowhere.

“My wife and I got married under those trees,” he said, pointing up.

“Really?” I said, immediately regretting how snobbish I sounded. “It’s lovely.”

It was a world of green shimmer. Rainforest curled over foothills, creating a roiling haze of silvery-green bush abutted by white-capped mountains. I knew from my Lonely Planet guidebook we were looking at the Southern Alps, spine of the South Island, a series of peaks created by the Alpine Fault, a strike-slip fault between two subduction zones where Pacific and Australian tectonic plates slid past each other at high speed. Underground activity was strong enough to push the mountains up by an inch each year.

“I was a happy little ranger here,” Rob said. “I spent my days cutting trail, my weekends fighting fires.” Energized, he zipped up the steps to the general store, getting hailed by an outdoorsy type.

Could it be yet another person who’d worked for him? I wondered, astonished.

If I took him on a whirlwind tour of the States, the chance of my running into work colleagues from twenty years ago was absolute zero. It was beginning to dawn on me that I was truly in another country, 1/35th the size of my own.

“Kathy,” he said. “Come meet Angus and Sally!”

A giant of a man smiled kindly down at me. His wife radiated confident goodwill, a cascade of turquoise necklaces sparkling around her neck.

“Gudday, mate,” he said, enveloping me in a crushing bear hug.

“We’ve heard so much about you!” Sally cried.

As we clutched together, I threw Rob a desperate look. Who the heck were these people?

“Angus is P.’s uncle twice removed,” he said. “I got to keep them after we split.”

“You got the right end of that bargain.” Sally patted his cheeks with big, rough hands.

“We’ve come down for a wee break,” Angus said. “Never expected to see you, bloke!”

“Sweet as,” Rob said, breaking into Kiwi vernacular I rarely heard in Seattle.

“Let’s eat, eh?” Sally said.

Congratulating ourselves on our superb timing, we sat at the lone picnic table and tucked into chicken-and-brie sandwiches, New Zealand’s ubiquitous deli option. Angus and Sally told us about their new place, a light-filled country stunner bordered by 30 acres of tamarillo orchards. The farm doubled as a bed and breakfast, generating extra money in jam, every piece of the property squeezed for cash. Times were tough, they explained. The real estate market wouldn’t budge. The dollar was artificially high. Their daughter Wendy was moving with her husband Mark and the baby to Sydney where he could make more money in one year than five back home.

“Never mind,” Sally said. “Give us your good news.”

“How’s the boat?” Angus asked.

Rob hesitated, not wanting to disappoint. “We’re close.”

“Are you?”

“We’ll sail in January,” he said. “February at the latest.”

Huh, I thought. Yesterday he’d said they’d be lucky to make sea trials in March.

“Good on ya,” Angus said, visibly relieved, unpeeling plastic wrap from a second sandwich. “How’s Ted?”

“Aw, Bruce.” Rob mimicked a broad Aussie accent. “Can you loan me a fiver?”

“You’re not giving him money, are you?”

“Of course not.”

I drank my Coke Zero, a poor imitation Diet Coke, and said nothing about the salary he’d waived last month.

“No use throwing good money after bad.”

“Of course not.”

“Are you covered by the bankruptcy court?”

“Yes,” he said. “Mainly.”

I dug into my own chicken-and-brie sandwich, trying not to think about the $40,000 he’d recently charged to his personal credit card to cover electrical parts. I couldn’t help thinking about how I’d left teaching, which I’d loved, in order to earn a good living at Microsoft. Of course I’d hook up with a dreamer with no sense of money. It made perfect, horrible sense, I thought, and guzzled my soda.

“Have you been in touch with folks at the department of conservation?” Angus asked.

“Not higher ups,” Rob said. “I’ve bumped into a few folks who used to work for me.”

“For a ranger,” I said, taking a stab at a joke, “he had a lot of direct reports.”

Angus and Sally glanced at each other.

“He certainly did,” she said.

“Weren’t you once in the paper every day for a month?” Angus asked.

“Forty-five days in a row,” Rob said.

“He was the youngest conservator New Zealand has ever had,” Sally said, sounding serious, like a proper grandmother. “There are only ten of them in the country.”

“Oh,” I said, feeling stupid. Apparently I hardly knew Rob, though I couldn’t help wondering if they knew he currently worked in a trailer. “That’s amazing.”

“Yes,” Angus said firmly.

The conversation turned to cows.

After lunch, the men jumped on quads borrowed from one of Rob’s work buddies to check out a recent landslide. Sally and I walked along the highway. Fog blew off pavement, obscuring my feet. We were encased in the stuff.

“He seems much better,” she said. “Oh, oh, oh!”

“He’s happy,” I said, feeling pretty confident. Anyone could see how in love we were.

“We have you to thank for that,” she said, pressing my hand. “Oh those emails, he was upset, wasn’t he? I told P., listen, he’s our friend. I don’t care what he wrote. He’s absolutely wrecked!”

“Of course,” I said, willing myself to stay calm.

Although he’d told me about writing his ex’s family about her chronically poor health, torn up over the (far-fetched) idea that ever sickly P. was breaking up with him to spare him future suffering, I took Sally’s point that there had been another, less compassionate line of questioning. Had he accused her of cheating on him? That was his other theory.

“She’s onto the next one,” she said. “Didn’t waste any time, either.”

“Oh, with the pilot?” I asked, lightly.

“Yes,” she said. “From Perth.”

He’d been right, I thought, stricken. She’d cheated on him with the pilot.

“They’re talking babies.”

“That’s wonderful,” I said, trying to save face. His, but mine, too.

“Do you think?”

Stepping over a downed punga, I took my chance to pat her. “It wasn’t right between them.”

“They always seemed happy,” she said, looking wistful.

I paused, not knowing what to say to that.

“Listen, so what if he wants to show everyone he’s recovered?” She wrapped her arm through mine. “That doesn’t mean he’s not happy with you, right?”

“Right,” I said, instantly dejected.

You didn’t have to be a genius to get her drift. I was a rebound, and an interloper. Although her niece twice removed had broken Rob’s heart, she was a nice girl from Stewart Island, the logical choice for a hometown champ. I could practically hear Sally thinking, why does this American city slicker get to have Rob?

I wondered that myself.

Two quads came roaring down the road—for that’s what it was, not a highway in any true sense. Angus waved for us to hop on. We sped down the strip to our rented Toyota Yaris, one of several cast-off Japanese imports populating the island’s narrow roads. Without further ado, Rob leapt off his quad and handed Sally his keys.

“Let’s go,” he said to me.

Baffled, I climbed off and gave his friends a weird little wave.

“Bye, love!” Sally jumped on Rob’s quad and raced Angus down the strip.

“C’mon,” Rob said. “We’re late.”

“Late for what?” I asked, tired of being inexplicably rushed from one place to another. “Do you need to talk to Ted?”

“No,” he said.

“We’re on vacation, remember?”

“Exactly,” he said. “Why do you want to waste it?”

We got into the car and drove for hours. I sat stewing over the casual way Sally had dropped her bombshell on me. If I told Rob about P., he’d be upset. We’d have to deal with his reaction, and whatever it implied. With my toes, I changed the radio station, delighted by my dexterity and the opportunity to piss him off. Sally was my proper target, but he’d do nicely.

“That’s disgusting,” he said. “Do you know how many germs are on the human foot?”

“Yes,” I said. “You’ve told me before.” He had a tendency to obsess over the topic.

“Then why did you do that?”

I spun the tuner with my big toe. Slowly, then slower. “Why do you care?” I knew why. He was afraid of bacteria lying in wait to destroy him.

“Because I have to touch the dial!”

“Bwahaha!” I raised my hands in mock spider fashion.

He shivered, pursing his rosebud lips.

We stopped talking after that. The afternoon grew long. The sun began to slide below the horizon.

“Follow me,” he said, parking on the side of a road and dipping under rough bush.

We stomped through dark undergrowth, under a canopy of rimu trees blocking the low-lying sliver of sun. I wasn’t sure if we were following a poorly maintained trail or making an illegal one, and I didn’t like not knowing. Why couldn’t he include me in the goddamned decision-making process?

“Can you tell me when I’m about to get blinded, please?” I asked, holding up a sharp branch he’d let go of and allowed to whip back into my face.

Grunting, he climbed over a boulder, disappearing downhill.

You, my friend, can be a real pain in the ass, I thought.

We worked our way through the ferns, which were grasping and huge, food for dinosaurs. From every angle, I could see plants growing greedily on other plants, the epiphytes creating an oppressive mossy density. We were in a wet, temperate rainforest that looked like the Garden of Eden, life without competition and before zoning laws, when you could really let yourself go.

Gluttonous, I thought.

He was hoofing it through wetlands, shaking his boots after each step.

Rubbing dry the wet swipe of a long sopping frond, I shouted, “Wait up!”

He kept moving.

Seriously? I thought.

“Kathy,” he said, appearing atop a slick-looking mound. “Come see this.”

Resentfully, I made my way to him. Beyond the little hill, there was a river, cutting through sand. We crossed it together. The beach was empty, with no sign of human activity. He fell to his knees. I got down on all fours and followed him. We crawled across a lonely stretch along the Tasman Sea to a slab of grey flat stone.

“What are we doing?” I asked, firmly, patient no more.

“Ssshh,” he said, pointing further down the beach.

“Oohh,” I breathed.

Penguins were hopping across rocks. More bird than fish, they were petite and glistening, a bright stripe of yellow hair flaring from their eyebrows. Grunting companionably, they strutted towards us before bouncing up a dirt path.

“Where are they going?” I asked.

“To their burrows,” he said. “Under the trees.”

Not possible, I thought, having imagined penguins dotting ice shelves, but it was.

“I didn’t want you to miss them,” he said. “After they come back from fishing, they don’t come out of their burrows until morning.”

All day, I realized, he’d been trying to tell me the story of his life, aligning each major stop with formative periods. He’d been accounting for each minute so I could have a body of knowledge from which to make my decisions, and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see this magic before my eyes—threatened penguins in the wild. From his perspective, it had been late. The sun was low on the horizon, leaving seas to blacken. Night was almost here. Penguins were heading to bed.

He was right, I thought. There wasn’t enough time, given what was at stake: the penguins, our hearts, our lives.

“This was a good reason to hurry,” I said.

“Time bandit,” he said, giving that sigh again, and took my hand.

We watched, getting stiff, until the very last penguin was back from the sea.

Queenstown, Mount Cook, Lake Tokapo. We spent another few days traveling through shimmering beauty, visiting places of personal triumph—a national park he’d managed as a top conservator, a barrier island he’d saved from pests, a Kiwi sanctuary where administrators welcomed him like a conquering hero. College friends opened their homes; a famous explorer patted dough into handmade tortillas for our private lunch. I began to realize how deliberately and forcefully he’d thrown off the predictability of his former good life. Sure, living in a big city across the world, working on a tough refit, falling in love with an American interloper on the verge of starting a family was pushing him to his limit. Perhaps that was exactly the point.

After a final blustery hike along Kaikouru’s perilous, spectacular cliffs, we returned to Auckland. I was flying back to Seattle alone. Rob was crossing the ditch, headed to Sydney and Ted, for another couple of weeks. Taking care of business, and his friend.

On the way to the airport, we were quiet, processing the last ten days.

“Good trip, eh?” he asked, taking my hand.

Without thinking, I blurted out, “Sally mentioned your ex.”

“Yes?”

I hesitated, not wanting to hurt him, but I couldn’t keep the secret anymore. He deserved to know. “She’s living with the pilot.”

“Right,” he said, turning off the highway and parking beside yet another random field. Then he pulled me on top of him.

“Here?” I asked, flabbergasted, glancing at golden haystacks. “Now?”

“Shall we make a baby?”

I found myself tearing up; it was my clarion call, the words I’d waited to hear my entire life. Although I wanted to shout yes, and grab my chance, I couldn’t. Sorrow was rising up, ache from an old injury, warning me to be careful.

“It’s what you want, right?” he asked, sensing my hesitation.

I searched his clear eyes, hoping for a sign I wouldn’t be sucked down again by grief; another blow might do me in for good. What I saw surprised me. He was as scared as I was. Scared, but offering up everything he had, for me.

“Yes,” I said.

He kept an eye out for tractors. I kept an eye out for cars.

On the plane back home, I pulled a blanket over my lap and settled in for the long flight. I pressed my stomach, allowing myself to feel the barest, bravest scrap of hope. My relationship with Rob might leave me a crippled mess on the battlefield, but what were my other options? Nothing I could bear to choose.

I leaned back and watched the city shrink. As we gained altitude, the rangy contours of the island became more visible. Two long strips of land encircled and divided by water. In New Zealand, Rob liked to say, you’re never more than an hour from the sea, and now I knew what he meant. It was a land of geological accidents. The real story was taking place thousands of miles below the surface, where the earth’s plates shifted and creaked, oblivious to creatures upstairs trying to make sense of the beautiful rubble.


Kathy Harding has returned to writing, her favorite endurance sport, after 15 years of working in technology. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Tales To Go, and Radical Society as well as turned into a short film shown on WGBH-TV in Boston. Years ago, she earned an M.F.A. from the University of Arizona, where she was the fiction editor of Sonora Review. Currently, she is a 2015-2016 Made at Hugo House fellow in Seattle.

Animal Encounter Gold Winner: From Tsetses to Chimps

May 1st, 2017

By David Myles Robinson

One of my favorite movie lines of all time was spoken by Walter Brennan’s character Eddie in To Have and Have Not: “Say, was you ever bit by a dead bee?”

I can’t say exactly why that line resonated with me, especially since I’m not one of those guys who make a practice of remembering movie lines. Perhaps it was the wonderful characterizations of Brennan, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall. Or perhaps it was the various meanings one could read into the line. One of those meanings might be this: just when you think everything is fine and you see no danger ahead, you might step on an innocuous-looking dead bee and still get stung.

That’s what happened during our August 2000 private safari to Tanzania. There were just the four of us—myself and Marcia, along with Ricky and Rich, both of whom we had met in Botswana many years earlier. We had designed a fairly high-end safari, staying in lodges and permanent camps and, whenever possible, flying from camp to camp. It was a far cry from the Botswana safari, when we stayed in two-person Eureka tents and carried our own sleeping bags.

One of our first lodges was the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, a luxury hotel built on the rim of the huge crater, home to a vast array of wildlife. In fact, it is the world’s largest inactive and unfilled caldera. It’s two thousand feet deep and covers an area of about one hundred square miles.

Marcia and I had been lucky enough on a prior safari to be among the last tourists allowed to camp out on the crater floor. Now even the native Maasai people, who are allowed to graze their cattle in the crater, must exit the reserve at the end of each day. Because of the popularity of the site, due mainly to the incredible concentration of animals, there are a number of hotels and tented camps on the rim of the crater.

The Ngorongoro Crater Lodge is routinely listed among the top hotels in the world. The large, lavishly appointed rooms overlook the crater. Even our toilet had a view. We had a personal butler who made sure our fireplace was roaring when we returned from the chilly drive up from the floor of the crater each evening, and, of course, that our bar was stocked with our preferred beverage. Dinner was served to the four of us in an elaborately decorated dining room. The lodge is absurdly expensive, but if you have the money to splurge, it is well worth it.

So everything was going well on our private safari. From the crater we went to a luxurious permanent tented camp on the bank of the Grumeti River. Our large tent had a king-sized bed, writing desk, carpet, and an en suite bathroom. The camp featured a small pool in which the four of us relaxed, cocktails in hand, at the end of a hot and dusty morning game drive. The bar and dining area was quite literally on the bank of the river.

Unfortunately, the Serengeti was experiencing a terrible drought that year, and the Grumeti River was more of a mudhole than a river. Lethargic hippos wallowed in the mud. Cautious Thomson gazelles and impalas searched the river for water to drink, more at risk than usual from lions and cheetahs due to the reduced water access.

There were so many animals in close proximity to the camp that it was not uncommon to lie in bed and hear lions and elephants and the danger calls of monkeys.

But on our second night at Grumeti, the sounds were closer and different. We couldn’t figure out what it was—until the next morning when we walked out of our tent. The pool, which was the distance of two tents from us, had turned from the inviting blue we’d enjoyed the day before to brown. The camp crew was abuzz. A hippo, apparently fed up with the slushy mud of the river, had somehow managed to climb up to the pool and immerse itself therein. It must have sat there in total contentment for hours during the night. Unfortunately for us, the pool had to be closed for the remainder of our stay—not just for the crew to clean out the mud and hippo shit, but because it was too dangerous to have such an inviting attraction for the hippos so close to our living quarters.

I don’t know if the drought that year had anything to do with the strong resurgence of the tsetse flies, but for the first time in all of our visits to the Serengeti and Maasai Mara, we became targets of these huge, biting flies with long proboscises. This is when things began to go bung—when we got bit by the proverbial dead bee.

All of us suffered bites from the tsetses, which are capable of biting right through clothing. Though all our bites hurt, only Marcia and Ricky suffered serious reactions. Marcia’s reactions were by far the worst. A bite on the top of her hand caused the hand to swell up to the size of a baseball. She had huge lumps on her neck, arms, and back. Ricky’s were about half the size of Marcia’s. And they hurt . . . bad.

Despite the bites, we still went on the morning and evening game drives, and the viewing was nothing short of amazing. The prides of lions with small cubs were huge, and we spent hours just watching and photographing their antics. But we were all in varying and increasing degrees of pain. It broke my heart to see Marcia in such agony, but other than give her the pain pills I always carry on safari, there was nothing we could do.

On top of everything else, I developed a head cold.

From Grumeti we went to Klein’s Camp, also in the Serengeti. Thankfully, Klein’s was built on an elevated piece of land, and a hundred or so feet of elevation made all the difference in the presence of the tsetses. Klein’s Camp became our temporary respite from the onslaught of the flying beasts. Unhappily, as soon as we descended from our oasis, the biting began anew.

It was a small stroke of luck that the wife of the camp manager was also susceptible to the tsetse bite, and she, too, had the severe reactions suffered by Marcia. So she had a much stronger antihistamine than we had. It helped, but I gave serious thought to canceling the rest of the trip. That would have meant giving up our dream of seeing the chimps at Gombe Stream National Park, where Jane Goodall lived while doing her research. Marcia said it would take much more than some bites to give that up. Little did she know how close we would come to doing just that.

One of the wonders of the African bush, and why we keep going back despite having experienced our fair share of hardship, is the element of daily surprise. Each day brings something new and amazing, so that even our experienced guides are often shocked into wonderment.

During one of our many game drives in the Serengeti from Klein’s Camp, we came across a leopard in a leafless tree, ridiculously close to the dirt track we were following. The leopard was staring intently toward the ground. At first we couldn’t see anything on the ground. The end-of-summer brown grass was knee-high. Then the leopard leapt from the tree, and within seconds it came up with a bushbuck, a small, brown-colored antelope which, when fully grown, stands about three feet tall at its shoulder. The leopard held the bushbuck, which looked very young, in its mouth for a few seconds and then, instead of making the kill and carrying it up the tree, it set the bushbuck down. The bushbuck was still very much alive, but was clearly in shock, as it didn’t try to run away.

We sat in amazement, snapping photos like crazy, as the leopard proceeded to play with the bushbuck, just as a housecat would play with a captured mouse. This went on for several minutes, and even our guide had retrieved his trusty old Canon and was snapping away between exclamations.

Eventually we all convinced ourselves that the leopard must not have been hungry and had decided to let the bushbuck live. The leopard even climbed back up to its perch in the tree, leaving the healthy bushbuck alone on the ground.

But this is Africa, and leopards are leopards. As soon as the bushbuck decided it might be safe to sneak away, and began to run, the leopard was out of the tree and onto the bushbuck in the blink of an eye. This time he made the kill and climbed up to his perch, bushbuck in mouth.

On that same day, we came across a small family of cheetahs chowing down on a fresh kill. The odd thing was that it was almost midday, and we’d been on our way back to camp. There’s a reason why game drives take place in the very early morning and late afternoon: the animals are generally only active during those times. They sleep and rest in whatever shade they can find during the intense heat of the day.

Yet these cheetahs were out in the open, sharing the inadequate shade of one lone, scrawny acacia tree while they enjoyed the delights of a freshly killed gazelle. Our guide explained that he’d only recently begun to notice this phenomenon. The prevailing theory was that the Serengeti tourist trade had grown to the point where the increased numbers of safari vehicles in certain areas were interfering with the hunting habits of some species. It was only during the harsh midday heat, when the tourists were back at their camps enjoying their own shade and lunch, that the cats could hunt and feast in relative solitude. At least, that was our guide’s theory.

With the bites, and the resulting pain, getting worse and worse, we jumped at the chance to take our first African balloon ride. For years we’d rejected the notion of missing out on a game drive in favor of a balloon ride. But this seemed like the perfect occasion, so we arranged for an early morning flight.

The predawn hours of the African bush are often extremely cold. It’s hard to fathom that within a short time, the heat will drive humans and animals alike to seek shelter. It was a particularly clear and cold morning when we arrived at the balloon staging area. The large wicker basket, which could hold sixteen people, lay on its side while the huge, partially inflated red, blue, and yellow balloon hung limply nearby. At that moment it looked quite inadequate for the task ahead.

To take off, we were instructed to climb into the basket while it lay on its side. It was awkward as we climbed into our little two-person wicker squares, where we lay as if in a cupboard. Soon enough our pilot began to inflate the balloon, and the basket was slowly righted. Then we were flying.

The gush of the flame into the balloon is loud, but usually happened in short bursts. It was the intensity of the silence after the bursts of flame that first struck me. To fly in absolute silence is in itself amazing, but to fly in silence over the vast Serengeti plains was in a class of experience all its own. We watched the ubiquitous acacia trees sweep by. We watched herds of zebras, gazelles, and wildebeests take off running, often in confused and opposite directions, as they sensed our low-flying pass above them. We watched the graceful lope of a running herd of giraffes. It was beautiful, thrilling, and chin-quivering.

Then we experienced yet another one of the brilliant African bush surprises. In the silence of the coasting balloon, we watched as a lone hyena took down a fleeing Thomson gazelle, the scene acted out in silence below us. It was part of the beautiful, deadly, brutal ballet of Africa.

The balloon pilot landed us far from where we had taken off, but precisely where a bountiful brunch, complete with champagne, had been set up for us under an expansive acacia tree.

From the Serengeti we were scheduled to fly in a small chartered plane to Arusha, where we would stay overnight at the Mountain Lodge. We would fly out the next morning on Air Tanzania to Mwanza, and then on to Kigoma, where we would take a boat down the coast of Lake Tanganyika to Gombe Stream National Park.

I thought my head cold was gone, but apparently there was some remaining congestion. Moments after taking off from the dirt airstrip at Klein’s Camp, my ears closed off. It felt as if my head was going to explode. The pain was excruciating. It was frightening, but all I could do for the duration of the flight was hold my head in my hands and moan and pray that my head really wasn’t going to explode. Although landing was a relief, my ears did not unclog. I could hear almost nothing.

We had our driver stop at the Air Tanzania office on the way to the hotel so we could pick up our tickets for the next day’s flights. Unfortunately, we learned that Air Tanzania had stopped flying from Mwanza to Kigoma. Kigoma was where we needed to be in order to get to Gombe. I left Marcia, Rich, and Ricky in the office and wandered back out to the van. I couldn’t hear, and my head hurt too much to participate.

After well over an hour of finagling, the plan was to spend an extra night in Arusha and then fly Air Tanzania to Mwanza, where we would pick up a charter flight to Kigoma. I was not displeased to learn I wouldn’t have to get on another airplane for two days. I was sure my head would be clear by then.

The Mountain Lodge in Arusha was a pleasant enough place, although on our most recent trip to Arusha, in 2014, our guide told us her company had stopped using the lodge because it had become too dangerous—as a result of people, not animals. It was basically a small village of round, one-room boma-like huts with thatched roofs and ivy-covered walls. The gardens were pleasant and luxuriant. By the time we went to bed that night, my ears still hadn’t cleared.

We didn’t do much of anything the next day except wander around town on our own. Again, that’s something we would be discouraged from doing today. Bill Clinton was scheduled to visit Arusha the next week, so welcoming banners were being hoisted onto light poles, and city workers scurried around sweeping the dirt on the dirt streets.

By the time we went to bed that next night, my ears had still not cleared. We each had our own bed. I awoke sometime in the middle of the night to hear Marcia moaning. When I asked what was wrong, she said she was freezing cold and had a headache. Her stomach hurt a little bit. I gave her my blanket and a dose of Cipro, an antibiotic I always carry to developing countries. When she said she was still freezing cold (though it was not cold out), I summoned Ricky from his room. Ricky is an MD. Unfortunately, he’s an ophthalmologist and almost as old as we are, which means the non-eye-related medical stuff he learned in med school has mostly receded into the nooks and crannies of his mind.

Our rooms were far away from the hotel reception area, so Ricky went to track down a security guard to ask him to bring more blankets. We feared Marcia had contracted malaria despite taking antimalarial pills. We gave her some aspirin and stacked the blankets on top of her until she finally stopped shaking. Eventually she dozed off. Ricky went back to his room. I lay on my bed, my ears still plugged, worried sick about Marcia and about what would happen to me when I took off on another flight. I wondered if there was any chance at all that Marcia would wake up in the morning and feel well enough to travel to Gombe.

She did. She wasn’t 100 percent, mostly because she was tired and drained, but she felt good enough to travel. She wasn’t going to miss seeing the chimps for anything. The best guess as to what happened to her was a kind of post-anaphylactic reaction to all of the tsetse bites. We’ll never really know.

My ears were still plugged, and I was fairly terrified about flying, but we went to the airport and boarded our Air Tanzania flight to Mwanza. As soon as we lifted off, my ears miraculously unplugged. That which I had feared the most turned out to be the cure.

Once in Mwanza, we met up with our small-plane charter captain, and off we went to Kigoma. It was kind of a boring flight, although we flew low enough to see. The terrain was parched and mostly empty except for the occasional hardscrabble village, where children would inevitably run out of their huts upon hearing a plane and wave and jump around. Although we couldn’t hear them, of course, we knew they would be hollering, probably “Hallo!”

As if that day wasn’t surreal and sleepy enough following our difficult night, in Kigoma we were met and taken to a hotel on the banks of the Tanganyika. It was an old and dying hotel, although it may have once been fairly decent. From the cracked cement walls and faded, peeling paint to the dark reception area—possibly a result of no power—it was almost like being in a ghost town. Undoubtedly the lack of any more commercial flights into Kigoma was not helping the tourist business.

After learning that we’d have to wait there until the boat to Gombe was ready for us, we were directed to the hotel’s restaurant. We were frankly surprised there would even be a functioning restaurant, but off we went. It was lighter than the rest of the hotel, as it had large, though dirty, windows looking out on a courtyard and one-story hotel rooms, which were the lakefront “luxury” suites. A young, squalid-looking boy handed us menus, which were ridiculously long. They had everything from hamburgers to chicken Kiev to an array of Indian food.

By then we were punch-drunk and had begun to find everything stupidly hilarious. We ordered beers and chicken tikka masala and rice and laughed at almost everything. The food was predictably awful, but the beer was good, and after a couple hours of sitting around, we were finally on our way to Gombe Stream, home of Jane Goodall’s research station. We were taken there in a wooden longboat with hard wooden benches, a canvas roof for shelter, and crates of food and supplies for our three-night stay.

The cabin in which we stayed at Gombe was only yards away from Jane Goodall’s former house. Our place consisted of several sleeping rooms—cells, really—and a small dining area attached to the kitchen. All the windows and doors were covered with wire mesh designed to keep the baboons out. We soon learned why, as the large troop of baboons that lived on or near the beach seemed to know when the cabin was inhabited, which meant food and mischief. We often found one or more at a window or door, trying to get inside.

The camp was right on the lake. The beach between the lake and the camp was made up of large, smooth rocks, so that we immediately christened the beach “Nice,” after the rocky beaches of Nice in Southern France. The lake water was cool and clean, and when we weren’t marching through the jungle looking for chimps, we spent our days on the beach at Nice getting a tan, watching the baboons, and taking frequent dips in the cool of the lake.

It was not always easy to find the chimps at Gombe. The park is long and narrow, and runs from the shores of Lake Tanganyika up a steep incline. Searching for the chimps at Gombe was very different from trekking to see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, which we did years later. There, the guides would communicate with park rangers, who went out every morning to find where each gorilla family was on that particular day. So even though some hikes to the gorillas could take several hours, it was a virtual guarantee to find them.

In Gombe, there were no personnel except the rangers who acted as our guides. Although the individual chimp families were territorial, their territories were large and the terrain was often brutally steep in dense jungle. So there was no guarantee of finding, let alone observing, chimps on any given day.

On our first day of searching, we took off straight uphill, following narrow, meandering trails made by the chimps. It was hard climbing in uncomfortable heat. I had to “short-leash” Marcia on a number of occasions to help get her up some of the steepest inclines. I was somewhat worried about her putting such stress on her body only a day after that terrible night in Arusha, but as it turned out, it was young Rich who had the hardest time. At one point, after a particularly arduous climb, I looked at him and saw he was deathly white and sweating profusely. He survived, but he declined to go on the next day’s hike.

We did find chimps that afternoon, but they were high up on the slopes and in thick foliage. Our periods of observation were counted in seconds rather than minutes. All in all, it was a pretty disappointing five-hour death march. Lake Tanganyika, however, felt wonderful.

Rich’s decision to pass on the hike the next morning was ironic, as we found a large family of chimps close to the lake and only about thirty minutes from the camp. They were, of course, amazing and wonderful, and we could see how Jane Goodall was willing to spend so much of her life studying and falling in love with these creatures.

It was a hard trip, but one of our best.


David Myles Robinson is a retired attorney, having spent thirty-eight years working in Honolulu, Hawai‘i as a trial attorney. He now lives with his wife, a retired Honolulu Circuit Court judge, in Taos, NM, where, in addition to writing, he can indulge his passions of skiing, golfing, hiking, and, of course, traveling. They have traveled to all seven continents.

Doing Good or the Kindness of Strangers Gold Winner: Nirvana’s Horizon—Discovering the Soul of the Golden Land as a Buddhist Monk in Myanmar

April 24th, 2017

By Kevin Dimetres

He was seeking a new level of travel.

The reflection in the mirror was virtually unrecognizable; the spelling of my name remained obscure; what might happen next had become a perpetual mystery.  Before I could make sense of it all, Burgundy-robed monks whisked me away, up a dusty spiral staircase, to their secluded 5th floor rooftop. With endearing fervor, the monks excitedly pulled out their smartphones, gathered around me as a group, and began snapping selfies, with me, against the backdrop of the Yangon skyline. Had I stumbled down the rabbit hole, only to arrive in Myanmar? I peered over the ledge to the chaos of once-familiar city life below; I became as dizzy as the moment was surreal.

I saw none of this coming, yet it was all going exactly as planned.

~ ~ ~

No guidebooks, no tour agencies, no beaten path; I promised myself this trip would be original.  Long removed from my days as a wide-eyed tourist, and beyond my adventures as a gritty backpacker, I sought a new level of travel. I needed to find something real, something pure. Determined to bond with the local culture at its most intimate level, my goal was to connect with the cultural fabric and spiritual pulse of a land as distinctive and unique as any on earth. Armed with nothing more than kindness and a smile—the Buddha’s preferred weapons of choice—I hit the streets and began to explore. Myanmar beckoned.

~ ~ ~

I arrived in Yangon with a single backpack and an open mind.  Sweltering heat consumes the city during the heart of the summer monsoon season.  The downtown air was thick; the traffic frenzied. Decrepit buildings from the golden age of generations past wore their faded exteriors proudly, like battle scars earned fighting a silent war alongside the hopes and dreams of the Myanmar people.  But behind those crumbling walls and cracked windows, the people smiled—endless, infinite smiles.  Beneath the surface lay something beautiful and inspiring.  I was intoxicated with wonder; the spirit of the Myanmar people was unlike anything I had ever come across.

Golden Buddhist pagodas pierced the sky amidst a backdrop of urban decay, symbolically reflecting the country’s shining optimism throughout its tumultuous political past.  I browsed the street vendors, perusing the black market antiques, knock-off soccer jerseys, and countless varieties of Buddha statues. An old man with leathered skin and heavy eyes sat in a small plastic chair behind a table selling longyis, the traditional sarong worn by the men of Myanmar.  These long, skirt-type garments did not contain pockets or belt holes, yet were as ubiquitous as they were comfortable.  I had to have one.

His eyes lit up as he presented me with an indescribably warm and heartfelt smile to accompany my new longyi. Those distinctive Myanmar smiles—heart-meltingly genuine, slightly bashful, and with a hint of laughter—were beyond infectious.

I wore my longyi with sandals and a T-shirt—typical Myanmar attire—but blend in, I certainly did not. Standing a relatively towering 6’2” with seemingly more hair on my face and forearms than many locals had on their head, the stares of onlooker’s were palpable. Adults would greet me with a handshake and a smile, enthusiastically speaking whatever English they could muster. A man with pepper-grey hair and an animated demeanor rushed across a street to approach me and eagerly presented a faded, creased business card; above a local Yangon address the words “English Teacher” were written in large, bold letters. He introduced himself as Thein, and upon learning of my American heritage he asked me to volunteer at his English class the following day. I thought about it for a moment, and became more excited by the second. I had been seeking a way to connect with the people, and the chance had found me. Perfect.

~ ~ ~

The classroom was located on a the 3rd floor of a battered building in the heart of downtown Yangon, a few yards away from a row of street vendors serving the best mohinga soup in the city. Most of the class time was spent answering simple questions and speaking English in a conversational style. The topics of discussion generally centered on the following concepts: life in Myanmar; life in America; politics; religion; and why I’m not yet married. A few students implied that should I choose to stay in Yangon, I would no longer have that problem. All I could do was laugh. The generosity of the local people is unmatched; it is easy to fall in love with Myanmar.

In the front row of the class sat a Buddhist monk with an affable demeanor and an inquisitive glare.  He sat quietly, maintaining eye contact while he processed his thoughts. He was one of about 40 students, a few of whom were also monks. He let the younger students speak first, before finally raising his hand.

“What is the cost of happiness?” the monk stated with a sly smile and a glimmer in his eye. “We all want to be happy, yes? But…what are we willing to pay for happiness? What would you pay for happiness?”

The context of the question figuratively smacked me across my face. A Buddhist monk and I engaging in a philosophical debate; this was the kind of thrill I was hoping to encounter.

The look in his eyes told me he wasn’t concerned with my response; he had just wanted to plant the seed for reflection. I giggled with delight, gave him a nod, and joked with the class about how the cost of my plane ticket to Myanmar had been worth every penny. The conversation evolved into a discussion about Buddhism and religion, and I found it remarkable how easily perspectives were exchanged without any sense of ego or grandeur. The Myanmar people have an extraordinary capacity to discuss religion and politics in a constructive manner, and I was thrilled with the chance to continue our conversations during the following class.

~ ~ ~

A burly, energetic monk wearing a bright orange robe stood by the classroom doorway as he awaited my arrival the following day.  He was the bhikkhu (head monk in charge) of a local Theravada Buddhist monastery, and he called himself Dahmapalla. I’m not sure exactly how he came to know of me, but he was excited to meet an American English teacher from Washington, D.C. He spoke a modicum of English draped in a heavy Myanmar accent. We exchanged pleasantries for a few minutes, and the topic of my religious beliefs inevitably came up. I simply stated that positive elements can be found in each religion, and a greater understanding of all religious philosophies would lead to better spiritual health and a more harmonious world. As I spoke of my desire to learn more about Buddhism during my journey to Asia, Dahmapalla silently nodded his head before presenting me with a unique opportunity.

“Come to monastery,” he said proudly with his thick accent, “Teach monks English, stay for free.  You learn Buddhism, monks learn English.  Sleep there, free, no money, very good…okay, okay?”

The opportunity was tantalizing. Theravada Buddhism plays such a fascinatingly prominent role in everyday life in Myanmar; golden Buddhist pagodas are ubiquitous, while Buddhist monks walk the streets at sunrise for their daily alms. There was something alluring about the Myanmar people- their unparalleled happiness and tranquility seemed to be a direct result of their Buddhist faith. I was eager to learn more, and became ecstatic at the prospect of such a cultural exchange.

Without a moment of hesitation, I excitedly said “Yes!” before he could finish his sentence.

The basic concepts of Buddhism were somewhat familiar to me—I confess to being an avid listener of Alan Watts—however I knew very little about its practical application in everyday life. Beyond my love affair with Chinese martial arts movies and musical references from the Wu-Tang Clan, I had never seen Buddhism in action. Above all, I was fascinated by the lives of Buddhist monks. How does one become a monk, and what do their daily lives entail?  Would these seemingly spiritual savants, on their individual path to enlightenment, be willing to share an anecdote of wisdom with a foreigner such as myself?

I had no further plans beyond that moment.  The thrill of the unknown lay ahead.

~ ~ ~

The monastery was located in an enduring building situated in an unfamiliar neighborhood north of downtown Yangon. The five-story building was built in a “U” shape, with an open courtyard in the center and an attached building on the side which acted as the bhikkhu’s private quarters. I arrived with a few English language activity books, a stack of notecards, spiral bound notebooks, and a few boxes of pencils which I had purchased at a market near the English school. I created a playlist of my favorite music to share—I was guardedly hopeful that Buddhist monks might enjoy Bob Marley and Wu-Tang- as well as pictures of my family and friends back in the States. As always, I kept a box of playing cards and a tennis ball ready; games and activities are a phenomenal way to bond with people, especially when language barriers exist. In reality, I had no idea what to expect, and deep down, I kind of liked it that way. I was ready to embrace anything that crossed my path.

Metaphorically speaking, you could hear the record come to a screeching halt when I entered the monastery. The older monks enthusiastically chatted amongst themselves at the sight of my presence, while the novice monks were in a state of curious hysteria. I gave everyone a wave as I shouted “Minglaba, nay kung la?” which, according to my Myanmar language app meant “Hello, how are you?”

The monks waved back while they roared with lighthearted laughter at my clumsy attempt to speak the language, and I continued to wave while I tried to I soak it all in.

Dahmapalla introduced me to a monk named Zaw; he was in his early twenties, spoke a little English, and would act as my unofficial guide for the day. Zaw came from a small village in the countryside about four hours away, and had committed to life as a Buddhist monk at the tender age of nine. He had a brother and two sisters whom he had last spoken with a year earlier during their visit to Yangon. He had seen other Americans before, but I was the first that he had the chance to meet personally, and he was equally as excited to be speaking with me as I was with him.

As I settled in, I was greeted by a cheerful monk named Sai. Sai was a part-time monk; sometimes he would stay at the monastery for a week or two living a devout monastic lifestyle, then return to his home life in the city. I was unaware that Buddhist monks could float freely between the two lifestyle dynamics, but as I came to later understand, the degree to which one embraces a Buddhist way of life is ultimately up to the individual. It’s a spiritual approach to life open to anyone in any capacity- even as a part-time Buddhist monk.

Sai knew how to say two simple words in English, and he couldn’t wait to try them on me. He clutched an empty mug and extended his hand in my direction.

“Hello! Hello… Coffee?  Coffee!”

I was surprised by the gesture, but I gladly accepted.

I nodded my head, returned the smile, and enthusiastically said “Yes!”

Sai mimicked my body language, nodded his head, and responded “Yes. Yes? Yes!”

He now understood a third English word, and he couldn’t have been happier.

The oldest monk, whose name was Kyin, introduced himself to me as I drank coffee with Sai. Kyin sported impossibly dark navy-blue eyes and was immensely proud of the fact that he was nearing his 70th birthday. He attributed his long life to his affinity for meditating up to 6 hours a day. He spoke a small amount of English, which he had crafted during his previous career as a businessman prior to becoming a monk. He had lived in the monastery for only a few years, and he had a family living in another part of the city. He planned to remain a monk for the rest of his days, and professed that he was as happy now as he had ever been in his entire life.

Zaw took me to a local café for dinner a few blocks from the monastery. He recommended a spicy curry dish and sat with me while I ate, however he could not eat himself, as the monks typically did not eat after midday.

Once we returned, I spent the rest of the afternoon playing chinlone- a traditional game visually similar to hacky-sack played with a woven rattan ball amid a circle of people- in the courtyard with the novice monks.

As the sun was setting, I was summoned to meet with Dahmapalla in his private quarters.

~ ~ ~

I sat on the floor across from Dahmapalla, my legs crossed awkwardly in a feeble attempt at the lotus position. A few other elder monks, all wearing burgundy robes with burnt-orange ties around their waist, stood around us. Images of the Buddha and framed pictures of the monastery’s former bhikkhu’s adorned the walls. My eyes beamed with anticipation, as I was as curious as I was excited-a philosophical conversation with a Buddhist master in a Buddhist temple had remained near the top of my travel bucket list for years.

“You happy here?  Everything okay?”  He asked me in a relaxed, caring manner. I assured him that I was content and gracious for his hospitality.

“So…You want learn Buddhism. Yes? You like Myanmar and Buddha knowledge, yes?”

I nodded eagerly, unsure about where the conversation was headed.

“Okay, okay…what you want to know? You teach English, I teach Buddhism,” he exclaimed in a jovial tone.

I wasn’t sure exactly what to say; I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

“Well,” I stammered, trying my best to articulate my thoughts clearly but not sure where to begin, “Everything…I want to know everything about Buddhism…I want to see life through your eyes.”

“Oh! Well…Okay, okay,” he responded in an amused manner with a Cheshire-cat grin, “You have to be monk first to know everything for Buddhism.”

“Yes, I know, I know,” I said sheepishly while nodding my head. “I just want to learn…Anything… Everything. I seek knowledge.”

I knew not whether his previous comment was a question or an answer.

Dahmapalla spoke with the other monks in their native tongue.  A round of smiles and head nodding ensued.
“Okay, good! You like Buddhism. You want Buddha knowledge, I give you knowledge. As a monk. But first we give you robe and cut hair. Tomorrow. After English class. Very good. Okay, okay.”

Wait…What?

Did I just agree to become a Buddhist monk?
Overwhelmed, I tried to wrap my head around the moment—this was beyond my wildest dreams or expectations. Thoughts collided at every angle, from the benign (what about my hair?) to the substantial (will I have to be a monk forever?).  Part of me felt a sliver of guilt; am I worthy of such a privilege? As much as I wanted to learn about Buddhism firsthand, I did not want to disrespect the monastery with any type of disingenuous cultural tourism. On the flip side of that coin, part of me was stunned with excitement; as an anthropological enthusiast, the chance to experience the world from an entirely new perspective made me feel as giddy as a child on Christmas morning. A flurry of emotions was subdued by a clear sense of the moment.

Deep down, I just knew.

I had traveled halfway around the world, inexplicably found myself in a Buddhist monastery surrounded by burgundy-robed Buddhist monks, with the opportunity to become a monk myself and learn firsthand about Buddhist culture and philosophies from the spiritual heart of Myanmar.  I had wanted to experience something original, and the universe had presented me with the opportunity.  What was I supposed to do, back out now?

Traveling is not a spectator sport; I had to go all in.

~ ~ ~

My ordination ceremony took place the following day. First, my head and beard were shaved completely.  A younger monk-in-training, the same young gentleman who also served as the monastery’s cook,  used soap, water, and a box of single-blade razors to remove all of the hair from my head.  The novice monks were speechless with awe, as I’m not sure they had seen a bearded foreigner with a freshly shaved, shiny head.  I shaved my face with an ever-growing audience of curious monks; it was the first clean shave that I had had in five years.

Wearing my longyi and a white T-shirt, I returned to the bhikkhu’s quarters, where I knelt before Dahmapalla and bowed three times as a sign of respect. Repeating after Dahmapalla, I recited a passage known as the Three Refuges, which is a formal request for ordination. He then placed my robes in between us, and I proceeded to recite the Ten Precepts-rules which guide Theravada Buddhist monk’s behavior, such as abstaining from harming life, abstaining from taking what is not given, and abstaining from the use of intoxicants, amongst others. Lastly, I requested that Dahmapalla be my Preceptor, or spiritual guide.  He then handed me my very own burgundy robe, alms bowl, and prayer beads.  Finally, I was given my Buddhist name—Teelahwontay.

My fellow monks—the Sangha—helped me put on my robes. I observed my new appearance in the mirror; words cannot describe the emotions I felt as I saw an unfamiliar figure looking back at me. They proceeded to take me to the 5th story roof of the monastery for a celebratory view of the Shwedagon Pagoda and downtown Yangon. Kyin waved his hand in my direction and shouted “Teelahwontay!” before snapping a picture; I had officially arrived in Wonderland.

For a precious moment, time stood still.

~ ~ ~

Zaw and a few other monks took me for a walk through downtown Yangon to the Shwedagon Pagoda the day after my ordination. The stares from locals and tourists alike were unforgettable; I felt like I was half rock star, half albino zoo animal due to all the attention directed my way.  Despite the unusualness of the situation, the Myanmar people were extraordinarily gracious, acknowledging me with inquisitive eyes and proud smiles.  Many came to greet me, asking personal questions about myself, philosophical questions about life, and expressing their joy in sharing Buddhism with the world.

Once again, I found myself unable to stop smiling.

We met at 5am every morning, gathered in a single file line, and walked barefoot through Yangon to receive steamed rice from volunteers. Many of the monks meditated for a half hour before leaving for breakfast; however a few monks hit the snooze button until they absolutely had to get up to get in line for rice on time.  I began to learn that we really weren’t that different from each other after all.  We ate together at the monastery, usually followed by a round of meditation or leisure time.

Each floor of the monastery appeared to be a large open room, and each floor served a different purpose. The 4th floor was essentially a dormitory for the older monks; despite my title of “novice monk,” I was assigned a spot on the floor and given a mat, pillow, and mosquito net. A few of the older monks slept in modest beds; their only possessions generally being their robes, a few books, and perhaps a cell phone.

We met again as a group for lunch, which usually consisted of rice, boiled vegetables, and chicken or pork. Eating meat was optional; some monks did but most did not. No food was allowed after noon, however an older monk with lively eyes and a toothless grin named Htun would sneak steamed pork rolls into the monastery for me every night because he didn’t want me to suffer from hunger. I politely attempted to decline, preferring to embrace the full experience of monastic Buddhist life, but he insisted that I not go to bed hungry. In essence, that’s how these Buddhists like to do things- unwavering kindness and compassion above all- even if it meant breaking holy rules in holy places. I could dig that.

~ ~ ~

The emotional changeover from American traveler to Buddhist monk was remarkably effortless. Levels of stress began to melt away like a block of ice. With a greater emphasis on mindfulness, I uncovered the ability to truly live in the moment. The concept of simply living took on a new, rewarding meaning. Even the sun seemed to shine brighter, the flowers smelled sweeter, and I just couldn’t stop smiling.

Attempting to sleep on the hardwood floors of the monastery was quite an experiment; amusingly enough, this may have been the greatest challenge I faced throughout my journey to Asia.  When I imagined all of the comforting indulgences that I missed from my life back home- drive-thru combo meals from Freddie’s Steakburgers, Seinfeld reruns, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, etc. - what stood out most was a comfortable mattress and cushy pillows.  Apparently, I still have a ways to go before reaching enlightenment and achieving nirvana.

Inevitably, I knew this journey would eventually come to an end. In Myanmar, that meant 28 days after the date of arrival until my American Visas expired. I packed away my robe and prayer beads.  I dug up my wallet from the depths of my backpack; my passport indicated that my name was Kevin Dimetres, and I had a signature to match.  With my plane ticket in hand, I donned a knock-off Myanmar soccer jersey, cargo shorts, and Nike trekking sneakers. The time had come to kiss the Golden Land of Myanmar—and my moment as a Buddhist monk—goodbye.

~ ~ ~

I arrived in Singapore with a sense of shock and awe at the modern world. The sensory overload seemed so unnecessary; the modern comforts so trivial. Part of me wondered if I had returned from the rabbit hole; another part of me contemplated if I had it all backwards, living in Wonderland my entire life.

Life seemed like a high-stakes game of high-speed hamster wheel Olympics.  The hubbub of everyday life was one brash, flamboyant distraction with a cherry on top and a commercial jingle to boot.

All I could do was smile.

Prior to this moment, I wasn’t sure how my Buddhist tutelage would carry over into the “real world.”  Despite my hesitations, I realized that I was more apt to handle the cultural terrain of our modern society than ever.  I had developed an arsenal of emotional tools to combat the unnecessary stressors found in any environment.  I was no longer compelled to seek happiness externally; I could easily find it within.  Everything else is just background noise.

~ ~ ~

Growing up as part of the Catholic Church, I chose “Lawrence” as my confirmation name, inspired by my youthful admiration of the Boston Celtics legendary Larry Bird. I couldn’t help but contemplate the spiritual integrity of double-dipping religious identities; nevertheless, part of me will always remain Lawrence. People continue to ask me about my religion today—am I a Buddhist, Christian, etc.?—but I’ve never been one for labels. The short answer remains the same—each religion has positive elements which we can apply to our own lives, and a greater understanding of each religion can lead to greater spiritual peace and social harmony for all mankind. We are all people, it’s our world, and we’re all in this life together. Labels should not divide us, nor should beliefs define us. The human experience is so much deeper than that; beauty can be found everywhere and within every person, and it’s limitless.

Life has a funny way of giving you what you ask for.  I wanted to learn about Buddhism, Dahmapalla wanted to teach me, the opportunity presented itself, and the rest is history.  I am no longer a Buddhist monk, but part of me will always be Teelahwontay, and I still can’t stop smiling.
Kindness and compassion above all.  I can dig that.


As an educator working with underprivileged and at-risk students in the Washington, D.C. area, Kevin Dimetres strives to visit some place new each year. He revels in the opportunity to connect with the local people at the most intimate level, embracing the spiritual essence and cultural fabric of each destination. He works as a bartender as a side job to fund his travels, saving all of his side money in a glass jar until he embarks on his next adventure, diving in headfirst at his newest destination and spending it all while living it up.

Bad Trip Silver Winner: White Water Death

April 17th, 2017

By Steve Gardiner

A drowning in Yosemite National Park

A park ranger on a horse rode up behind Terry Rypkema and me and pleaded for our help. “You have a climbing rope,” she said. “Bring it up to the bridge, please. We have a possible drowning.”

Terry and I had driven from our homes in Wyoming to Yosemite National Park with plans to climb the Snake Dike route on Half Dome, the iconic mountain every visitor sees at the eastern end of Yosemite Valley. We had walked a mile up the Vernal Falls Trail to the footbridge.

Ahead of us, we could see a crowd of people standing on and around the footbridge. One man, with tear-reddened eyes, strode quickly toward us. He explained that he was the American sponsor for a group of Japanese students who were on a tour of the United States. They had been to several locations on the tour, and on this day, had walked to the Vernal Falls Footbridge to see the falls and have a picnic. Several of the teenage boys had been playing around near the Merced River, jumping from rock to rock and enjoying the day. One boy had slipped and fallen into the icy meltwater. A friend of his had tried to reach him and had either slipped in or jumped in to help rescue the first boy. The powerful current of the Merced River had swept both boys under the footbridge.

A young American man had seen their plight. He had tried to catch the first boy, but had missed him. Several people on the bridge had removed their belts and the American had made a makeshift rope out of the belts, but that had not worked either. In fact, for his trouble, the American ended up trapped in the violent white water, as well.

When Terry and I walked onto the bridge, we could see the second Japanese boy and the American stranded on a rock in the middle of the river. White water was crashing all around them. They were wet, cold, and shivering.

I tied our climbing rope to a tree, then belayed Terry down the bank to the river’s edge. Terry tossed one end of the rope out to the rock and the American helped the Japanese boy tie it around his waist. The boy moved to the edge of the rock. I held Terry secure with the belay while he talked to the boy, motioning him to leave the rock and swim to the bank. The boy hesitated. Terry motioned again for him to move. He shook his head. He had been in the freezing water once and had no interest in going in again.

“I asked him twice to come to me,” Terry said. “He froze up. He wouldn’t move, so I gave the rope a good tug.”

Launched into the water with Terry’s pull, the boy dogpaddled to the bank. He scrambled among the rocks, clawing to get up and out of the water. He was cold, stiff, and frightened.

“We reeled him in,” Terry said. “He was pretty banged up, and he was hypothermic. He was pretty happy to be on the bank with us.”

We had our backpacks with all of our clothing and camping gear next to us, so we pulled out a couple of sweaters and jackets and wrapped him in those. Two people from the bridge came down and helped him walk back to the bridge.

Terry threw the rope back out to the rock. The American tied it around his own waist and as soon as we had the rope tight, he jumped in and moved quickly to Terry. He seemed in much better shape, more coherent, than the Japanese boy, although he had scrapes and bruises from banging on the rocks in the river.

With the two safely off the rock, we returned to the bridge and met the ranger. She asked if we would help her search for the first Japanese boy. We talked to several people on the bridge and got different stories from each one. “That was the hard part for me,” Terry said. “We just couldn’t get any accurate information to help us search. It was frustrating. We weren’t sure who was still in the water and who was out. I was still hoping that we would find him clinging to the side and could help him get out.”

We walked along the river’s edge, gazing into each pool, trying to see through the tumbling water. Twice I stopped. An underwater tree branch took the form of an arm bent at the elbow. A tuft of grass waving in the current became a head of hair. Imagination. The mind sees what it wants to see.

We did not find him, so we returned to the bridge, knowing that if the ride through the cataracts had not killed him, that much time in the icy water would have. By then, a ranger with scuba-diving gear had arrived. He tied a rope to a tree for protection, lowered himself into a large pool below the bridge, and surfaced a minute later with the body.

As one, the Japanese students screamed. Their wonderful tour of America was forever marred. It was a painful scene, and we wanted no more of it. We wanted out, away. There was nothing else Terry and I could do. We took our packs and walked to the trail.

Behind us we heard a voice. The Japanese boy who had been stranded on the rock ran up to us and shook our hands. He was trying to talk to us, but he did not speak English. All he could say was, “Your name?” What could he say? What could we say? I held his hand and looked into his eyes. I won’t ever forget what they said. We couldn’t talk to each other, but our communication was real. I fought back the tears and turned up the trail.

Terry and I walked up the steep trail to Vernal Falls. We said nothing. It wasn’t just the roar of Vernal Falls that kept us from talking. We were both lost in thoughts about the dead Japanese boy and his devastated group of friends.

Just past Emerald Pool, the main trail continues east into Little Yosemite Valley, then turns north to the base of the east side of Half Dome. The standard climb, a system of cable handrails supported by steel posts drilled into the rock, leads to the summit of Half Dome. We intended to climb the west side, descend the cable route, and return to the valley the next day.

To get to the west side, we took the cut off between Mt. Broderick and Liberty Cap. Here, we finally stopped and talked about the drowning. We were both rattled by the events of the afternoon. We considered turning around, but decided that since we had driven all the way from Wyoming to California, we should at least set up camp at Lost Lake and see how we felt in the morning.

We began our descent from the saddle between Mt. Broderick and Liberty Cap to Lost Lake as the sun was fading. The shortcut turned out to be “true bushwacking,” as Terry noted, and too soon, we found ourselves stumbling through the trees in darkness. We corrected our route and ran into a swamp which we soon determined to be Lost Lake. In the confusion of the events at the Vernal Falls Footbridge, we had not refilled our water bottles. We had no water, so we filled one bottle from Lost Lake. It was clear with no bad taste, so we drank. We didn’t really have a choice. The next day we noticed a few bugs and weeds in the water, but no side effects. Perhaps, as comic relief to the serious events of the day before, we joked throughout the day about critters crawling around in our insides creating a condition we called Swamp Water Deleria.

In the morning, we found our climbing route easily and had an exciting climb on the Snake Dike. The focus on the climbing helped both of us clear our minds of the tragedy. We reached the summit and sat down for lunch. Moments later, a family arrived after climbing the cable route. The kids ran around the summit, excited about the adventure. They ran much too close to the north edge which drops a vertical mile into Yosemite Valley. Terry and I did not want to witness another disaster, so we packed up, hiked down the cable route and followed the trail down past Nevada Falls and Vernal Falls. At the footbridge, we stopped. We were the only people there. It was so peaceful, so beautiful. It was hard to imagine what had happened at that same spot only 24 hours before.

The drowning in Yosemite National Park had happened on August 21, 1978. Over the years, I thought about those people. I thought about the family of the drowned boy. I thought about his friends. I wondered what happened to the Japanese boy we pulled off the rock. I wondered how the American man had recovered from his injuries. I felt sorrow for the sponsor who wanted to help the students have an incredible experience in the United States and had had to live his life with the memories of the incident at the footbridge. I did not know any of their names. I did not know anything about them except for the few scraps of information we heard during the brief time we were at the bridge. I assumed that I would never hear any more about any of them.

Then, on February 9, 2016, more than 37 years after the drowning, I discovered a book called Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite on a library shelf. I picked up the book and saw a section on drownings. It did not take long to find the event Terry and I had witnessed. The authors, Ghiglieri and Farabee, analyzed over 900 deaths in Yosemite from falls, drownings, murders, suicides, and various other causes. The account of the drowning covered a page and a half.

The boy who drowned was 16. His name was Chol Han from Kyoto Fu, Japan. The boy who ended up stranded on the rock in the middle of the river was Uchi Urano. The American who tried to save the boys and attempted to use the rope made of belts was James Sumpter from San Diego.

The authors interviewed many witnesses about the drowning and concluded that Han had been showing off while rock-hopping, leading to his initial fall into the river. They explained that after he attempted to grab the belts, “the current swept him away. Indeed, Sumpter had ventured so far out into the river to help Han that he too was swept downstream in Han’s wake. Two unidentified rock climbers who happened along the shoreline at this moment now rushed forward into the river to save Sumpter. By the time they hauled him out of the water, he had suffered cuts and bruises and head injuries. This helpful pair of climbers-now-rescuers then quickly turned their attention to yet another Japanese student, Uchi Urano. Also 16 years old, Urano too had jumped into the Merced to help rescue Han, and he too had been swept down the whitewater for his troubles. Luckily the two mystery climbers managed to snag Urano, too. In short, had it not been for the timely advent of these two climbers, Han’s episode may very likely have resulted in the deaths of Sumpter and Urano—his two would-be-rescuers.”

We were strangers, gathered in an instant of white water death in the icy currents of the Merced River. We had only a brief time together at the Vernal Falls footbridge, but that experience is a thread that runs through nearly four decades of our lives and leaves us with a sense of tragedy, a very human moment, amidst the beauty and grandeur of the rivers, trees, and mountains of Yosemite National Park.


Steve Gardiner recently retired after teaching high school English and journalism for 38 years.  He is the 2008 Montana Teacher of the Year and is a National Board Certified Teacher.  He has published over 600 articles in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, Educational Leadership, Phi Delta Kappan, and many others.  He has published three books about mountain climbing and one about teaching reading.

Elder Travel Gold Winner: The Elevator in Rome

April 10th, 2017

By Bill Zarchy

Stuck on a hot day.

“I’ve gotta get out of here!” shrieked the voice from the corner. “You don’t understand. I’m claustrophobic!”

It was a warm summer day. Susan and I had boarded an elevator in a poorly air-conditioned archaeological museum in Rome, along with a dozen people from our tour group, and Rachel, our English guide.

We only had to go up two floors, but we had already climbed many steps on this tour, and the elevator would save us trekking up a couple of long staircases. Rachel pushed the button and the door closed. The elevator gave a small lurch, then nothing.

I looked at Susan. She smiled at me, her eyes a bit wide. I smiled back. I knew that getting stuck in an elevator—especially if she had to pee—had long been one of her worst fears. Rachel hit the Open button. Nothing happened.

Susan squeezed my hand. The elevator was hot and stuffy, but we were still there on the ground floor, right next to the main desk of the museum. And we had just used the bathroom.

“What’s going on?” called a woman in the back corner of the elevator.

“Well, we seem to be stuck here for a moment,” Rachel said cheerfully. “But no worries. I’m calling for help.” She wore a mic and headset, which enabled her to communicate with our other tour leaders, who were right outside, waiting their turn to go up. In fact, everyone on our tour wore lightweight headsets, so we could hear Rachel’s descriptions as we toured Rome.

The tour was run by Roadscholar, formerly known as Elderhostel. I think they rebranded because they wanted to market to younger people, and most of their clientele didn’t want to stay in hostels. Our group consisted mostly of folks like us, in their late 60s. Some older, some younger.

Susan hadn’t had an elevator phobia when we met decades before, but over the years she had grown more and more fearful of taking the lift. She would insist on going to the bathroom before riding an elevator, any elevator. Or she would avoid the elevator altogether. When we traveled as a family in earlier years, I would often elevate with the kids, while she sought out the stairs.

Unfortunately, not all stairs go to the same levels as the elevators, and sometimes they are in different parts of the building. Several times we were briefly separated in airports and hotels. Occasionally her phobia led to scary situations, especially one panicky day at the Eiffel Tower, when I took the elevator to the top with the kids, and she suddenly got off at the first level and walked down. Just before we finally found each other on the ground hours later, a human body, an apparent suicide, dropped on the ground next to her.

Earlier on that same trip, she opted to take the stairs—often over a hundred of them—up out of the London Tube, as the rest of us zipped up the elevator and waited on the sidewalk for her. Thankfully, some stations had long escalators.

As we grew older, however, huge staircases had become more challenging. We knew couples where one spouse’s fears had severely limited their ability to travel together, and Susan acknowledged that her elevator phobia was getting in the way. She sought help and began to work with a psychologist. He met weekly with her, at first giving her exercises designed to reduce anxiety. It would be many months before they actually got into an elevator.

Susan learned how to find her happy place, how to visualize calm and bring it into her daily routine. He taught her to acknowledge the fear (“It’s just a feeling”), but not to let it determine her behavior. She practiced reminding herself that her goal—going up or down in a building/airport/museum/hotel—was more important to her than giving in to her panic.

Eventually, they began riding elevators, first together, then Susan alone. A few times she practiced with me. Though she still didn’t like boarding elevators with a full bladder, she slowly overcame her fears. After a year of this behavioral therapy, I took a saucy photo of her posing in a hotel elevator, which she presented to her therapist as a parting gift.

In the museum elevator in Rome, the woman in the corner called out, “We’re stuck? You’ve got to get me out!”

“We’re fine,” said Rachel. “We’re still on the ground, just need to get the door open.”

“I’ve gotta get out of here!” shrieked the voice from the corner. “You don’t understand. I’m claustrophobic!”

It was already warm and humid and crowded in the elevator, but this last exchange seemed to raise the heat by ten degrees. Susan and I smiled at each other again. Her eyes grew wider. She squeezed my hand harder.

Another woman on our tour turned toward the corner. “It’ll be fine, dear. None of us are happy about this. Let’s try to chill together now.”

“I’ve gotta get out. What are they doing to let us out?”

“I’m talking to them now,” said Rachel. “Hang on.” She was speaking over her headset in Italian. “Si, si, grazie.”

“What?”

“They’re going to get the key.”

“They don’t know where the key is? They’re incompetent, that’s the problem!”

“Everyone can hear you on the headsets. It’s all right. They know where the key is. They just have to … go get it.”

“Oh, I hate this,” wailed the woman. I turned as best I could in the tight elevator car, trying to identify the voice.

“It’s Ellen,” I whispered to Susan.

She called out softly, “Ellen, it’ll be fine. Don’t worry.” But both of us knew telling others not to worry was often a fool’s errand.

“How do you know? They can’t even find the key. We’re never going to get out of here!”

Just then we heard a mechanical rattling at the door.

“See?” said Rachel soothingly. “Not to worry. They’ve got the key. They’re going to open the door now.”

The rattling stopped, followed by the sound of something metallic hitting the ground.

“They’ve dropped the key! It’s probably lost! Tell them to call the fire department.”

It seemed to grow hotter, and, if possible, even more humid. I could feel sweat trickling down my back. Rachel continued to speak quietly in Italian to the other guides, who were just outside. Then, to Ellen, “They can still hear you.”

“I don’t give a crap. They don’t know what the hell they’re doing. Nobody does, here in this goddamn backward country. Tell them they should call the fucking fire department.”

I looked at Ellen’s husband, a tall guy in a straw hat in a different corner, staring at the ceiling. Silent.

Susan had clawed my hand pretty hard by now, but she stayed calm. “Ellen,” she called. “Take a deep breath. Try to stay calm. I understand. I’m claustrophobic too, but if you try not to panic, it’ll help us all to get through this.”

Good advice. She was validating Ellen’s fears but urging her to control her behavior—for her own good, and everyone else’s—rather than denying the feelings or giving in to panic.

The rattling in the door started again, followed by another clanging key drop.

The guides chattered to Rachel in Italian. “It seems to be the wrong key,” she reported after a pause. I wondered why she told us this.

“Ellen, breathe again,” called Susan. Ellen whimpered a bit, but she stopped shrieking.

Then we heard a banging on the door. “Stand back,” said Rachel.

A steel rod poked through the rubber gaskets between the two closed elevator doors. Whoever wielded it jerked the rod back and forth violently, determined to get us out quickly. The metal doors bulged, groaned, then suddenly popped open with a loud scraping sound.

The fifteen of us flooded out into the lobby, nearly knocking over the sweaty guards who had freed us. I looked at my watch. Ten minutes had elapsed since we entered the elevator.

Energized by our release, we swarmed up 60 steps on an ornate, white marble staircase, feeling liberated and refreshed. The rest of our tour group was waiting there, beyond the reach of the headsets, and they didn’t know about our problem.

“Where were you? What happened?” We filled them in quickly, then got back to our tour, marveling at the mosaics, sculpture, coins, and artifacts.

I smiled at Susan and hugged her. I was so proud of the way she had dealt with confronting her worst fear, proud that she wasn’t the one who had panicked, proud that she had helped calm Ellen down.

Later I told some of our fellow travelers about Susan’s elevator phobia, therapy, and success. Several came up to her in the next few days to offer congratulations and thanks. We never discussed the elevator with Ellen and her husband. Somehow it never came up.

We moved on. The glories of Rome once again demanded our attention, and the memory of our confinement faded. In an odd way, in hindsight, our scamper up the 60 stairs began to seem empowering and significant, like an army storming a strategic hill. Why had we wanted to take that smelly old elevator, anyway?

But later, as we strolled through the Pantheon, awed by the beauty and antiquity of our surroundings, I remembered some of our friends who could not travel, crippled by fears of airplanes, bridges, unfamiliar food, disrupted daily routines, messed-up sleep patterns, strange toilets, and, yes, elevators.

I was fortunate to work all over the globe during my career as a cinematographer, but Susan and I had long hoped to travel together after retirement. I thought about our recent trips to France, Holland, and Italy, and upcoming trips to Ireland, Scotland, and Israel.

I began to appreciate my dear wife all over again. Conquering her fears had opened up the world, for both of us, and we would not be trapped at home by her phobia.


Bill Zarchy is a writer, teacher, and recently retired director of photography who has shot film and video projects in 30 countries and 40 states. His first book, Showdown at Shinagawa: Tales of Filming from Bombay to Brazil, chronicles his work and travels around the world. Bill’s second book, currently in progress, is a time travel novel called Finding George Washington. His tales from the road, technical articles, and personal essays have appeared in American Cinematographer, Emmy, and other trade magazines, Travelers’ Tales and Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies, the San Francisco Chronicle and other newspapers and literary publications.

Family Travel Gold Winner: Making the Great Migration

April 3rd, 2017

By Sarah Enelow

An American woman makes a pilgrimage to Mississippi, where her black family lived during slavery and segregation, then retraces their 1941 exodus to Detroit by train.

I stared up at a concrete obelisk streaked with black dirt. It bore an etching of a confederate flag and read, “The men were right who wore the gray and right can never die.” A dozen people, black and white, milled around on a sunny, 60-degree afternoon in January. This tiny town consisted of a central square, a few roads leading away from it, and not much else.

I’d come to Lexington in the Mississippi Delta to finally see the town where my late mother was born in 1939. Six million black people fled the Jim Crow South during the Great Migration, during which Mama’s family traded Mississippi for Detroit in 1941. I’d never been to either place.

Mama’s family had always been a mystery to me. I’d never met any of her relatives, I’d heard only a few stories about them, and I didn’t even find photos of them until after Mama died. Many of Mama’s close relatives passed away before I was born, but she lost touch with the others when she left Detroit to pursue her education. Though Mama and I were close, she really never spoke of that painful decision, and I didn’t press her.

Three years ago, at the age of 73, Mama died of cancer under my care in Chicago, where she’d lived for many years. So suddenly, at age 30, I felt like my maternal roots were slipping away, and maybe a piece of my biracial identity with them. For the last three years I’d been exhausted from care-taking, grieving, and the perpetual to-do list of death (handling her remains, doing her taxes, emptying her apartment), but I finally summoned the energy for a pilgrimage. I wanted to visit Mississippi, then take the train up to Detroit, like so many migrants did, hoping to recover a piece of Mama and feel rooted in my own blackness.

Upon arriving in Lexington, Mississippi, I had trouble locking my rental car—typical New Yorker—which was coincidentally a Chrysler, the company that employed my grandfather after the family settled up in Detroit. I stopped an older black man walking by to help me; he looked to be from Mama’s generation, and when he cordially introduced himself as Otha Redmond, my ears perked up. In my wildest dreams for this trip, I’d mysteriously bump into some distant relative, so I asked if he was related to an Alga Mae Redmond, my grandmother.

“Oh I don’t know ‘bout that, there are lots of Redmonds ‘round here,” Otha said, tenderly taking my hand and noting with a smile, “I’d sure like to go up North and see some of these pretty ladies like yourself!” I beamed, squeezed his soft wrinkled hand, and thanked him for his time. I thought with the minuscule size of this town, he could be a second or third cousin after all.

I felt eyes on me as I wandered around Lexington, photographing faded brick buildings with my phone, breathing deeply to smell the clean, floral air. I stuck out with my knee-high boots, big sunglasses, and brisk pace: clearly a city-girl. I grew up in rural Texas with my parents and older brother, but I’d been living in New York for ten years and it showed. I left the South as soon as I graduated from high school and never lived there again. Even a half-white-half-black girl like me yearned for the urban North. Despite being light-skinned, my curly afro and “black girl ass” had gotten me bullied and ostracized in white rural Texas, and I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

I’d made a series of phone calls and emails to people in Lexington—the City Clerk, the one-woman Historical Society, the Chamber of Commerce—before being connected with a man named Phil Cohen who had the information I sought: the location of the former Lexington Colored High School, from which my grandfather graduated in 1938. That graduation was a big deal; his predecessors only completed a few grades of school or none at all, and if you go back into Reconstruction and slavery years, his ancestors were documented as farm laborers who could neither read nor write.

Phil Cohen, white and seemingly in his 70s, owned a clothing store on the square. We sat down toward the back, next to the work boots and men’s plaid shirts, and he showed me an old binder containing research on the area. In an age when I expect everything to be digital, this was a rare bit of hard-copy material, and I felt lucky that this history buff cared enough to share it. Then again, there were Cohens in my father’s Jewish family, so right off the bat, Phil and I had this tiny scrap of common ground.

Phil reported to me that the Lexington Colored High School changed hands after integration began in the 1960s and became the Ambrose School, but that was later knocked down and made into a Head Start. He said there was a plaque on-site noting the former Ambrose School, and that would be the only hint of past segregation.

After two minutes behind the wheel, I was at the Head Start. The building was closed and there were a couple of trailers and an AME church across the street. I parked on the side of the road and walked over to photograph the smooth marble plaque, trying to imagine the old segregated institution using the only tools at my disposal: a black-and-white photo of my grandfather, the tissue-thin paper program from his graduation ceremony, and my imagination.

Standing there in a cool breeze, I smiled and felt a sense of accomplishment, like I’d fit a piece into the half-assembled puzzle of my background. I hadn’t actually brought any photos or heirlooms with me—they were too few and precious to risk losing them. At home I had only one tiny photo of Mama as a baby, with smooth brown skin and short kinky hair, in a diaper playing happily in the dirt, but I wasn’t sure where in Lexington it was taken.

I’d planned to drive from Lexington to Yazoo City, where my great-grandparents had lived, and I actually had their address from 1920—a rare detail. Government record-keeping for black Americans was often poor to nonexistent during slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow. I’d been digging through Ancestry.com, reviewing census records and burial records and war draft forms and marriage licenses to complement what my parents had told me (my father still being alive), but most of the Mississippi addresses I encountered (e.g. house #4, dwelling #577, family #637) didn’t exist in the present day, according to City Hall in the state capitol, Jackson. In addition, 209 Third Street in Yazoo City might have moved in the last 100 years, and I couldn’t confirm whether East or West Third Street was the one. This kind of research made me think twice about all the times I lazily abbreviated my address on a government form.

Researching my father’s white family had been far easier. More records existed; these relatives were allowed to marry, vote, and take part in other documented institutions when black people could not; education was available to them, so they could fill out their own forms; and despite some relatives anglicizing their Jewish names, the names were still more uniform in spelling and easier to follow. My father’s Jewish ancestors made their own migration in 1892, going from Russia all the way to Pennsylvania, Kansas, and then Los Angeles over the course of several generations, spanning an ocean and two continents, yet my mother’s family was more difficult to trace over just a few states.

On the local radio, James Brown was keeping my spirits up as I drove west toward the Mississippi River, deeper into the Delta. The land turned marshy and smelled of wet grass, and I passed several cotton plantations. From the two-lane road I saw signs for these farms, but no people, partly because January wasn’t harvesting time (the fields brown rather than white), but also because the industry now used machines to do the work of former sharecroppers and slaves. It seemed this land had hardly developed since slavery days: the fields looked untouched, the houses were deteriorating, the population was sparse, there wasn’t a big-box store in sight, and cotton was still a staple crop.

Pulling into Yazoo City, which was much bigger than Lexington, I found West Third Street. The worn, one-story houses were pale yellow and mint green, and it appeared to be a majority black neighborhood. I drove along Third Street several times and reached the sad conclusion that house number 209 didn’t exist anymore. Feeling disappointed, I snapped photos of the block and felt the sun warming my shoulders. I drove over to East Third Street, which was physically cut off from West Third Street by trees and the railroad tracks, and I got the feeling that East Third was on the white side of town.

Having chased century-old ghosts all day, I felt exhausted and unsettled. I left Yazoo City as quickly as possible, as though someone was chasing me out, and I sped back to Jackson, where I was staying during these few days in Mississippi. By the time I arrived back at my hotel, which was the former site of the state’s first integrated swimming pool, I was feeling heavy pangs of loneliness.

At age 33 I was single with no kids and I badly wanted to start my own family. Losing Mama had intensified my desire for children, who would add to what little family I had left: my father in Texas and my older brother in Oregon. My father’s relatives were nearly strangers to me; I’d only met them a couple of times while growing up because my father wasn’t close with them. In Texas we lived thousands of miles from them on the west coast, and they were Jewish, which felt so foreign because I was raised Christian.

In my silent hotel room, with Judge Judy wagging a disapproving finger on mute, I flopped down on the soft flowery bedspread and cried. I was hoping that Mississippi would mysteriously soothe my loneliness, but what did I expect? I had no family there, only the shadows of ancestors. I ate takeout fried catfish from down the street and slept fitfully that night, fighting off a searing migraine.

One morning in Jackson, I made it my business to tour the capitol building. This was the same capitol that existed during Mama’s and my grandparent’s Mississippi years, i.e. the spot where so many Jim Crow laws had been passed, requiring my relatives to use segregated restrooms and yield the sidewalk to white people; to answer to “boy” and avoid white lunch counters; to have access to just a few degrading, low-paying jobs; to know that the police would not keep them safe from rapes and lynchings.

The capitol’s halls were filled with portraits of local politicians, including former Governor Ross Barnett from the early 1960s, who gained huge local popularity with his white supremacist platform, and famously denied James Meredith entry to the University of Mississippi in 1962. In the capitol’s dome there’s a bust of blindfolded Lady Justice right alongside a painting of Confederate soldiers raising their flag. The mural that honors Mississippi’s roots includes a European explorer, a Confederate soldier, and two Native Americans, but no one of African descent. Even the Mississippi state flag contains a Confederate flag therein. In rural Texas, I was raised around these symbols and accepted them as status quo; only after living up north did I gain some perspective.

After touring the capitol, I walked through downtown Jackson and felt it was only half alive. Jackson was the state’s pride and joy, yet so many of its downtown storefronts were empty and gathering dust, there was practically zero foot traffic, and just a couple blocks west of the capitol building, the city looked totally bombed out, houses singed black, literally cracking in half and sinking into the ground. Mississippi is consistently ranked one of the poorest states in the country, with about 22% of its residents living below the poverty line. It seemed like the state never really recovered from the post-Civil War collapse of the Southern economy, which hung on slave labor, not to mention how expensive it was to maintain twice the number of public facilities during segregation.

Ready to leave Mississippi, having returned my rental Chrysler, I walked to the Jackson Amtrak station around 5pm with my old black Jansport backpack. I waited on a long wooden bench to board the northbound train to Chicago, where I’d transfer to ultimately reach Detroit, a 31-hour trip in total. Jackson’s station was busy, filled mostly with black people with packages and rolling suitcases, and I thought about how many sharecroppers left the South in secret, under the cover of darkness, for fear of retribution from their white overseers. And there I was, doing this voluntarily on paid vacation time from my steady retail job, looking forward to putting my feet up and eating my veggie sandwich.

Jackson’s evening sky was deep blue and soon enough, the train started chugging north. We hit Yazoo City, whose station was just a couple of outdoor benches, and as night rapidly fell, we passed dozens of beat-up houses, a rough looking bar. Two more stops brought us up to Memphis, Tennessee around 10pm, a far larger city than Jackson, but still firmly Southern. After Tennessee we’d pass through just a sliver of Kentucky, then Illinois.

Once upon a time, crossing into Illinois meant freedom, meant that those confined to the “colored” car could theoretically (if not practically) move freely about the train, which I’d been doing this whole time. I badly wanted to know what Mama’s family was thinking when they passed that border between south and north. Mama was too young to remember, but were her parents too nervous to walk into the white car? Did they walk in confidently? What kind of food did they bring for the long ride? Was it the same perfectly fried chicken that Mama used to make, taught by her grandmother? Did they have winter coats already? I didn’t know for sure whether Mama’s family took the train when they migrated; a few of them probably drove because my great-grandparents were lucky enough to have a car, but for those who took the train, it would have been a very similar route to mine.

I began to fall asleep wrapped in my soft black scarf with my head of tight frizzy curls against the window. I deeply breathed the train’s cool recycled air, feeling anxious to visit Detroit for the first time, thinking my relatives must have been more than anxious about starting their new lives. I woke up at 6am firmly in the north, in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, and I smiled because I knew the glittering beacon of Chicago was near. I always felt more at-home in the urban North, as did Mama, and I felt her presence around me.

I had a five-hour layover in my beloved, familiar Chicago. Mama passed away there—my brother and I scattered her ashes over Lake Michigan as she’d wanted—and she lived in Chicago for nearly twenty years total, first in the 1960s and then the final years of her life in the 2000s. She also had a few family members living there at various points. I’d never lived in Chicago myself, but I visited Mama there many times and knew that more than Detroit, cosmopolitan Chicago was her true love.

I walked out of Chicago’s stately Beaux Arts station, heading into the gusty, 20-degree downtown loop to stretch my cramped legs and find some steamy black tea. I was now shivering inside the cornflower blue winter coat I’d ignored down in Mississippi, but a cold winter felt happily like home to me. I already felt more in my element than I had in Mississippi, trading hot for cold, country for city, car for train.

I boarded the train from Chicago to Detroit and settled in for a six-hour ride, and a high-cheeked young woman asked to sit next to me. Naomi was just 22 to my 33 and we slipped easily into a familiar conversation: how to care for our tight, coarse, dark curls; which products to use; how to wrap it at night; how to respond when people ask you point-blank about being mixed or light-skinned. Naomi’s parents were both light-skinned black, and at times she had to justify her own blackness to ignorant white people who assumed she had a white parent.

“I always thought I was regular black,” she said.

“You are!” I replied. “White people don’t understand what they’re saying. Just tell them firmly what you are and be proud.”

“Yeah, I hate those conversations.”

“They have no right to ask you to prove your blackness. White people always think they can decide who’s black and who isn’t, based on fake criteria they invented themselves.”

“I know, right?”

Naomi’s smile was broad and toothy, and we looked pretty similar—for a minute she felt like the sister I never had.

Naomi was born and raised in Detroit and had family in Mississippi she’d never visited. I quickly suggested, “Go see them, while they’re still alive!” to which she said “You’re right, I really should,” as she stared out the window, trying to picture it. Talking to her made me feel less lonely on this trip, like I was part of a larger metaphorical family, the children of the Migrants, of the global African Diaspora.

Naomi reminded me of that divide between the members of a black family who stayed behind in the South and those that fled North. She knew little about her relatives’ Southern lifestyle and it seemed they knew little of her city-savvy upbringing. In Mama’s case, everyone went North or West, but either way, there was immense pressure to succeed once you got there, to prove that you’d made the right move, that it was worth it and your life was demonstrably better.

The train passed Ann Arbor (where my parents fell in love at the University of Michigan), Naomi disembarked with a hug in Dearborn, and eventually I pulled into snowy Detroit after midnight. I caught the shuttle van to my B&B, consisting of several red brick Victorian houses, looking the way I’d imagined Detroit in its 1950s heyday: booming from post-war industry, looking ahead to Motown.

The following day, I asked the shuttle service to take me to a house that once belonged to my great-aunt, who’d raised Mama. I was surprised to learn that I couldn’t walk to the house, due to a massive highway and lack of sidewalks, nor could I take the bus, nor was there a subway, and apparently the B&Bs free shuttle service would take me anywhere within a few miles. The shuttle driver was a young, black, doe-eyed artist named A.G. whose back-story was like Naomi’s: raised in Detroit with some family still down in Mississippi. Finding yet another Mississippi-to-Detroit story helped me feel connected anew to my surroundings.

A.G. was describing his drawings of Detroit as we rolled up to Virginia Park Street. I climbed out of the van and walked down the block before circling back to number 1710. It was a red brick house with a yellow door under a simple arch, one apartment downstairs and one upstairs. There was a red bicycle lying on its side on the patchy front lawn, a rundown yellow garage in the back, and the house looked boarded up.

Just before A.G. and I pulled away, a 20-something white guy in a sedan drove up alongside us. “You lookin’ at that house?” he asked unsmiling, leaning stiffly out his window. “My relatives lived there decades ago,” I said. Apparently he’d owned the house for a year and a half, before which it was abandoned for four years. Honestly it looked abandoned right then, but I could still feel Mama with me.

A.G. and I drove on to Central High School, from which Mama graduated in 1957. I climbed out of the van and lurked around the school, closed for the weekend, taking pictures of its trimmed hedges and red brick, patches of crunchy snow on the ground, the air cold and crisp. With the help of her old yearbook, I tried to imagine Mama as a promising senior, member of the French Club, Feature Editor of the school paper, and singer in the choir. I imagined her in her crisp white collared shirt, her kinky hair painstakingly ironed straight and plaited into two innocent braids, her glowing brown skin and broad nose and high cheek bones, sitting in classes with both black and white students, many of them Jewish. There was something extra painful about picturing Mama as a young woman—I couldn’t believe her entire life had already come and gone.

The school itself had been kept up cleanly, though the surrounding neighborhood felt different. As we drove off, some houses looked like they’d been torched. One had busted-in walls, a caved-in roof, and Bible quotes hastily painted on the sides. It dared me not to come back and I felt motion-sick in the van.

Mama’s Detroit years were among the last great ones for the city, which declared the country’s largest municipal bankruptcy to-date in 2013. Upon migrating there back in 1941, my grandfather went from little to no work prospects in Lexington to working steadily on a Chrysler assembly line in Detroit. My great-grandfather went from working in a whites-only barber shop in Lexington to owning his own barber shop in Detroit. Mama went from the maximum possibility of a colored high school education to earning a master’s degree in French Literature at the University of Michigan.

But still, in the urban North, the family struggled at times. Even in the Promised Land, black people were still at the bottom of most ladders, only offered low-level jobs, targeted by greedy real estate brokers, and they encountered racism from white northerners who resented their new black refugee neighbors, who were appearing in droves, often unaccustomed to big-city life. I have a friend whose white grandparents lived in Detroit during the Great Migration and they openly blamed the city’s decline on black people. Mama’s family arrived in Detroit just two years before the city’s massive 1943 race riots, sparked by this very tension, and I wish I knew how that affected them.

On my last night in Detroit, having visited all the places on my list, I lay down on my four poster bed at the B&B with a relaxing sense of completion. This pilgrimage had finally put images and sensations and emotions into my brain that I could connect to the old stories I’d heard from Mama, and connect to the biracial identity in my heart. And I could tell my future children about this trip, tell them about their roots, and take them to my own homeland in rural Texas, and show them how I found my true home in New York. At the end of the day, both the South and the North were part of me, and even though Mama was gone, those puzzle pieces of my background would always be securely in place.


Sarah Enelow was born on Long Island with biracial roots but grew up in rural Texas. She now lives in New York City. She received degrees from Vassar College and Indiana University, followed by a Fulbright Grant to Argentina. Her writing has been featured by Salon, Skift, Ducts, The Huffington Post, Not For Tourists, and Go! Girl Guides, among others.

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