Culture and Ideas Gold Winner: Some Vague Stars to the South

December 25th, 2017

By Dave Zoby

Syria, and the ancient lessons of friendship.

Dust-covered aluminum satellite dishes rimmed the rooftops. During the heat of the day, electrical circuits popped audibly, faltering all afternoon. Mid-day, the bakers came out in their floured aprons to read the state paper in the shade of their doorways. There was the sweet-shop, the pharmacy, the place to buy shoes, a booth for a haircut. And always the joyful roar of farm tractors strumming the streets, the farmers seated at the wheel, a load of watermelons stacked on a wobbly trailer. We snapped the requisite photos of the Omayyad Palace in Damascus—even me, in a half-hearted way, with a cheap camera my mother had leant me. There must be hundreds of images from our meeting with the Grand Mufti: the Mufti in the middle of the group, the Mufti smiling, looking serious, pious. I memorized his famous quote: There is no holy war. Only peace is holy. The government sent their own photographer, and I stood in the back row. You can almost make me out.

This was 2007. All the businesses displayed banners with the president’s face. From the looks of it, it seemed Syrians adored Bashar Al Assad. And because I didn’t understand one-party politics, because, out of the group, I was certainly the least knowledgeable about the country, I often posed by these banners and asked my fellow scholars to snap my photo. You may call it naiveté, but that’s not exactly correct. My traveling companions, amateur historians specializing in literature of the Ottoman Empire, people who knew enough Arabic to spell their names, a few flirting with Islam, they didn’t dig the posters of Assad. They never said why. Instead, they quoted Epictetus: If you desire to be good, begin by believing that you are evil. They read from Rumi in study groups, and pointed out that this archway or this winding street whispered pre-Ottoman. But I couldn’t accommodate them. I was an idiot in these topics, and many more.

It’s fair to question how I was able to procure this competitive grant. How did I pull it off? I’ll tell you: I cashed in my grandfather’s Syria lineage. In the application, I wrote that I had a “true connection” to the Middle East, a “natural curiosity” about the culture. I claimed I wanted to learn more about Islam.  I was surprised to get the call from the program leader saying I had been selected. As the chaos next door in Iraq tumbled out of control, it’s quite possible that the list of willing candidates had dwindled, leaving only me, and the truly hardcore.

As a boy I had been exposed to Middle Eastern food, rooms full of Arabs, and semi-Arabs, a few covert drams of whiskey. My grandfather and father were journeymen in the kitchen. They didn’t mind butchering their own meat in our kitchen sink. They poached small game in little twists of forest within the city limits. They ate kibbe raw, off their fingers, and couldn’t stay away from various Syria desserts.  Garden tomatoes, eggplants, and fig trees where subjects which sent them into long mesmerizing conversations. I remembered my Arab uncle making a fool of himself by flipping coffee cups upside down and pretending to read the future in the rivulets and seeps, the intricate designs you see in such simple things. He did this, principally, for the attention of young women. He was bullshitting the whole time, talking shit about the space between light and dark, the ravens he saw in there, the steps to a castle, and the wavy lines he interpreted as instability. He couldn’t be stopped. He said he could only see forty days into the querent’s future. He suggested she sit in his lap. Putting his thumb in the cup and twisting, he always ended the reading by what he called “opening the heart.”  I could do this too, if things got rough.

~ ~ ~

My airfare and hotels were all covered by the grant. Various mosques and extravagant venues were carefully chosen by the organizers. Textbooks, food, and other expenses paid in full. Tours of ruins, V.I.P. treatment at Damascus’s National Theater with snacks provided by the city’s two oldest bakeries. It was an astonishing thing to receive, certainly a thing that required a great deal of grace to accept. I received some training in St. Louis, where the trip originated. We discussed the Battle of Kadesh and learned to say As-salamu alaykum. Vaguely, the professor described the early Syrians, as “The People of the Sea.” We talked about some of the important dates of Islam. The very tone of the orientation, the smell of new carpet in the lecture halls, the coolness of the untouched textbooks, suggested that I was way over my head. One of my classmates said, “When the Muslims conquered Egypt and got their hands on all of the world’s supply of papyrus, that’s when the ideas started to fly, man.” I agreed, but I had no idea what he was talking about. I worried that, sooner or later, I’d be exposed as a fraud, and be expelled from the group. I thought maybe I should bow out. But how do you come clean once you’ve begun?

My assigned roommate sat beside me on the multiple legs of the journey. A professor in Digital Media from Tennessee, he was a photographer with several phallic lenses. He opened a padded cased and showed me a fleet of 8gig camera cards which he meant to fill with images of what-have-you. He told me he slept naked and warned me that he snored.

Remedial, jet-lagged, sweating out the Heinekens I had consumed on the jet, I suffered in a classroom adjacent to the National Heritage Museum. I had not been studying Islam for years, as many of the others had. I didn’t think much of calligraphy. The frequent and insidious tea breaks could not resuscitate me. One Syria scholar was shocked that I knew nothing of the Hittites. It seemed, at first, when we met, he had such high hopes for me. He had come to American and completed his dissertation in Syrian history. Stanford alum, he gave up on me, as did the others, one by one, as they learned I knew nothing, or close to nothing. The professors demurely lectured toward the other students, not me. And I remain grateful that they left me alone. Suhail, a wiry Syrian who served as a sort of fixer for our group, sat beside me outside the lecture hall during one of our breaks and smoked a cigarette. I pretended to go over my notes.

“You are only homesick,” he said out of nowhere.

“Not me,” I said

We sat in the heat and watched the traffic melt by.  Racing pigeons were flaring above the various government buildings like mercury. When it was time to return to the lectures, Suhail patted my knee.

~ ~ ~

The lectures were brutal. I knew zero about the scientific advancements that came from this part of the world. Saladin? Forget it. A hipster from Cleveland who went about central Damascus with a t-shirt depicting Nasrallah, a shirt you wouldn’t dare wear in the States in 2007, sat with me and Suhail by the National Museum. We were all having hot tea in 100 degree heat. The hipster grilled me—politely—about my credentials. And though he never said it, I could tell he was puzzled by my very existence, my attendance in the mandatory classes on the civilizations between the Euphrates and the Tigris.  He was a part-time cartoonist, and dedicated activist. He did yoga in his room each morning. He kept a ponytail. His life’s dream was to visit the Golan Heights, which you could see rising over the city, a camelback of black brush and sand. Why would anyone want to go up there?

Each night, at various restaurants in Damascus, I excelled in eating and lounging about for long hours over Turkish coffee. Everyone went to sleep, while I strolled the streets of the Old City, or read from the textbooks under the pools of light spilling from the convent where we stayed. The second week of the program, I tried to read the coffee grinds of Dr. Kelly Grimm, a beautiful professor of ceramics from some Midwestern university I had never heard of. This was my only capital, my single chance for program romance. The coffee leaked upon the white tablecloth. A waiter shyly tried to intervene. Dr. Grimm found it all uninteresting, anticlimactic. She went out to smoke with another woman just as I was opening the heart.

Suhail winced when he saw me attempting to read coffee grinds. He came along on most nights and ate with us, though his appetite was nothing like mine. He was a teacher at a high school adjacent to the Old City. He, it was pointed out, dabbled in poetry, and at one time had a minor publishing career. He blushed when he talked about his poetry collection, Straight Street Poems. He wanted to talk more than eat. The night after my feeble attempt to woo Dr. Grimm with tassology,  Suhail and I strolled to a narghile bar where we smoked apple sisha into the wee hours, the traffic trickling until you could walk across interchanges which only hours before were teeming with buses and traffic. We closed the place down. Then we walked all over vacant Damascus. We crossed footbridges spanning trickles of waste water and trash.  Camels and cows lowed from within the city holding pens. The six-lane intersections were as quiet as roses. I reached down and touched the pavement. It was still warm from the day’s sun. The smell of jasmine took over where the diesel left off. I sat down in the street and looked up at the stars.

“Why are you doing this?” said Suhail. “People will think you’re crazy.” But he was smiling, looking up at the heavens too.

The next morning in class, I took no notes and just allowed the words to wash over me as Dr. So and So discussed the Romans and Greeks, and their competing influence on the country, the ruins they left behind, the art, the alphabet, and the bits of colored pottery you can simply bend down and pick up nearly everywhere. I was almost sleeping, listening to the sounds of traffic and street vendors outside the lecture hall. Had the boy who sold colorful twists of candy made a sale? Had the women selling little sour fruits found refuge in the shade? We were three tea breaks from dinner, where I could reclaim my station as gourmand, daring provocateur of calf brains, and idiot for organ meats. On my hands, I could still feel the heat of those hot streets, the vibration of buses and micros, and farm tractors carrying all types of produce, and even a disinterested cow riding toward the souks where she’d become meat in a few minutes, her liver displayed on hooks, her purple spleen, her shocking lungs.

~ ~ ~

Nothing puzzled Suhail more than learning that I had no children, no sons in particular. He asked if I was healthy, and nodded toward my crotch. I told him I was okay. But it didn’t make sense to him, no sons. He asked me questions about my Syrian surname. I tried to throw him off by ordering strawberry shisha, apricot. Where, exactly, was my family from? What mountain town or river drainage? Was I in touch with them?
I had to come clean. While the boy attendant was refreshing our narghile with lumps of charcoal, I told Suhail that I really didn’t have a connection to the land or people, that I had bullshitted the application. I had no idea where my Syrian family came from. I’m no scholar, I told him. I’m from a long line of hucksters. I had just come along for the ride. I grinned and hit the narghile.

“It’s not true,” he said.  “You are certainly one of us.” This was the first time I had ever seen him irritated. But he quickly recovered and we went to some courtyard and watched teens playing goblet drums. Between sets he told me it was better to be a live sparrow than a stuffed hawk. With this in mind, we continued our friendship and ventured into the dark, curled and ancient streets of a city that may or may not exist.

He took me around to see the National Theater, a private tour. He brought me wandering with his brothers, who were clerks and bankers, dedicated narghile smokers, readers of Shakespeare, fishermen who fished up north with hand-lines with simple stones tied to the end as weights. When his brothers learned I had no sons, they whispered a bit in Arabic and then argued.

We continued our nocturnal sojourns of the city. There were immense fountains blooming amid flowered intersections; there were columns of long-gone Roman palaces rising up from random streets, glimpses of ruins here and there. Suhail wanted me to see it all. He suggested, if I was willing, that we go look for some of my Arab relatives. The problem with Suhail is that he wanted so desperately to believe in a general goodness of humanity. Each night he sought me out.  He had a hunch on how to reconnect me with my lost family. “Down south,” he said. “That’s where they are. They are wheat farmers, growers.”

Suhail lavished me with parables of wealthy sheikhs who gave everything they owned away to the poor. I was polite enough to listen, but just barely. He suggested that I was related to these great and generous men. “David, you need to know these people,” he said. “Their gift is for growing things in the desert.” But allegory has always left me cold. Still, I found myself spending more and more time with Suhail, and almost no time with the Americans. What I liked about Islam was my indifference toward it, the way I seemed to float above it. I like seeing myself this way, impervious to a force that sucked in billions. Suhail suggested I was more Syrian than American, and that explained our friendship.

I wanted him to understand me too. I enjoyed my life as a half-assed agnostic, first world fuck-off, and I told him so. I’d hate, I explained, to pass myself off as something I was not, even though I had done exactly that to get into the program. Whenever I expressed self-doubt or humility, Suhail went crazy for it. After one such occasion, he even showed me photos of his two daughters and his son, but never his wife.  I had come to Syria to smoke shisha, to, perhaps, strike up an academic love affair with someone from another city. I had come to be far away from America where things had not been going well for me. But the idea was always to go back to the same point and start again exactly where I had left off.  Suhail’s persistent pursuit of my soul was a drag, an annoyance. I decided to change the subject.

He was nipping on the water pipe, drinking a juice when I asked him about The Prophet (peace be upon him). I wanted to know how devout Suhail was. He shrugged and kept smoking. When I brought up President Assad, he rolled his eyes. Suhail was more interested in my life. He asked again and again, “No wife, not ever? No girlfriend?” Should I tell him about the Russian house flipper back in America who I frequently slept with in half-finished condo units, buckets of stucco and grout lying about, the smell of fresh paint, rug burns, cigarettes left over from the plumbers who had checked in earlier that day? Should I tell him about her refusal to use articles of speech, as in: You come with wine bottle, and afterward paint stairway. I had been offering free labor as a way of getting out of love-making. I tore out ancient carpet and ferried defrocked toilets to the city dump in exchange for my freedom. Suhail didn’t need to hear about any of this. This was our last night together, and I didn’t want to spoil it.

After smoking, we went to a bakery and ate some kollaj with cheese with some young Imams who were going to the city holding pens to butcher. They wrapped their knives in canvas bags, and you could hear the heavy blades grind upon one another when the men went up the street laughing. Suhail and I sat on the cool marble steps of a mosque. He walked with me through the gates of Old City, down Bad ash-Sharqi, to the Christian Quarter where I had my room. I told him that I had been having trouble sleeping.

“For how long have you had this problem?” he said.

“Most my life.”

He paused on the sidewalk, thought for a moment, and offered that what I was experiencing was merely God seeking me. He had experienced the same thing several times in his life, once when his oldest daughter was gravely ill. He picked at a jasmine bush. And then we said goodbye, shook hands. I thought I’d never see him again. The next day I was leaving for a two-week spin of the country, complete with scholars and multiple all-night bus rides.

~ ~ ~

That night my insomnia was worse than ever. My roommate, the shutterbug, snored with incredible conviction. I caught glimpses of his fuzzy scrotum in the slants of light pouring in from Bad ash-Sharqi. He farted outrageously.

I gathered my textbooks and sat on the stoop of the convent. I read about Islam, particularly intrigued by the section in the Qur’an where Muhammad (peace be upon him) learns to read. He’s off by himself when the angel Gabriel bursts in on him and commands him to read. The boy says he is not one who can read. The angel, undaunted and apparently hearing none of it, seizes the boy and commands him to read. He refuses. So the angel embraces the boy until he passes out. When he awakes, the angel is gone and he discovers that he can read.

I heard the static of speakers as The Call to Prayer rang up over the city. I noticed that there was a nun in the garden, in the eerie first light, snipping at jasmine, hunched over and watering flowers. How long she had been there I could not say. City birds, dusty and nondescript, came out and fluttered about the church spires, nesting here and there in the speakers strung upon the domes of mosques. In a few hours we were taking off to Aleppo. We were stopping at various sites along the way: a Bedouin encampment where we’d eat, as a group, an entire lamb, the Dead Cities, the beehive villages, Qala’at Samaan, Palmyra, various French Crusader castles. We’d sleep in the desert, have long conversations with sects of ancient Christians. But it was Aleppo in which I was most interested.

~ ~ ~

As I entered the bus the next morning, still groggy from the strawberry shisha, the heavy pastries, there sat Suhail. He had a tiny backpack in his lap, a camera strung on his neck, a packed lunch. He had shaved and put on a dark blue button-up shirt. He was saving a spot for me, courting my soul again. During the night, amid a terrible bout of insomnia, he had decided to come along. He said he had prayed about it. God had told him to follow me into the desert

“And your wife? You just said you were going without asking?” I said.

“Some of these things you are going to see, I have never seen for myself,” he said, softly. There were enough seats on the bus for everyone to have their own space, but he insisted we sit together.  He had some sort of date bread wrapped in a tissue and he offered it to me. He wanted none for himself. He just wanted to watch my face while I tasted the first bite. On his face was the urge to apologize, soft eyes the color of beer that searched mine. I had mentioned date bread three days earlier, and now my lap was full of it, still warm. Outside, the desert was flowing by, sand hummocks laced with motorcycle tracks, flocks of distraught and panting sheep, young shepherds grabbing slices of early shade and yakking on their mobiles.

At Palmyra I tried to shake Suhail between the tea kiosk and the groups of children selling camera batteries. He caught up to me. He wanted badly for me to understand something.  Leaning close to me, sometimes resting his hand on my shoulder, he read the descriptions of textiles behind the glass. The faces of men and women carved on the sarcophagus are the faces of city officials, rich people who helped build the city, he said. He wanted to take my picture by the Sun Temple, walk with me along the streets where the priests led the animals to slaughter two thousand years or so earlier (I was no good at dates.) At the midnight feast, Suhail boldly picked through the carcass of the lamb to make sure I received the best bits.

I had had enough. I had to pull away from this embrace of my soul, this gift of friendship, because, quite honestly, I hadn’t asked for it. I abandoned Suhail at a rest stop near Homs. I approached a high school administrator from the Twin Cities, and began to pal around with him, leaving Suhail to grasp about for conversation at the roadside tea huts, the flimsy food stands where women made khubz mohala over stick fires. I found my own seat in the bus and pretended to read. Suhail sat alone. Now when he caught up to me and walked along, he clasped his hands behind his back and let me do the talking. He had a book for me—Omar Khayyam—which he had written the following inside the jacket: My friend, you have a pure heart and a curious mind. He underlined friend twice. He presented this to me on a Roman road, in the middle of nowhere.

When we entered the great marble courtyard of the hotel that would serve as our headquarters in Aleppo, I gave the entire group the slip and ascended the landing where I could look out over the city alone, the great Citadel strung with banners depicting Assad, spindly pigeon stalls roosting atop clay-colored apartments, clay-colored people. The Call to Prayer went up over the city, and so rose the birds. I waited for the group to filter out of the lobby, then, I went down and booked my own room. I wanted to be alone.

I flopped on my bed and watched Egyptian music videos for the rest of the afternoon. I was a no-show for the city tour, ditched the lecture on the Citadel. Instead, I snuck out to the souks, sat for long hours in antique shops pretending to be interested in swords. I acted as if I wanted to buy a curved steel dagger from the 1800s.  I drank tea with shop keeps until we all nearly burst. We played checkers, or a game kind of like checkers. I found out-of-the-way narghile bars where the proprietors sent a boy out for Heinekens. I drank the beer in paper bags to avoid scandal. If God was seeking me—using Suhail as his spokesman—he was doing a pathetic job, for I avoided Suhail, the whole group really, for three days, telling them I was sick, and sneaking into Aleppo at nightfall.

Of course, hearing I was ill, Suhail appointed himself as my nurse. He burst into my room one afternoon with a bag full of medicines and bottles of purified water. He watched music videos with me while I experimented with painkillers and over-the-counter opiates. Things improved. The Call to Prayer burbled through the haze of the evening, the voices echoing and doubling over rooftops as far as you could see. Racing pigeons filled the buttery sunset. I admitted that I had been faking sickness and having marvelous adventures in the souks. I wanted to show Suhail some of these places. In the depths of the markets, I bought exquisite tapestries, baggies of spices, carved jewelry boxes inlaid with mother of pearl, and handfuls of almonds and dates for Suhail and me. I was doing what I had seen so many of my American counterparts do: collecting mementos that proved I had been somewhere.

Then we saw a necklace made of coral and sterling and it stopped me in my tracks. Perhaps it was the drugs, or the fact that I was going home in a week, but I imagined buying this necklace and giving it to my sister, or my mother, or even the Russian, who had grown in esteem and beauty now that I hadn’t seen her in months.  Suhail noticed me looking at the coral and intervened in my behalf. The merchant had been speaking to me in Arabic. We were whisked away by some young men, taken up a winding staircase to a tearoom where we were seated beside an old man with a white beard. The room was full of silver urns, delicate glassware, red-eyed racing pigeons in gold cages, a taxidermied desert cobra posed as if striking. The room had everything but the necklace I wanted to purchase. Suhail told me to be patient. We drank mint tea. I refused the raw deer’s milk. The man with the beard said the pigeons were worth one thousand American dollars, but they were not for sale. Suhail translated. Merchants came in with necklaces made of turquoise, amber, and hammered sheets of gold so thin I was afraid to touch them. This went on for hours. I saw so many pieces of jewelry that I nearly forgot what the original coral necklace looked like. Suhail was calm, while I was growing annoyed. Finally, the coral necklace appeared in a silver box. It had already been decided that I would buy it. The price was now the only concern.

The old man looked up from his pipe. He said in perfect English, “Who is this for? A sweetheart?”

“My mother,” I said.

He smiled, smoked the narghile.

“Your friend tells me you come from farmers, so I will give you a special price.”

Later, we went into a mosque off a side street. It was small, cool inside, tiled with turquoise designs. Suhail and I sat on the floor, leaned back against the marble columns. I was tired. There were some other men talking quietly, asquat here and there. You could hear the city outside gnawing on the final hours of the day. Suhail was sleeping, a suggestion of a smile on his face, the same button-up he had been wearing for days. Beard stubble was rising on his chin. He had all of my packages gathered around him, his fingers looped in the satchel that held the necklace. The merchant who sold us the necklace came in and sat across from me. This was somehow arranged, part of the transaction. He asked me if I knew what the name Suhail meant in Arabic. He didn’t wait for me to guess. It meant the calm, or the stars you can see in the south.

“But only from Syria,” said the man. “You won’t see them when you go back to America.”
I made a pillow of the many scarves I had purchased. I sat back and stared up at the ceiling, the endlessness of the design. In my hands were prayer beads, and though I believed in nothing, I worried them, turning them over and over.

~ ~ ~

There was a problem with my visa in Frankfurt. I was delayed, while the others went back to the States. I hugged the cartoonist goodbye. Dr. Grimm pressed my hand automatically. I was put up in a gray, rained-upon hotel by the airport. My luggage was elsewhere, so I had to beg for a toothbrush. The German bartender asked me if I was homesick. I wasn’t sure. After nearly three days in airports, I took a taxi to my house on Lincoln Street. The porch looked dilapidated, earthen. The yard was dead from lack of water. It was like walking on straw. But, in my absence, three huge dusty sunflowers had risen up mysteriously on the shady side of the house. Their broad black leaves drooped like robes. Their ancient heads leaned stoically. My luggage, full of spices and beautiful scarves, my camera, and even the coral necklace, which now seemed like a huge mistake, was lost somewhere between Frankfurt and Denver.

I turned on my cell phone for the first time in months. There were messages from my mother, too many. There was a dental appointment I had missed badly. My mailbox sagged with artifacts of pizza companies, mattress sales, local elections, phony keys that promised I had won a car. I tossed it all away while I listened to the voice messages. The Russian said: Hello, you have been gone long time. I have new electrician boyfriend. Goodbye. The condiments in my refrigerator had moldered into gneiss.

At night my insomnia was back. I read the Khayyam in bed until I couldn’t stand it anymore. God was pursuing me again, this time with the toilet ghost flushing, and this idea that Syria and all of the people I saw in the streets was something I made up in my mind. An illusion, I decided. Or at least I had no way of proving any of this. I got up, half dressed, went out into the yard. To the south you couldn’t see any stars, just sagging powerlines and haze. I yanked the sunflowers out, their roots showering my bare feet with clots of dirt, their black seeds spraying here and there.

Dave Zoby’s essays have appeared in The Sun, The Missouri Review, Fourth Genre, and other publications.

Bad Trip Bronze Winner: Like Dust in a Storm

July 31st, 2017

By Sivani Babu

A tragic close call in rural Colorado.

Useless. I wiped at my sunglasses with my dirty hands, trying to clear the droplets that settled on the lenses. The water smeared and streaked across, creeping into dust filled crevices and turning to mud. It became even harder to see and I gave up, pushing the glasses into my muddy and matted hair where they came to rest atop my head. Useless. I could relate.

My mind moved a few paces slower than my legs as I surveyed the accordions of crumpled metal and pebbled safety glass that surrounded me. The stench of diesel and Dos XX, refusing to be settled by the steady rain, oozed into my cotton button-down and my jeans. The white hood of an eighteen-wheeler looked almost pristine, except that it was no longer attached to its tractor and had instead been thrown into the roadside grass. Minutes before, the highway and the wreck had both been obscured by a suffocating sea of red earth sent hurtling through the air by unforgiving winds. A dust storm—one of the worst Lamar, Colorado had seen in recent years. This was not the disaster for which I’d been prepared. But in signing up to chase storms, perhaps I should have been prepared for anything.

There are places in the world that few people see even as they pass through them. Lamar is one of those places. It is not the Colorado immortalized on Coors bottles and in John Denver songs. There are no “cathedral mountains” to climb and no “silver clouds below.” Far to the east, Lamar lies in the drought-stricken Southern Plains—in red dirt country. The hills are petite, the cattle plentiful, the roads flat and straight, and if you head east, you’ll see Kansas miles before you get there. For a photographer obsessed with weather, this part of the country is an uneasy paradise.

In the late spring and early summer months, furious, billowing thunderheads punch into cobalt skies like explosions filmed in slow motion. “Fists of God” they’re sometimes called. They tower over the landscape, moving over farmland, oilfields, and small towns. Illuminated from within by lightning, they dump rain and hail until they exhaust themselves and collapse. The hail can destroy roofs, shatter windows, decimate crops. It can be catastrophic, but when conditions are just right, it’s only the beginning.

In early 2015, I sat in various sun-drenched cafes and coffee shops with friends and mentioned that I would be spending a week in the coming summer chasing storms in Tornado Alley with Warren Faidley, a veteran storm chaser and photographer. More than one person responded with an exasperated, “Of course you are.” Storm chasing, it seemed, was the latest in a long line of adventures that appeared to be designed to cause my friends and family an inordinate amount of worry. In reality, it was the latest in a long line of compulsions to capture in photographs the humbling power of nature—those reminders of our insignificance that I seemed to crave.

As a child of California’s Central Coast, I grew up knowing that at some point I would feel the ground move beneath my feet, but the specter of natural disaster never loomed. Instead it was packed away in an ice chest alongside cans of soup and AA batteries and stashed in the garage. Most people learned to live with it. I learned to love it. The physical power of nature was intoxicating and yet it also grounded me. Serious earthquakes were rare, of course, but even those smallest rumbles that left the chandeliers swaying gently were a reminder that no matter how solid the ground felt, there was always something beneath the surface that could make it roll like the ocean. Decades later near Lamar, as the curtain of dust closed in around us and the road disappeared, I had to wonder if in trying to capture what I so loved about the power of nature, I had forgotten the lessons it taught me.

I shot one last photo as we pulled over, getting as far from the road as we could without risking a rollover. Everything outside the car had turned a shade of rust that grew darker as the moments passed.

“We need to get further away from the road,” said Warren. We had both seen the semi lumber to a stop alongside us, the squealing of its breaks cutting through the whipping wind. We had seen it and known that our position was far less safe than it had been. I abandoned my camera on the floorboard as we simultaneously reached for our respective door handles, but before either of us could push open our doors we heard the moaning crunch of metal on metal. The semi lurched forward. We fled into the storm.

The wind screamed in my ears pelting us with tiny darts of fine dirt. I grabbed the collar of my shirt and pulled it over my nose and mouth, but the chalky grit still coated my teeth and tongue. It found its way around my sunglasses and into my eyes, through my shirt and into my lungs. The drivers license and credit card that I had shoved into a pocket were ripped out and carried away. We ran toward safety, toward a field that we could not see, but that we knew was there. Inch by inch the dust stole our sight until I could barely make out Warren’s shadowy form only a few steps away. By the time I saw the fence, it was almost too late and I skidded to a halt, narrowly avoiding a face first tumble into barbwire. There was no hesitation. We dropped to our stomachs and slithered under, the wire tearing at the clothes on our backs.

Four uncomfortable minutes later, the world began to brighten. The cry of the wind became less angry. The air was still red with dust, but more sunlight filtered through. Then came the rain, a gentle tapping that seemed so at odds with the punishing fury of the storm we had just witnessed. But any relief we might have felt was carried away in the wind that still blew across the road. Revealing themselves like ghostly apparitions were the outlines of eighteen wheelers and family cars, unmoving and unmistakably deformed.

Taking in the destruction, we slid back under the barbwire and sprinted to our car to summon help. On the phone with the emergency dispatcher, terms like “mass casualty” and “fatalities” hung in the air. Each moment revealed a new horror as the rain worked to settle the dust.

“Oh, God,” Warren’s soft exclamation drew my attention to a dark pickup truck crushed against the rear of a semi. Not for the first or last time, we both wondered if anyone could have survived. Warren spoke the words I’d been unwilling to, “We were lucky, my friend.”

He was not just a storm chaser and photographer. Warren was also a weather safety expert who had been a firefighter and, at one time, a certified EMT. His resume as a first responder included places that had become part of the national consciousness, places like Joplin and Moore. He knew how he would respond in a situation like ours because he had done it before. I, on the other hand, was untested.

I followed Warren’s lead, but we were quickly separated as we both worked to exert control over the chaos. I moved toward the rear of the accident and he toward the front. Triage.

“Were you transporting hazardous materials, hazmat?”

The truck driver looked at me with confusion on his face that could just as easily have been caused by a language barrier as by the head and facial wounds that were dripping dark blood. I opened my mouth to repeat the question in Spanish, but comprehension came before I could.


Questions about cargo and injuries passed through my lips, the answers filed away for the cavalry that was enroute. From the string of crushed cars and trucks and eighteen-wheeled giants the answers came, some in complete sentences, others in grunts and moans. The clearest answers were given in silence, in the absence of even the faintest beat of a pulse, but there was little time to dwell before moving down the line. Ensnared in a state of controlled urgency, my attention turned from the truck driver with blood flowing freely from his face, to a woman who had pulled herself from her destroyed car, to a clear liquid that I hoped was just water that seemed to be spilling onto the road from the trailer of a semi.

Disaster had always been a theoretical possibility. The flip side to the coin that allows some people to win the lottery, and I was, after all, hoping to see something capable of immense destruction. I had thought that if confronted with it, I might be frightened. Instead, in the moment I felt little emotion at all. But as an impossibly bright rainbow blossomed in the field behind the accident, something finally bubbled through the fissures.

The rainbow dripped in thick, saturated color as it framed the accident from end to end. Under any other circumstance I would have smiled and marveled at it. I would have rushed to set up my camera. But at that moment it felt obscene. It felt personal. It felt like nature was mocking us.

“Fuck you,” I said softly to the colors. “Fuck you.”

~ ~ ~

In the mayhem of the moment, it was rare to think of anything other than what I was doing and, occasionally, the helplessness I felt at doing it. It took a while for emergency personnel to get to our rural location and in that time, traffic had backed up down the highway. People had gotten out of their cars to watch. They’d stood on the side of the road with their phones taking photos, but I only saw one or two try to help. Maybe they knew. Maybe they could see in our faces how frustratingly useless we felt.

There were the walking wounded. People whose injuries looked worse than they were. People who through a combination of adrenaline and sheer will had extricated themselves from their crushed vehicles and who wandered the wreckage. There were the trapped. People whose bodies had been so engulfed in collapsed metal shells that we could not reach them. People for whom we could do nothing but try to talk to them and hope they answered. And then there were the others. The ones whose most painful wounds were not physical at all.

“I think my mom is gone.” The voice belonged to a bloody and shaking woman who stood alongside me as firefighters moved around her car. If there were any tears, they were hidden in the raindrops on her face. I said nothing, but took her hand. I knew she was right.

We stood side by side, watching the firefighters work. Next to me, the woman’s shivering caught my attention. She was wet, cold, and in shock. I began removing the cotton button-down that I’d been wearing as a top layer. It reeked. It was paper thin and soaked through with rain and mud. It would have done nothing to keep her warm, but it was all I had. Before I could finish peeling it from my skin, though, a man emerged with a heavy jacket from the eighteen wheeler that had collided with the woman’s car and driven it into the rear of another. His complexion was several shades lighter than I imagined was normal, his eyes dark with grief. Fault or not, he wore the guilt as though it were a coat as heavy as the one he draped over the woman’s shoulders.

The truck driver stayed close and after much convincing, when the woman agreed to go with her father who had already been taken to an ambulance, the driver walked her down the road while I squatted on the passenger side of her car and began talking to her husband. He had been driving. He was one of the trapped.

His body was contorted, filling the gaps left in the crumpled car. The rear end of a semi intruded into the space that had once held him, his wife, and his in-laws. Only two remained.

“Philip?” I called out, “Can you hear me?” From deep in the car came a groaned response and every other sound was extinguished. I searched for things to say. “Where are you from? Are you from around here?”

“From…Wiley.” I had heard someone say that emergency personnel from nearby Wiley were also responding to the scene.

“Oh, yeah? Those guys are coming out to help, too. There are a lot of people working to get you out of here. Where were you guys coming from today?”

A pause and then, “Houston.” Houston. They had been on the road for 12 hours and were likely no more than 20 minutes from home when they got caught in the storm. Sounds rushed back. The tapping of rain, the rustling of grass, the humming of engines, the voices of firefighters talking about how to free Philip from the wreckage. I rose to my feet to listen to the conversation. Lifting the trailer off of him was the best option, but they did not yet have the necessary equipment. The semi looked like it could still be driven. They wanted to try moving it, to pull it forward, but it was hard to tell where the semi ended and the car began. The wreckage was so grotesquely intertwined that it was impossible to know if moving the semi forward would free the man trapped inside or injure him further.

“If he yells or screams, anything, tell us and we’ll stop.” The firefighter was giving me direction.

“Okay,” I nodded before returning to a squat by the passenger side of the car.

“Philip?” I called out again. Silence. “Philip?” More insistent this time. “You still with me?” He answered and I mentally stomped down the panic that I’d only barely kept from my voice. “These guys are going to try to get you out of there. They’re going to try to get that truck off of you, but you gotta let us know if it starts to hurt, alright?” If it starts to hurt? I shook my head.

The semi roared to life as firefighters shouted instructions to each other, a cacophony that I did my best to follow even as I concentrated on the man in front of me. I backed away a few feet, just far enough to be clear of any debris that might get dislodged from the damaged behemoth that still towered over us. By fractions of an inch, the semi moved forward, but within seconds, I heard Philip’s painful moan.

“Wait!” I yelled and like a chain the message was passed in shouts to the driver who stopped instantly. Whatever I said next, the engine fell quiet. Once again it was just me and Philip.

The silence stretched longer than it should have. “Philip?” The response was weaker than before. “I promise these guys are doing everything they can. You just gotta keep hangin’ in there. Okay? Just stay with me.”

I sounded like a bad television show—the kind with stories and dialogue that could take the very real wreckage around me and make it seem like a set in some Hollywood studio. But the lifeless woman behind Philip was real. I had tried to give her daughter my wet shirt. She was real and she was constantly in my vision because I was looking at Philip and trying to keep our inane conversation going. I asked him about his family, his home, anything I could think of to keep him talking. When I ran out of things to ask, I started over, internally berating myself for my inability to sound like anything more than a poorly cast, fictional character. Life imitates art, but life imitating bad art seemed as unacceptable as the rainbow that still burned over the field behind me.

It was late that evening when the barbwire on the fence was cut and fence posts knocked down to make way for an enormous metal creature that rumbled through the field. I wondered where it had come from that the quickest way to us was through the field rather than down the road. It was the sort of machine I’d seen a hundred times, but couldn’t name. It rolled over the grass and up to the semi that still trapped Philip. By that time, I’d been moved out of my position at the passenger door. There were so many people working to free him that I was trying to stay out of the way. I’d retreated to stand in front of the car that Warren and I had abandoned hours ago. Filled with a need to do something, I grabbed my camera and photographed a firefighter silhouetted in the glowing sunset as he stood atop the machine that would free Philip.

Philip was the last one out that night. The only one who left by helicopter. And the one I wondered most about in the hours and days that followed. When the helicopter took off, Warren and I made our exit. A few goodbyes and exchanged handshakes and we were back on the deserted road to town.

Like quarterbacks after a tough loss, we analyzed the evening compulsively. What did we do right? How bizarre was that rainbow? What could we do differently next time? Next time. We used those words easily, as though the day’s events hadn’t been the confluence of time, place, and absurdity. As though some sort of “next time” was simply a given. Then again, for a man who spends his life chasing storms I suppose next time was all but guaranteed, and I had to acknowledge that, for me, it was more likely than for most.

But, if next time was a given, so too was the fact that we would head out again the next day. The forecast looked promising and our purpose was unaltered. That was hours away, though, and all I wanted as we trudged into our hotel was to wash off the grit of the day, to smell something other than fuel and spilt cargo, and to think. I tied my clothes up in a garbage bag before washing the dirt away. For the second time that day, falling water turned the dust on my skin and in my hair to mud, but this water was warm and it fell with more persistence. I watched it turn a diluted shade of the same rust color that had surrounded us hours before. The water circled, larger grains of sand sinking to the bottom of the current and trying stubbornly to stay before being swept away and spiraling down the drain. I breathed in the steam, a breath that filled my lungs and expanded my chest and triggered a coughing fit that brought the taste of chalk back to my tongue. It was the first of several that night.

Later, I sat up in bed balancing my computer on my knees and scrolling through the photos I had taken that day. The images filled in some of the information gaps that Warren and I had discovered on the way back to town. I could look at the photos clinically, could analyze them logically, and was troubled, though not surprised, by how easily it seemed I could set aside the emotions of the day in my own mental earthquake kit. The awfulness of what we’d witnessed, I thought, should be harder to put away.

When we had parted in the hotel lobby, Warren had told me that he hoped I would sleep well. Nightmares seemed acceptable, if a bit cliche, but I knew that when sleep eventually came, the nightmares would not. Instead, as I lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling, my thoughts meandered to all of the places I’d been recently. I had chased the palatial splendor of nature to some of the most remote locations on the planet. My travels had taken me to places I had never dreamt of seeing, but with increasingly less frequency did they take me home to the house where I grew up. At that thought, I was flooded with a sudden longing to hear my parents’ voices, an aching to know that they were safe and to tell them I love them. For most of my adult life, I had tried to spare them the worry that comes with having a daughter like me. I had become an expert at burying the lede, at slow bleeding the details of stories until they trickled out in a manner that would cause little concern, at waiting until I could find the humor in a particularly harrowing story before sharing any of it with them, but there was no humor to be found in the events of the day.

Picking up my cell phone, I stared at it as I silently warred with myself. It was well after midnight and their worry would start the moment the phone rang and the caller ID told them who was on the other end. They were a thousand miles away, sleeping with no knowledge of what had transpired, and I could let them be. But I had seen a daughter lose her mother that day, watched her follow her father to an ambulance.

The screen of my phone cast a soft blue light around the hotel room as my fingers slid over ten digits that I had been dialing for nearly thirty years. I knew who would answer. As a physician who had spent nearly all of the last three decades on call, my dad fielded all late night phone calls. His voice was alert to the reality that phone calls after midnight rarely bring good news and held only a hint of the slumber from which I’d woken him. I led with the two words that every parent wants to hear at the start of an unanticipated, late night conversation with their child, “I’m fine.”

~ ~ ~

The day I opened the first email from Philip’s son, was the day the feelings of uselessness started to fade. One by one, gracious messages filled my inbox. Philip’s son, friends of the accident victims, and finally from Philip himself after his release from the hospital. Their words were kind and grateful and although I still felt they were underserved, I was also reminded that sometimes it is not how much we can do that matters, but that we do what we can.

“It’s amazing I got to keep three of them,” Philip’s son had written to me. He’d lost his grandmother that day, but his parents and grandfather had survived. For that he was thankful and I wondered if I might have handled being in his position with as much grace.

The capriciousness of that day gnawed at me. I was under no illusions about fairness. Warren and I had been the ones courting danger, yet we had emerged from the storm unscathed, and that is the uncomfortable reality of nature: that it is indescribable beauty and arbitrary destruction. It is easier to romanticize it. To be seduced by the rainbow and forget the storm from which it came. But on a rural Colorado highway nature provided a violent reminder that another sunrise is promised to no one. That another chance to wrap my arms around my family, to cry tears of laughter with friends, to end a conversation with an I love you that does not need to be said, may never come. Because life is delicate. It cracks and it breaks and it disintegrates like earth starved for water. And when the winds blow, it is picked up and carried away like dust in a storm.

Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals in the story.

Sivani Babu is a California-based photographer, writer, former attorney, and perpetual Antarcticaphile. Her work has appeared in Nature Photographer and Backpacker magazines, on BBC Travel, and in various galleries in the western United States.

Destination Story Bronze Winner: Last Stop in Oklahoma

July 24th, 2017

By Robert Reid

An Okie expat and his 76-year-old uncle aim to summit the Black Mesa in the USA’s most unlucky and unwanted rectangle.

The road’s empty and rising slightly. I lean forward in the driver’s seat and look through the windshield to the biggest skies I’ve ever seen. An immense block of sea-blue smeared in white clouds presses down on fields of cut wheat, peppered in parts with small clumps of trees, a far-off farmhouse, a wind pump. My cellphone signal’s gone, and with it my GPS, so I’m guessing. Is this it?

“It looks different, doesn’t it?,” I ask hopefully, an hour west of Woodward. “Fewer trees, flatter, dryer?”

“It does?,” comes the reply. “Looked about the same to me.”

Riding shotgun is a 76-year-old from Ponca City in a royal-blue polo tucked into navy cargo shorts. A toothpick dangles from his mouth, and a straw fedora leans over his forehead. He pulls out his iPhone and takes a blurry photo of a field we pass at 60mph. This is David Mallory, my uncle.

I zoom past a copse of cottonwoods framing an empty picnic area. Then, thinking twice, I make a wild U-turn in the two-lane road and pull off onto a gravel lot. There stands a 10-foot sign marked with peeling, hand-painted watermelon-red lettering: “NO MAN’S LAND.”

The trip has started.

The Oklahoma Panhandle is America’s last destination. Every other town, peak, park or patch of weeds in the country will make it onto one of those top travel lists before the panhandle does. It’s a snub with history. Native Americans chased bison through its long-gone tall grass, but never settled. When joining the union, Texas simply sliced it from its own chubby panhandle, leaving a literal “No Man’s Land.” It finally joined Oklahoma by default, though many locals still feel disconnected from “down state.”

We’re not on vacation here, we’re on a pilgrimage. To see a 34- by 166-mile rectangle of plains that gave Oklahoma the best shape in the world. Because it’s that panhandle that transforms Oklahoma’s layout into a playground for the beholder’s imagination: a toppled hat to plop on your head, a pot to brew your stew, or a butcher’s cleaver pounding down on Texas. Without it, Oklahoma’s just a down-sized Dakota with a frayed bottom. We’ve seen it by map. Now we’re here to see the real thing.

I’m driving newly energized now, hungrily taking in ever parcel of land we pass, this panhandle land. My uncle, meanwhile, reaches back for some carrot sticks. That’s sort of our deal. I drive for a five-day trip I’ve plotted out. He supplies the car—a scratched-up Lexus with rearview mirror issues—and the cooler of snacks. Plus much of the conversation. “You’ll see some old man stuff on this,” he warns. “Like when I take my teeth out.”

A half-hour in, we pull into the wide Main Street in Beaver, where banks, a gift shop and a surviving Otasco occupy century-old brick buildings. The town’s known for its orangey dunes north of town and its cow-chip throwing contest in April. But we’re here for the cows.

It’s noon on a Tuesday and the parking lot for Beaver’s weekly cow auction is already filled with trucks and trailers with license plates of five states. We park by a neighboring silo and walk into the small auction house, where a plank-board amphitheater bends around a holding pin. A couple cowboys are in there, working hard. “UWP UWP UWP!,” they yell, as a team of heifers charge in, make a few wide-eyed circles in the dirt, then rush out a door on the opposite wall. All the while, the auctioneer calls out a steady plea for bids, his melody bouncing along the low notes before making an occasional unexpected rise.

After a few minutes, we move to the adjoining Sale Barn Café. A handful of bidders crowd a horseshoe bar and eat burgers, open-face roast sandwiches and greasy thin fries from paper plates. We sit next to a white-haired couple, both pushing 90. They’re regulars from Balko, here to price heifers.

“How old are you?,” my uncle finally asks the woman. He’s obsessed with age and health, so I expect this. She does not.

“You’re not supposed to ask a woman that!,” she says, only half-joking. “How old are you?”

“I’m 76.”

“Well, I’m 74.”

Growing up in Tulsa, my family would occasionally goad each other to try something new, “adventurous”—like trying Indian curry for the first time—by saying, “c’mon, Uncle David would do it.” Uncle David always loved a challenge, and our trip’s end goal—the eight-mile hike at Oklahoma’s highest point at the 4974-foot Black Mesa, at the Colorado/New Mexico border—has quickly become “that mountain” to him. He talks about it with everyone on the way. “You can’t just walk eight miles right off,” I warned him a couple months before the trip. After all, it’s been decades since he walk-ran that Tulsa Run. “Build yourself up. First walk a mile, then two…” But he never did. On top of that, he’s had a stent procedure a week before we set off.

This worries me. I really want to climb that mountain too.

~ ~ ~

Most of rural America is shrinking, population-wise, but not the panhandle’s biggest city, where we reach next. Guymon’s grown by 50% in the past dozen years. Short-termers come to work with wind or gas, many new Americans come to settle, often taking jobs at its pork-processing plant. Now the town’s Somali festival is in its third year, and it’s the only town in the state with a Latin-American majority. “Guymon’s like Ellis Island,” one local puts it. “People from all over coming to look for the American dream.”

Guymon quickly shows its diversity. We get goat stew and tacos at a Mexican restaurant made from an old gas station, then look at family rodeo photos at a western wear shop where a 6’3” cowboy named Gabe calls us “sir.” Afterwards we go for a smoothie at a café behind a strip mall that serves Filipino food. One of the employees is Liz McCulloch, is a 27-year-old with rock’n’roll bangs and a British accent. She moved here from the UK when she was a kid. “I like that there’s not much to do here,” she says. “Makes you go find something to do.”

Find something to do. I hear this a lot around the panhandle. After rains, teens like to go “mudding” by driving their trucks through soggy fields. Others just drive, taking random dirt roads, looking at skies, stars, thunderstorms. One local jokes, “the only thing there’s to do is drink and have sex.”

We fill a couple days here roaming the area instead. We peek into an abandoned homestead littered with tumbleweeds, see a double-headed calf at Goodwell’s No Man’s Land Museum, spy a Panhandle State rodeo practice, and after the sun falls, take side roads as the black sky fills with silent flashes of silent lightning.

~ ~ ~

An hour west, Boise City (pronounced “boyze city”) is the only city in the Lower 48 that got bombed in WWII. Air force pilots mistook it for a test site and dropped dud bombs “without definite reason,” as an understated The Boise City News story complained a few days later. No one was hurt, at least, and the pilots felt bad about it. We stop to see a fake bomb planted in the sidewalk by the courthouse, and to stock up on supplies. But at the family-run No Man’s Land Beef Jerky, the mom in her 80s warns us against climbing the Black Mesa. “A family went up once and their teenage son fell off and died,” she says. “And they continued their vacation anyway!”

Riding west from Boise City, the southwest takes over the plains. Distant lines of grayish brown rocks begin as ripples on the horizon, pushing up from a flat scrub brush crossed by ruts from the Santa Fe Trail. The road gently curves, dips, then rises. And the rocks – mostly Dakota sandstone formations – build up, finally topping hillsides like peekaboo crowns that gradually envelop us. Uncle David stares out. “I lived in Ponca City for 50 years and had no idea this was out here.”

We’re getting our first look at the area with a tour from panhandle-lifer Jane Apple, who owns, along with her husband, the Hitching Post B&B Ranch. “You got to know how to handle this country to live here. Because it’s so different,” says Jane, a red-haired 70-year-old with a slow drawl and plenty bounce in her step. “Also you need to have a tough gal. Because it’s a loooong way to Wal Mart.”

Driving us along dusty roads, Jane steers us off the road and up a grassy hillside, swerving around yucca plants, cholla cacti and juniper trees. Before us stands a hulking, crevassed sandstone mass. We get out, and Jane leads us by foot to the far side, where the fine-grained wall is pockmarked with etchings of stick figures, circular patterns, a few words. One seems to read “Coronatto 1541,” supposedly the work of one of Spanish explorer Coronado’s scouts.

~ ~ ~

As a travel writer, I take some pride in my ability to plan trips. But my career began with a disaster: a ski trip I organized for my uncle, dad and myself using an out-of-date Mobil travel guide. When we arrived in the mountains northwest of Denver, we found ourselves at an empty Bible summer resort. Hit with altitude sickness, my dad spent the first day vomiting, so Uncle David and I took off cross-country skiing into single-digit temperatures. Ice pelting our faces, we slipped and fell for several hours, me often stopping to wait for my uncle. Finally reaching the top of a grueling climb, I found a gentle slope heading back towards the van. And I just took off—no looking back. And I’ve never heard the end of it. “We made that turn, and my nephew took off,” as my uncle routinely repeats, often to strangers. “He left me behind to freeze!” I was 11.

The Black Mesa is here now, and I know – even if my uncle doesn’t – that he cannot climb it. He’s walking slower as the trip goes on, and this is eight miles. I go to bed pretty sure I’m going up anyway – even if it means leaving him behind. But in the night, something changes. I wake in darkness. I hear the wind howling outside, and my uncle’s heavy breaths. I lay and think awhile about that ski disaster, being in the panhandle at last, and that mesa out our cabin window. And I decide the top hardly matters. Whatever happens, I’m sticking with my uncle.

For the first time all trip, the morning is cold and gray. At breakfast, Monty Roberts, the curlicue-moustached owner of the Black Mesa B&B, sizes us up and warns us against hiking. “That wind really whips up there. I wouldn’t go today.” Monty’s a tough guy. He fell from a windmill decades ago and never bothered fixing the sharply bent bones of his hand. So I’m not sure he’s serious, but I let it go. Even my uncle, poking at his pancakes, glumly admits, “When an expert says he wouldn’t do it, you better not.”

So, we’re not going. Neither of us.

After so much build-up for the mesa, Kenton, a town of 20 people with three churches and no restaurants, feels anti-climatic at first. We drive to the Tri-State Marker, where Oklahoma meets Colorado and New Mexico; peek at preserved dinosaur footprints left by a prehistoric river bank; then take a long scenic ride, my uncle dozing off a few times. At the tiny Kenton Museum, our fourth (and favorite) museum of the panhandle, 86-year-old volunteer Asa Jones points out barbed-wire displays, dummies in Victorian dresses, found arrowheads, and a century-old photo of a kid moments before he drowned. “Over here is a shot of his funeral.” Uncle David asks about the mesa and Asa answers, “The last time I went up there, I fell right on my face.”

It’s late afternoon now. The wind’s died down. It’s sunny, clear – perfect. And, as if tugged by some unseen force, we find ourselves at the mesa trailhead. And we just start walking. It’s too late to go eight miles, but maybe we’ll take on a mile or so.

“Is that a man up there?,” Uncle David says, looking up at the mesa top, teasingly 800 feet above us. It’s clearly a bush. I know it’s a bush. But I cherish a rare excuse to use my binoculars, so I pull them out to investigate.

“It’s a bush.”

After a mile, we find a bench. We sit, have a sip of wine, bite or two of beef jerky. I ask why he really wanted to climb the mesa anyway.

“I guess, when you get right down to it, it wouldn’t really matter to anyone except me,” he says. “But at 76, I would have loved to be able to say I got to the top of that mountain.”

“What about at 77?”

“I’m thinking about it.”

We head back to the car, soaking up that last golden sun rays before dusk. Everything looks and feels great. I stop to look at the mesa again, then watch him going ahead, impressed. Uncle David always could kick it up a notch. When I catch up, he stops and turns back.

“I’m just glad you didn’t leave me this time.”

Me too.

Robert Reid is freelance travel writer based in Portland, Oregon. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and He’s authored a couple dozen Lonely Planet guidebooks and is currently National Geographic Traveler‘s Digital Nomad. He sometimes blogs, occasionally about his home state of Oklahoma.

Family Travel Bronze Winner: Warp Thread

July 17th, 2017

By Leslie Oh

A weaving workshop on the Navajo Reservation bonds a mother and daughter and offers a lesson about how to live a balanced life.

Mom and I breathed deeply four times in the cool shadow of Table Mesa. In the distance, a worn road led southward through the Navajo Reservation and northward to Shiprock, New Mexico. The white tips of Dibe Nitsaa, Mount Hesperus, the sacred mountain of the North, whispered above. We stretched our arms into a sky as turquoise as the stone in the necklace Mom made me. Father Sky. Swollen gray clouds drifted slowly by. Then we folded ourselves in two; our fingertips brushed the red soil swirling about our feet. Mother Earth. Mom’s eyes remained closed as she inhaled one more time and brought her arms to her chest, the way she normally embraced me with all her might. I wanted to melt there but instead I stood awkwardly beside her, trying to mime a graceful pattern of arm and leg movements that resembled Tai Chi. We faced East (thinking), then South (planning), West (living), and North (wisdom).

Her short black hair settled into a curly halo around her beautiful round face, now unbelievably serene compared to moments earlier, when she had slammed her hand-carved weaving fork on the table and said, “Your Rez Mom sucks at this.”

“Me too,” I’d confessed. Our placemat-sized rugs continued to turn into hourglass shapes, no matter how many times we warned each other to think “loose.”

A few feet away from our meditation, five Caucasian women sat Indian style on tarps or folded Pendleton blankets. Before them, their looms displayed nearly finished rugs, which would soon win awards. Mothers, wives, grandmothers—all of them set aside these roles for five days to camp with no electricity and water on Master Weaver Sarah Natani’s ranch. The desert wind tangled wisps of blond and sandy brown hair loose from traditional Navajo buns at the base of their necks. The sun baked their skin. Stray dogs dozed on their laps. Ants about the length of fingernails scuttled between their toes. Odors of sheep and llama dung wafted from the corrals a few feet away. But they didn’t care. They appeared more authentic as Navajo weavers than Mom and I, weaving comfortably air-conditioned within the Natani home. And then because we stayed at a hotel for the sake of my two-year-old daughter, who spent our class time in a Shiprock daycare, we rolled in late every morning with a cup of Starbucks steaming in our hands.

I wondered what the other weavers thought about us, especially when Mom, who was the only student of Navajo heritage, had to weave with rubber gloves because the yarn irritated her skin. Mostly, they kept a respectful distance, maybe because we called Sarah Natani, Shinaali’ (paternal Grandmother). Mom’s paternal grandfather’s clan, Bit’ahni or Folded Arms, is a sister clan to Sarah Natani’s maternal clan, Hooghan lani or Many Hogans.

Everyone probably thought I was Navajo too, because I shared Mom’s skin and hair-color.

My expression of K’é (a Navajo tradition of introducing oneself through kinship terms), which I usually stumbled clumsily through, goes something like this: “I was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, to Auxilia Chow of Shanghai, China, and John Hsu of Anhui, China. My Chinese name means Fragrant Grass. Ursula Knoki-Wilson of the Táchii’nii, or Red Running into Water People, Clan adopted me after Mā Ma  died of liver cancer. My Navajo name means “journey with caring or journey to bring out gifts.”

The hot desert air seared my lungs and I began to sputter. Mom winked at me and threw her hands into a sky that was supposed to swallow our sorrows, but I couldn’t concentrate. No matter how much Mom loved me like the daughter she never had and tried to caulk the cracks in my grieving heart, I have always felt untethered. I could relate to something Shinaali’ Sarah’s best student had said when she refused a Navajo man’s commission for her to weave a Navajo rug for him, “Oh no! I’m white. I can’t. It’s not right.”

Shinaali’ Sarah was sitting in front of my loom when Mom and I finished our breathing exercise. The rhythmic patting of my Navajo weaving fork against the yarn in my loom reverberated off the walls. Whamp. Whamp. Whamp.

The afternoon sun streamed through a window in the ceiling, spotlighting a coal-burning stove that occupied the center of a Hogan-shaped room cluttered with couches and an assortment of looms. The largest loom, commanding the room’s attention, displayed a commissioned piece worth six thousand dollars. Shinaali’ Sarah claimed that the design had no special meaning, but I could see arrowheads within the bands of red and blue geometric shapes, which made me wonder whether the buyer needed protection. A portion of the displayed rug had already been rolled under the loom, while the rest towered several feet above my head.  Four of the eight walls to this room had doors that led to additional rooms, so that an aerial view of this home looked like a cross.

Mom and I approached our looms, which had been set up on a low table beside a life-sized oil painting of Shinaali’ Sarah and her husband, a traditional healer I invited to speak at a conference years ago. The first time I set eyes on this pair holding hands over breakfast, I remember telling my husband, “I hope we always love each other in this way.”

Shinaali’ Sarah smiled; the crinkles at the edge of her mouth accentuated a face loved by a lifetime of sun and wind. Her eyes were not those of an eighty-year-old woman, but the kind that enjoyed motorcycle rides at sunset.

“Very good,” Shinaali’ Sarah said to me. “I just fixed your crossed warp thread.” She handed me the batten, a flat piece of wood tapered at the ends for easy maneuvering between the warp threads. Her silver buckle clinked as she stood up. “Also, remember not to leave your batten in the loom. It stretches your warp threads and some people believe it brings bad luck.”

No wonder, I thought. My day had begun with a phone call from my husband about our brand new car requiring major repairs. Near the end of her life, Mā Ma attributed her illness to all kinds of superstitions. She had me convinced that it was safer to believe than ignore such warnings.

The traders we visited during the workshop told stories about blind, diseased, or deceased weavers who had broken weaving taboos and disrespected Grandmother Spider Woman (a Holy person who taught Weaving Woman how to weave, and she in turn taught the Navajos.) It has been easy to attribute all the bad luck in my life following this weaving workshop to taboos. Even now, five years later, heirloom necklaces that belonged to Mā Ma will spontaneously break upon my neck, spilling beads in random directions. An earring I wear will almost always lose its pair before the evening ends. To this day, I’m still discovering weaving taboos my daughter or I unknowingly broke: do not go between the poles of a loom when a rug is being woven because you will cause evil; do not let the loom of the weaving stand too long or it will tire and hurt you; do not make fun of your weaving or it will get worse and you will be poor.

Shinaali’ Sarah patted me on the shoulder as if she understood my angst and warmed me with a smile. Months before the workshop, she had lost her husband to the same disease Mā Ma died of. A long Navajo skirt swooshed about her ankles as she walked over to inspect Mom’s loom. As they began conversing in Navajo, I sat down in front of my loom and stared at the thin warp threads, which function like bones in flesh.

We had devoted a full day to the process of setting up the warp threads. After all, if you don’t get the structure and tension right, everything you hang on it falters.

I glanced at the wall where an ancient clock ticked noisily away. In a few hours, we would be wrapping up the last day of a workshop that I realize now I had weighted with unrealistic expectations.

Ten years prior to the workshop, I had the chance to move to the Rez, live with Mom, facilitate a partnership between traditional healers and Western practitioners at Chinle Comprehensive Health Care Faciliy where Mom works, and learn how to weave from Mom’s mother. Jobs, marriage, children, life got in the way, so much in the way that I only see Mom once every two to three years for just a few precious days. When Mom’s mother died, I signed us up for this workshop. I hoped weaving would ease Mom’s grief and my regret that rankled on those despairing nights when I felt that I turned down the wrong path and couldn’t find my way back to that crucial crossroad. I’ve always wondered if that missed opportunity resulted in my drift, unanchored to a place or culture. Neither an outsider nor an insider.

On the surface, the workshop satisfied a mother-daughter bond. We celebrated Mother’s Day and Mom had a chance to meet her granddaughter for the first time. The artist in us both (Mom comes from a long line of weavers and my bloodline is seeped with painters and photographers) thirsted for this knowledge: a master weaver willing to share techniques and cultural wisdom normally privileged for her descendants because she believes despite much controversy that the Navajo weaving tradition will die if it is not passed on, regardless of ethnicity.
Raging beneath all of this ran a desire I’m embarrassed to admit, a craving that began with Mā Ma ’s death and was amplified with the birth of my daughter to a desperate hunger to belong to something wise and ancient, bled in streambeds, trapped in rock layers, eroded in the earth.

I never told my husband I spent a $150 on a tension cord Shinaali’ Sarah braided from raw wool that she sheered, cleaned, carded, spun, and dyed from her own livestock. I had to own this itchy llama-reeking cord, which so far has served one brief role: stretching my warp threads tight on the only rug I’ve ever woven. I am not sure if it was because the tension cord in its unique braiding of white, gray, and dark brown yarn made my loom look more authentic than the Wal-Mart bleached machine-made cord I used for the first few days of the class. Or maybe I romanticized the notion that the cord represented lightning and embodied the legend of Grandmother Spider Woman, so that purchasing this tension cord might be the closest I could come to claiming the Navajo culture as my own. It seemed to make sense in a metaphoric way that I possessed something born and bred and crafted on the Rez.

But no matter what I bought or how much I concentrated at this workshop, I felt like I learned little. After all, Shinaali’ Sarah had said, “Weaving is more than just an art or craft. It is a way of life, essential to the Navajo culture.”

How did you learn a way of life in five days? Was it “wrong” for me to root for a culture I wasn’t born with? Did anyone else feel this way?

In later years, the other workshop attendees, many who have returned year-after-year to the ranch, emailed comforting words, confirming that I was not alone in these desires. But in that moment, only my loom listened. Mom had told me once that the loom is supposed to tell you what to do. It’s supposed to relax you.

Feeling isolated from the other weavers outside and with Mom laughing at something Shinaali’ Sarah said, I stared at my Ganado Red: a rug pattern developed in Mom’s hometown. Our Ganado Reds would share the typical black border filled with a red background. For her central design, Mom decided to try a gray and white diamond, which required a complicated skill of weaving diagonals. I chose the Spider Woman cross, not only because it is easy for a beginner to create but also because I liked the multitude of meanings bestowed in this symbol.

The cross can bring the blessing of rain. The number four is sacred and represents the sacred stones (abalone, turquoise, white shell, and jet), the sacred plants (corn, squash, beans, and tobacco), the sacred rivers (Colorado River, Little Colorado River, San Juan River, and the Rio Grande), or the four sacred mountains (Sis Naajini—Mount Blanca of the East, Tsoodzil—Mount Taylor of the South, Dook’o’oosliid—San Francisco Peaks of the West, and Dibe Nitsaa—Mount Hesperus of the North).

In weaving this rug, I hoped my daughter could have guiding principles if I ever died as Mā Ma did when I needed her most. I hoped she would trace her fingers along the spirit line I planned to weave into this rug and remember Grandmother Ursula’s story about Weaving Woman and how she became trapped in her rug from working too hard to make it perfect. Grandmother Spider Woman created the spirit line so that Weaving Woman could escape and warn others never to let pride become master of their spirit.

In weaving this rug, I wanted my daughter to connect to something larger than me.

After Shinaali’ Sarah fixed a few things on Mom’s rug, she grabbed a large floppy hat and said, “We are going to visit some trading posts and pick some plants for dyeing. Are you two coming?”

Mom and I were silent as Shinaali’ Sarah slid open her glass sliding door to inspect the rest of the class. Without waiting for an answer, she said, “Don’t worry, we’ll be right back so you can work on your rugs some more.”

The door shut and Mom and I sighed in the same breath. The 30 hours that we had set aside for this project were nearly exhausted. We knew it would be hard to find time to finish the rug in our daily schedule of cooking, cleaning, and working.

Two SUVs packed with the other women rolled off onto the highway in a cloud of red dust. We jumped in Mom’s car and hurried after them.

At the Two Grey Hills trading post, our class descended upon the weaving tools like vultures. Then, we wandered our way through the store until each of us ended up in a tiny room at the back. Weaved in elaborate designs of brown, white, and black, Two Grey Hill rugs lined the walls and covered the stone floor in stacks. The price tags ranged in the thousands, except for two very unusual rugs. The trader apologetically said, “Oh, these were weaved by Mary Silversmith, the world’s worst weaver. But we buy her rugs, because she’s probably the oldest weaver on the Rez. Blind as a bat, but still weaving!”

Not only were they priced attractively at $75 and $65, but we all fell in love with the abstract designs. It looked like the weaver had smeared her hand through the straight verticals, horizontals, and diagonals normally found in Navajo designs. A thick warp thread peeked out here and there through the unevenly hand-spun yarn. Sometimes the yarn hung loose from the warp. Other times, the weaver meant to use black, but stuck in blue yarn instead.

She had broken every standard of quality a collector looked for in a rug. Does the rug have straight edges and square corners? Nope. Are the lines within the rug straight and consistent? What lines?  Is the pattern centered on the rug? What pattern? Will the rug lie or hang flat? Never. Is the warp covered? Maybe 80 percent? Are the colors consistent? Definitely not. And yet, we all fought over purchasing Mary Silversmith’s rugs. And those of us who didn’t go home with one worried we’d missed out on owning something rare.

Maybe her design was intentional. After all, the silhouette of a bear could be seen in one. She could’ve been ahead of her times. But more importantly, she showed us that it’s okay to mess up and bend rules and not fit in.

On the way to the next trading post, Shinaali’ Sarah stopped our caravan alongside hip-high bushes growing beside a stand of junipers. As soon as we gathered around her and settled down, she said, “This is sage.” Her fingertips lovingly stroked the leaves. “Plants are alive. You must give them a good talk. Say a prayer. Ask for permission that we can cut some to dye yarn this afternoon.”

I waded through the bushes with Mom away from the other weavers. The sage brushed the sides of my legs, releasing its sweet aroma. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, feeling its medicine calm my anxieties. For a brief moment, I felt as if I’d lived here all my life.

When it grew harder to see by sunlight, Mom and I peeked at each other over our half-finished rugs. Sweat dripped down the sides of our faces. Our hair frizzed in the heat and our hands rubbed stiff necks.

How had we turned something relaxing into something stressful?  Mom chuckled and said, “We might as well go get my grandbaby and some ice cream!”

We carefully packed away our loom and wrapped our weaving tools in towels. Hugs and promises to keep in touch were exchanged with the other weavers. Then, we loaded up the car and Mom blasted the air conditioner.

Just as I thought that maybe Mary Silversmith had rubbed off on us and given us the courage not to be self-critical, Mom gripped the steering wheel and said, “I concentrated so hard today and I still fucked up!”

Her sentence froze the space between us. I panicked. We stared at each other, faces bleeding color, realizing several taboos were probably broken by her statement.

Minutes crept by until the tension in the air snapped. We giggled until our stomachs hurt.

Mom wiped the tears from her face, looked up to the sky and said, “Oooo Mom, I hope you didn’t hear what I just said.”

When I caught my breath, I said, “Mom, I love you. You are so funny.”

She grabbed my hand and pressed it to her heart. “Thank God I have a daughter. I tell you what,” she said. “I’m never going to show my rug to anyone.”

I basked in a mother’s love that I thought I had lost forever.

Mom floored the pedal once we exited the dirt road from Shinaali’ Sarah’s ranch. As soon our wheels thumped against the highway, I said, “Mom, I want your rug. You have to send it to me, when you’re done.”

She looked at me and laughed. “Okay. You have to send me yours too.”

“All right,” I agreed. At the moment, grounded by the Rez, I did intend to send her my rug.

While I was still finishing my rug, Mom mailed hers to me and I hung it in my daughter’s room. On evenings when my daughter demands that I read her a children’s book about Weaving Woman that Mom gave her, I lift her up to the rug so she can run her fingers along the spirit line and we reminisce about our first grandmother-mother-daughter trip on the Rez. She talks about the sheep on Grandma’s ranch and I  remember how many rules Mom and I broke.

When I finally finished mine, I wouldn’t let anyone see it, not even my husband. I decided to weave another rug for Mom, but I have not warped my loom since the workshop. A bucket worth of the expensive yarn Shinaali’ Sarah recommended sits in my closet: Brown Sheep, Lamb’s Pride, worsted weight, not bulky, not sport, single ply. I tell myself it’s because I’m worried about breaking taboos, but perhaps I am not allowing myself to live in hózhó.

Hózhó is the Navajo word that embodies a philosophy of beauty, balance, and harmony. When a weaver weaves, she is promising to walk in beauty or live in hózhó, straddling the borders of good and bad, sickness and health, happiness and sadness.

Today, I still haven’t found the courage to show Mom my rug. Maybe I don’t want her to see what a bad weaver I am. Maybe I’m afraid I’ll embarrass her. Or worse, perhaps, I still can’t believe that she loves me as her own.

I tell myself that hózhó is too difficult to achieve thousands of miles away from Mom and the Rez. But when I dare to examine my Ganado Red gathering dust at the bottom of a drawer, I wonder if the real problem is a crossed warp thread within.

Leslie Hsu Oh is an award-winning writer whose work has been named among the distinguished stories of the year by Best American Essays. Her writing and photography has appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Magazine, Backpacker Magazine, First Alaskans Magazine, Fourth Genre, Parenting Magazine, Rosebud Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, Sierra Magazine, Under the Sun, Washington Post On Parenting, Washington Post Travel. Losing her mother and brother to hepatitis B at the age of 21 inspired her to found the Hepatitis B Initiative in 1997, which she later expanded to the Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. area with Thomas Oh. Today, this award-winning nonprofit continues to operate in several states mobilizing communities to prevent liver diseases caused by hepatitis B and C among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, African Americans and other high-risk groups. Having earned an MFA and master’s in public health from Harvard, she is the recipient of the Rasmuson Individual Artist Award, the first Julius B. Richmond Young Leader in Public Health Award, the first National Award for Excellence in Public Health Leadership, the Sun Memorial Award for exemplifying a commitment to improving the health and well-being of people in underserved populations, and the Schweitzer Award for reverence for life. She was also recently named White House Champions of Change for AAPI Storytelling and Art. See her website or follow her @lesliehsuoh.

Funny Travel Gold Winner: Monks and Monkey Poop on the Mountain

July 10th, 2017

By James Michael Dorsey

A pilgrimage gone wrong.

At first sight, the temple on the mountain seemed a folk tale come to life.

On my journey through Burma, the gleaming temple on the rock that guards Mount Popa had become my challenge, my grail, my pilgrimage, and there it towered above me like a finger of God pointing towards heaven.

Taung Kalat, the sacred monastery, is the jewel atop 777 stairs of a sheer tower of calcified magma that rises 2400 feet, the dramatic remains of a prehistoric eruption; topped by a golden temple. From afar it brings to mind a giant termite mound. The summit monastery was attended to solely by the Buddhist hermit monk U Khandi for a number of years, and is still watched over by a palace guard of sacred monkeys. It is also the ethereal abode of the 37 most powerful of Burmese Nats, the spirits of local Buddhism. In a religion dominated society it is a major point of pilgrimage and if any karma by association was available, Taung Kalat was the place to find it.

The single mud-lined street at its base was the village epicenter, whose stalls offered cheap plastic trinkets that clashed with the religious fervor of pilgrims on hands and knees. Many have crossed the country in this glacially slow fashion, arriving in torn rags but with flaming souls. Many will not stand fully upright until reaching the temple of Taung Kalat.

I removed my shoes and socks and bought an offering of burning sage for what I looked forward to as a day of spiritual renewal, hopefully with a pinch of enlightenment thrown in. I entered the line of faithful and had just taken the first step when the stench hit me, and looking at the towering staircase above, realized I was about to climb through 2000 feet of monkey poop.

It was everywhere, on the steps, the bannisters, the walls; impossible to go around. Apparently sacred monkeys don’t give a damn about hygiene and while it might sound strange to use both ubiquitous and poop in the same sentence, it is appropriate here. Fortunately, I could also see a vast fleet of tiny women all robed in what might be hazmat suits and all scrubbing like naval swabbies. Either way I had come in search of peace and knowledge and was not about to be defeated by mere feces. As I ascended the first few stairs, I was totally unprepared for one of the scrubbing women to thrust out her hand and demand money; after all, I had paid an entry fee with the implied caveat that it included a poop removal surcharge. But after each step another blue rubber glove shot out at me, all of which I declined until I felt and heard simultaneously the dull thud of a ball of monkey poop striking my posterior.

I wheeled around to confront whichever of the tiny rubber clad maidens had attacked me for failure to pay up and that is when I saw the first monkey. He was big and mean and had a Donald Trump scowl. He was also holding a fist-full of feces that he rolled around in his hands like a pitcher rubbing up a new ball. Just as he let fly in my direction I noticed eight or nine hundred of his compatriots had surrounded me. It did not help that the idiot climbing behind me had opened a large bag of hard candy and was dumping it on the ground so he could take photos of the swarming monkeys. You could hear his scream across the valley as they stripped his camera, watch, and ring; like sharks with blood in the water. I tucked my camera under my shirt, put my head down, and began climbing fast as I could go and thought I might be away from ground zero when the second ball of poop hit me.

Those monkeys were the most efficient crew of pirates I have ever encountered, and that includes the Gypsies of Rome. One had to marvel how they came at you in waves, one distracting you while the others swarm and relieve you of any possession that is not part of your anatomy and then trying to take some that are. They grabbed at my shirt buttons when I had nothing else to offer but I managed to keep my camera under my shirt. They use those same nimble fingers to hurl their feces with major league accuracy.

With aching knees and filthy feet I emerged from the endless stairs into a brilliant blue sky 2400 feet above where I started. My feet looked like they were encased in cement but the view in all directions defied words. I began to circle the summit walkway only to notice a distinct lack of monkeys, but that is when I saw the first monks.

They came out of the sun, silhouettes, like bandits in an aerial dogfight. Once again I could say ubiquitous as it sounds better here than it did with poop, because they were everywhere. That is not unusual in a Buddhist country, but these monks were not acting very monkly. There was no meditation or contemplation going on.

These were not your cloistered, chanting, alms begging monks; they were techno monks! Photo monks!

Everywhere I looked there were monks taking photos with I-phones, I-pads, and some even with actual cameras! They took pictures of each other that looked exactly the same! Those not taking photos were texting on their smart phones. Nor were they observing any vows of silence. In fact they were the noisiest people in the temple. It looked and sounded like a Silicon Valley toga party. For a country just emerging from four centuries behind the rest of the world, these guys were making up for lost time. I assumed they would not act this way at their own monastery and so they were visitors, monks on vacation as it were. Apparently I had discovered the spring break of monks.

No sooner had I stepped out onto a balcony than I was besieged by saffron robed, shaved-headed photophiles all toting selfie sticks. Now at that time, the ruling military junta of Burma had just begun to open the national doors to people like me and westerners were indeed an exotic rarity in remote places like Taung Kalat, but I quickly transcended rarity status to become an instant celebrity as dozens of monks and their families descended on me like a plague of wide angle locusts.

The monks, like the monkeys, came at me in waves, and so, for over an hour after I reached the summit I posed for and smiled at various electronic devices, arms around tiny people wearing orange sheets and wondering how they tell each other apart; still unable to savor the beauty of the temple insterior and certainly not achieving any peace or tranquility. There was also a touch of degradation as I was at least a foot taller than anyone who stood next to me that day making me feel like the extended middle finger of a fist.

Once inside, the interior of the temple was a curious blend of beautiful traditional statuary and painting, juxtaposed with gaudy Christmas tree lights and Las Vegas neon bling so often found in remote shrines. Haloes circled various Buddha heads, changing colors in clockwise direction, and flashing strings of lights illuminated every door frame and window. Elaborately clothed mannequins stand in for the ethereal Nats, their images emerging from piled offerings of food and money. To one unfamiliar with Southeast Asia, such scenes can project a carnival like atmosphere, but in fact, it is all done with purpose and deep reason. Sometimes the gaudiest is also the most fervent.

But even in this, the holiest of holies, there was no respite. Everyone wanted their photo with me and the nonstop flashes were blinding. I was feeling overwhelmed until the blonde walked in. She was tall and elegant as only a Scandinavian could be and her sudden presence stopped the monks in their barefoot tracks. There was an audible group sigh as she tossed her mane-like tresses in the wind and stood posed like a silhouette on a truckers’ mud flap. In the blink of an eye I was replaced by a Nordic goddess. She floated through the temple like a gazelle, smiling at one and all as dozens of tiny shaved heads swiveled at her passing. She was working the room as though it was a Vegas lounge and not a Buddhist temple. Suddenly, as if a silent whistle had been sounded, a massed throng of monks engulfed the young woman, solidly pinning her against a large smiling Buddha which made me wonder if he’d been smiling prior to that. Certainly by now, the sacred nats must have been smiling too.

A line was quickly formed and selfies were flying fast and furious. I took the lull in battle to stage my retreat. In my final look back I saw that perfect smiling face towering over a sea of shaved heads looking like a lawn statue surrounded by garden gnomes. It was unforgettable.

I was ready for the monkeys during my descent. I had picked up a discarded pair of rubber gloves on the way down; hygiene be damned, I then scooped up as much dung as I could hold and began to mold the perfect poop ball. I would not go quietly into the night. But while I was molding the poop in my hands it occurred to me that I had come to this place in search of peace and perhaps a little enlightenment and there I was preparing to do hand to hand combat with a monkey. I needed to rethink the moment.

Trump was there with his drooping leer when I arrived, projectile in hand, ready for launch. I looked him in the eye and that is something I have always been told never to do with a monkey. I dropped the dung ball and slowly raised my empty hands in surrender and he seemed to get it. He lowered his dung ball, not out of deference to me, but because he was suddenly distracted by an empty yogurt container blowing by in the wind. To him, even that was more interesting than I was at the moment, so suddenly no one wanted to take my photo and no monkey wanted to blast me with his poop. I had achieved insignificance and isn’t that the goal of a good Buddhist? Until that moment, I had always thought my great moment of enlightenment would be a bit more epic but you take what you can get.

I had gone to Taung Kalat in search of the spiritual and it was certainly there, just buried under several tons of dung. Most of the locals who live near the mountain spend their lives in service to Buddha as either a monk or nun and their culture was already ancient when mine was being born. Many of them have climbed the stairs for years, sometimes on hands and knees and all have offered prayers and entreaties to the 37 sacred Nats housed on the summit. My presence happened to be a rare and different distraction but it was never meant to disrupt.

While the monkeys seemed comical to me, to the local population, they are sacred. They are their own selves on a lower evolutionary plane and believe that climbing the stairs with them adds to the karma necessary to come back as a person in another life. When the monkeys act out it is the Nats using them to admonish the people for their various shortcomings. There are holy men within the temple who smear themselves with the dung both as a protection and a reminder that they are but equals with their simian cousins. Such is Buddhism.

Enlightenment does not come in a day or a month, or even a lifetime for most of us, and it is certainly not attainable simply by visiting places or people. I come to these places not expecting to find answers but because everyone there seems to have a slightly better handle on that aspect of life than I do and I’m hoping for just a little bit of that to come my way.

If it comes coated with monkey dung that is just fine with me.

James Michael Dorsey is an award-winning author, explorer, photographer, and lecturer who has traveled extensively in 47 countries. He has spent the past two decades visiting vanishing cultures. He is a former contributing editor at Transitions Abroad and frequent contributor to United Airlines and Perceptive Travel. He has also written for Colliers, Lonely Planet, The Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, BBC Wildlife, World & I, Wend, and Natural History. He is a foreign correspondent for Camerapix International, and a travel consultant to Brown & Hudson of London. His latest book, Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails, is available on all major bookseller websites. His stories have appeared in 13 travel anthologies. He is a 13-time Solas Award winner from Travelers’ Tales and a contributor to their Best Travel Writing, Volumes 10 and 11. He is a fellow of the Explorers’ Club and former director of the Adventurers’ Club.

Travel and Healing Gold Winner: Into Celtic Twilight

July 3rd, 2017

By Erin Byrne

The air is the region of the invisible.
—John O’Donohue, Anam Ċara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom

It is morning on the west coast of Ireland on a swath of pebbly beach with an emerald hillside and plateau off to the right. Cloudish sky, pewter water. Beyond the lapping of the waves comes a faint yet beckoning wail, like the highest note of a flute, heard by those who achieve a certain kind of quiet. A haunted sense of synchronicity surges through me: I’m home again.

Once before this has occurred, eight years ago when I traveled here and spiraled through a childhood in the green that had never happened. The conviction that this had once been my home was odd and defied categorizing. When I returned to the states, Irish poetry, philosophy and lore offered insight, especially the writings of William Butler Yeats, whose book The Celtic Twilight, was written as he traveled around the west of Ireland collecting accounts of the supernatural, of encounters with spirits. These Irish people, as Yeats described, favored by their own characters and by happy circumstance, and only then after much labour, have understanding of imaginative things.

I concluded I’d been in the thrall of the faeries. But this certainty has faded in the time that has passed since, and I’ve mused that it was all just fancy, wishful thinking, a yearning to connect with the land of my ancestors.

But here, now, this beach viewed from above seems to be a border between existences.

As a girl growing up in America, my stigma was a freckled face, “red” hair, and a ski-jump nose. Even now, in middle age, I stand out in crowds. Other differences I’ve kept hidden: my secret joy is writing poems; a clandestine poet, I am. Animals, wild ones—birds, horses, deer—are drawn to me; they approach and stare, and we communicate. When passing a graveyard in a small Idaho town, or the Stephansdom Crypt in Vienna, or Père Lachaise in Paris, I feel the dead as if their breath warms my skin. Various lives unspool and spin through me like fairy tales, and the joys, sorrows, hopes, and frights of the departed dissolve into my own mood.

Others do not feel these things; I am strange, set apart.

But here in Ireland, freckles sprinkle skin like flecks of gold, heads flame, and noses swoop up. History’s risings and revolutions were envisioned and enacted by poets, and the people speak in lyrical phrases: Ah, and weren’t your sons lovely when you last were here? The youngest had it in his head to fish the River Nore, and determined he was as well. I feel such affinity with speakers who arrange words thus.

Our first day here, across the bridge from Inistioge in the countryside of County Kilkenny, a cluster of cows romped to greet me as old friends, and after our visit their velvety heads turned to follow my steps. In the cemetery of a tiny village, lichen crept over stone, and the words of the late Irish poet John O’Donohue, May the lives they lived unfold further in spirit were realized as grandfathers and fine ladies and twin girls long deceased laughed and shouted from one world as their loved ones keened in this one. These worlds seemed to me not parallel but intersecting.

This was different from Idaho, Vienna, or Paris: I recognized my people. Yeats might have looked up from penning Celtic Twilight, peered over his spectacles and smiled: Some speak with the dead, and with some who have never died as we understand death; and even our educated people pass without great difficulty into the condition of quiet that is the condition of vision.

This was once my home, this is still my home, this will always be my home.

We drove south through County Cork and up through Kerry, eight of us, extended family. Behind me in the back seats maps were rustled, exits called out, whisperings and jokes exchanged. Out the window blurred long-memorized gates and lanes. Looking ahead I anticipated a tree around this corner, a farmhouse around that, but wished away this anomaly of the never-seen familiar.

One afternoon, we visited Caher Conor, to the west of Dingle town, where beehive huts, once as many as 400, covered the hillside here creating a village called Fahan. Their history is unknown, the dates slippery. The first inhabitants of Ireland arrived in 7500 B.C., and these stone domes could have been built as early as the Bronze Age or as recently as the 12th century when the Normans shoved the Irish to the edges of the land, but my imagination veered away from all timelines. Inside, under the corbelled arrangement of rocks, an echo resounded. The others milled about outside, seeing, doing, enjoying, and I was alone in my secret that I’d lived there, disturbed by the known air.

This trip comes at a time of personal searching, amid seismic shifts in my stability. I have permanent roots in Seattle, where I grew and raised a family; perennial roots in Paris, where I’ve often stayed for long periods to teach, write, and film; and am currently casting about in efforts to develop initial roots in Sausalito.

Over the past decade, I’ve worked hard to fine-tune the receptors that read one’s own heart, and feel pulled by some intuitive force to Sausalito, where I’ve gone regularly for a writing conference, for literary events, and to see friends. In almost every way it is a new start for me in that place of shores and seagulls and sailboats, of sea breezes and mists.

I felt ripped away to come on this trip to Ireland, which extended a trip to Europe four weeks beyond the time I’d planned to be gone, in addition to an already-full travel dossier. The tentative threads I’d put out had only started to search for soft places to burrow into the ground in California. I’d begun to be settled in my nest, embraced by friends, finding my place in the literary culture of the Bay Area—and interrupting this progress was frustrating. I feared that for me, home would always be everywhere and nowhere at once.

In Ireland in this untethered state, although I loved my companions, I yearned for solitude, my usual mode of travel. When alone, I sensed things under the surface of a place. This tension between the inner and the outer is always there but seldom felt. There is only one thing required of me then.

So I begged off the day of driving the Ring of Kerry, stuck close to our rented house near Ventry Bay, and stayed outside all day with ears open. Sheep crooned and cows bellowed, and the wind swooshed through trees carrying something else I strained to hear. Ghosts and hours passed as I glided in and out of clouds of reverie. The group returned, boisterous and exuberant, but I didn’t mention I’d been communicating with spirits.

My experience seems so different from what everyone else is enjoying. It is an inconvenience, vaguely embarrassing, so this next day I’ve joined in. It is near this beach that I feel most strongly the fusing of the inner and outer, as if an invisible reality invites me to venture to a place where the words “here” and “now” transfigure, and where dimensions commingle.

As my travel companions gaze at sights, and point and exclaim, all I want to do is lose myself in memory-dreams of cottages with hearth-fires and straw beds, and listen to the Irish speaking in their lilting cadences, to the sheep and the cows and the wind. I wonder, what is the use of this, these days of feeling like some kind of timeless Irish Goddess? Why did I come here again, to this place where such weird things happen? Perhaps the greatest risk of travel is not that we won’t like a place or have a good time, but that we will experience the unthinkable and not understand a single thing about it. Then the light seeps out, we cannot easily see, outlines morph, and shadows appear. We have been twirled into an unlit no-man’s-land of the mind and are lost.

By evening, my thoughts carry a lyrical accent, each word light, accentuated. I have been to many foreign places but never have I heard my own thoughts reflect another tongue. My brain is moving to a different rhythm now. I run my hands over the top of a stone wall of sharpish rocks stacked in familiar order; recall sunlight flashing on red blooms of wild fuchsias; taste rough, sweet soda bread and feel the grains traverse the same path through my body as they did when I was a toddler, an adolescent, a teen. I re-live my ages and stages, agreeing with more words by O’Donohue: Your soul has more refined antennae than your mind or ego.

An evening in Dingle: Warmed by dinner and drinks and stories and laughter, I feel ensconced again with my family, and wonder if each of them may have been living through their own inner happenings. As daylight shifts restlessly, we amble up a street lined with shop façades painted green and blue and white, colors that deepen in the dusk—galleries and shops and so many pubs: Foxy John’s Hardware Store Pub, Dick Mack’s, O’Sullivan’s Courthouse Pub.

We step into O’Flaherty’s and are hit by the promising scent of Guinness being poured, being swallowed, being spilled, being felt. People stand on a wooden floor, laughing, talking, but listening expectantly in the smoky air. I am pulled toward a corner and settle in, apart again, and straighten my back against the green painted wall, which is plastered with newspaper clippings. The paper is yellow but the news is fresh, telling of rebellions and risings and poetic sacrifices. This tumult is current: It is 2016 and 1916 and I am in two places at once, in this corner and moving toward the center of the room as three men, Fergus Ó’Flaithheartaigh, Bríd Uí Bhriain, and Tom Lynch, position themselves on chairs surrounded by instruments: fiddle, flute, accordion, banjo, and guitar.

The music begins. The fiddle circles and rises, activates this very inner spot where body links to spirit, the place from which we as human beings perceive. It is where this music I danced to as a child fizzes, and I’m back to mornings in fields with long grasses swishing my legs, and afternoons on pebbles with gray wavelets foaming under my toes, and evenings of feet whirring upon wooden floors with sawdust bouncing, and myself twirling, clapping, nodding. Against the green wall, the back of my neck thrums. To understand this sensation that is beautiful but terrible in its alienation, I must let my spirit leave O’Flaherty’s and participate in this intersecting scene. It is required of me.

Night, I dance in a clearing on the plateau as moonlight glows on the green and the music plays me into a frothy faery frenzy. Cottages above, beach below, pipes in the wind. I lift my skirt, tap my toes, and spin upon impossible waves. As my heels stomp the ground, I feel the roots of centuries, of millennia, and am entangled deep in solid and eternal groundedness. I have crossed over and my two existences have merged.

This was once my home, this is still my home, this will always be my home. Here is the fusion of the inner, the outer.

Back in Sausalito I attempt to grasp what happened in Ireland. I know other travelers who have experienced similar fates: a young man who discovered fly-fishing on a trip to the Gallatin River in Montana as a boy now has access to a rhythm, patience and purpose in nature that extends to his job as a forester; a woman who, when in Israel, felt she became her great-great-grandmother, standing on the edge of the Jordan River watching her lover drown, developed a connection to her family at a time when she felt cut off from them; a man whose footsteps on a path in a rock garden in Kyoto, where the final stone must be found in the mind, led him to a merging of an exterior and interior sense of peace.

Here in Sausalito, this place I have been gradually drawn to, I recall the floundering feeling of new shoots trying but not yet connecting, but sometimes, like a surprise chess move that originates from a corner of the board, we find what we most need in a faraway place. I remember my roots so richly buried in Irish soil, like those of an old tree anchored in dark earth. I know what it feels like, this change I want.

I stand on the edge of my deck. It is the hour when the last rays of sun spotlight the undersides of clouds and the air carries the clarity of day and the uncertainty of night in equal parts, when leaves and branches transfigure from being bearers of green phosphorescence to black silhouettes, when darkness descends in time-lapsed moments and the next second suspends as the universe holds its breath.

An airplane coasts across the sky, a winged figure that becomes a soaring firefly in the pink tinged air, a vehicle filled with human beings who may be gliding toward lands where they’ll celebrate their own uncanny homecomings. As day goes from dusk to dark, this airplane does the same thing that travel requires of all of us. It moves: transverses borders, coasts over boundaries, lands in new worlds, and enters unimagined dimensions.

So I will try this without understanding it, this travel-induced spell of the faeries. I will imagine it. I don’t know if it will work to conjure roots here and now, but I’ve learned the metaphoric meaning of those words.

See the blue, the bay, the boats. Try to attain Yeats’s condition of quiet, and listen hard. Beyond the sea breeze, like the highest note of a flute. Feel it, dance.

This was once my home, this is still my home, this will always be my home. Here is the fusion of the inner, the outer. We travel to come home.

Erin Byrne is author of Wings: Gifts of Art, Life, and Travel in France, winner of the Paris Book Festival Award, editor of Vignettes & Postcards From Paris and Vignettes & Postcards From Morocco, writer of The Storykeeper film, and occasional guest instructor at Shakespeare and Company, Paris and on Deep Travel trips.

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.

Travelers' Tales