The Colorado: First River of the Anthropocene

Colorado River

Reading the same old conventional wisdoms over and over makes me impatient, to the point where I start to say things that I know will piss everyone off, even most of my friends, just as a way to say, c’mon, think about it for a minute, dammit! It’s always a mistake — but what the hell: here goes.

Jonathan Waterman’s recent book, “Running Dry: A Journey from Source to Sea Down the Colorado River,” hit the tipping point for me. Not because it’s any worse than any of the rest of the books about the Colorado River; it’s not. But it’s just the same old sad story, a mingling of lamentation, nostalgia and repugnance for a river presumed to be ruined if we don’t stop … whatever. And maybe it is ruined, for a geological moment here; it is certainly a river with problems. I would definitely say it is a river beyond “restoration” at this point — restoration as “the river that was” anyway. But does that mean it is “ruined?” A half-built house has problems that are very different from the problems of a house that is falling down — but you don’t solve those problems by trying to turn the boards back into trees. And if for no reason other than the eventual boredom of hearing a sad story over and over, I’m not going to just agree that the Colorado River has been ruined by its problems until I’ve heard at least one more perspective on the river. I want some judgments on the river from an Anthropocene perspective.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I am not above reproach in this business of literary lamentations about the Colorado River. Back in 1977, I wrote an essay for Harper’s Magazine about the Lower Colorado River, arguing finally that “this cannot go on this way,” an essay that became a PBS-type film in 1981. Also in 1981, environmental journalist Philip Fradkin brought out “A River No More,” lamenting what we have done to the Colorado. Not long after that, Marc Reisner wrote the environmentalist epic “Cadillac Desert,” lamenting what we’ve done to the entire American West with emphasis on the Colorado River; a few years after that, Colorado journalist Jim Carrier wrote “The Colorado: A River at Risk”; and just a few years ago we got “Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming, and the Future of Water in the West.” And now we’ve got the latest in this literary cottage industry, Jonathan Waterman’s “Running Dry”the book that hit the tipping point for me, and precipitated this effort to see if there isn’t some way out of this “dead pool” of nostalgia and lamentation.

Some factoids: Over the 35 years since my Harper’s essay, these regular predictions of near-death notwithstanding, the Colorado River now provides some or all of the drinking water for around 10 million more people than it did in 1977 — around 35 million of us today. If you’re eating fresh vegetables in mid-winter, you probably have to thank the lower Colorado River to some degree. The southwestern cities that depend on the river, and that most of us depend on directly or indirectly for jobs, complex networks of finance and transportation and communication, a vast menu of entertainment, et cetera, et cetera, have mostly at least doubled in size in that time.

Meanwhile, from the Mountain Gazette perspective, the Colorado still has almost as many stretches of good whitewater rafting as it did in 1977 (although it had lost a lot in the decades before), a lot of good-to-great fishing (with some improved fisheries), a lot of beautiful scenery with new “wild and scenic” stretches being protected, not to mention flatwater reservoirs for those who like that kind of thing — and the industrial management processes that operate this great American playground are pretty discrete, so that it is possible, for example, to spend a couple weeks floating down the Grand Canyon, only seeing a few other parties besides your own, and feeling like you truly are in a great natural wilderness and you don’t have to think about the high level of crowd management and planning that goes into nurturing that feeling.

I hasten to add that I am not deluded that everything is fine on the Colorado River — far from it. There are major problems that we need to address on the river, from the headwaters all the way down through that vast delta that now begins at Parker Dam and spreads the river from Phoenix and Tucson on the east all the way around through a lot of desert farming to Los Angeles and San Diego on the west. The creeping consequences of diverting too much water from the headwaters for out-of-basin metropolises, the cattle-caused breakdown and depletion of mountain streams, the salt-loading from some irrigation runback on top of the natural salinity of the river, evaporative losses that further degrade water quality, siltation behind reservoirs and a lack of silt in the Grand Canyon, loss of both riparian and aquatic habitat for wildlife, loss of most of the old delta — there is no shortage of problems facing us up and down the river. But, with the exception of the recently “discovered” global climate change looming over everything, these situations were already problems 35 years ago, and some of them — irrigation-induced salinity, loss of habitat, degradation of streambeds caused my human and livestock activity — have actually been addressed with some success over those 35 years.

I would certainly agree that our enhanced level of “environmental awareness” has been important in motivating those improvements and “corrections” to our often naïve and clumsy works on the planet. But I raise the question: Are we doing what we do, to undo what we’ve done, for reasons that really make sense in the way the planet works? The fact that we are still writing and reading the same old “river-no-more” book about this situation makes me think, no, we aren’t. There’s a problem of context and focus. It may not be a problem of not thinking right about this river; the problem might be a way in which we are not thinking right about ourselves.

Let me try to explain. A couple three weeks ago, I had a discussion with another writer about what geological epoch we are living in. He said “the Holocene.” I said “the Anthropocene.” We didn’t get much beyond that, and probably won’t for another, say, 300 years; it turns out to be a religious question, about beliefs that lie below reason for both of us. But it is not a minor distinction; those two words encapsulate two diametrically opposed concepts of the relationship between the earth and ourselves that we ought to at least be aware of.

Most plainly, “Holocene” refers to a climatological epoch in which we humans have been impacted by things happening on earth (climatic moderation, disappearance of planet-cooling ice sheets, et cetera), while Anthropocene refers to a biological and climatological epoch in which the earth has been impacted by things happening among humans (advanced technologies, release of banked carbon, et cetera).

The Holocence Epoch began somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 years ago, depending on whose criteria you like, when the last glacial epoch of the Pleistocene eased up and the Big Ice retreated again in its mysterious way. The climate moderated, things warmed up, and plant and animal species tough enough to survive the cold deserts in the shadow of the Big Ice more or less exploded into that dangerous kind of success that nature usually rewards with a nasty comeuppance, as ecological limits get pushed to the breaking point. The megafauna explosion that ended in population crashes thousands of years ago was probably one example of those Holocene “success tragedies”; the passenger pigeon was an example from historical times; extreme cycles in populations of small mammals like the lemmings or gophers are apparently always going on somewhere.

There is, however, one successful species that has swarmed on the earth in the most recent 10,000 years of the epoch my friend wants to call the Holocene — but this species has not yet crashed on the ecological reefs, and that is because for the past 10,000 years or so it has shown remarkable creativity in adapting to its own ecological consequences with new, ever more concentrated and sophisticated systems for social and economic organization. That’s us, of course. And despite constant and accelerating warnings from those who study such phenomena, we seem thoroughly disinclined to do anything aggressive to control our own swarming. We instead continue to manipulate the environments we live in to squeeze out yet a little more for us, knowing that we do it at the expense of other forms of life, and through irreversible changes in those environments — but what choice do we have? No free people could tolerate — right? — the levels of external and internal discipline and social structure it would take to bring us back into some level of balance with what we think of as nature, which was the world before us. Today, the planet throws its worst shots at us — diseases, drought and famine, flood and famine, tsunamis, hurricanes, supertornados — but our scientists conquer the diseases before they can really take hold; our managers and NGOs move enough food around to keep some of the famines in hand; and growth spurts somewhere in the world soon make up for the loss of a few hundred thousand, or million, somewhere else. We continue to swarm, and to invent new social and economic systems to enable us to live in even larger concentrations, and to squeeze just a little more out of the ecological support systems. We know about peak oil and climate change, but seem increasingly incapable of real action on any of it; instead we continue to indulge our own inner denier like we indulge the public ones, hopping in the car to go to the store or the nearest trailhead, confident that, if the scientists and engineers and managers can’t come up with another silver bullet, then it’s too late anyway and we might as well enjoy the last days.

Depending on how you choose to look at it, our continued ability to change the planet to serve us rather than changing ourselves is either a tragedy (meaning we’re learning something the hard way), a travesty (meaning a meaningless comedy of errors that isn’t even funny) or a miraculous achievement. And why not at least explore the last alternative, since it suggests a sense of optimism, however illusory it might turn out to be?

Which brings me back to the Colorado River, and why I think we need to start looking at it from an Anthropocene perspective. What choice do we have? The cities of the desert keep growing, and are not going to stop growing because they cannot: the global population continues to grow because we cannot or will not stop it, and the people will go where they can. And wherever people go, there needs to be water there for them, and it is one of the cornerstones of the American Way to say with the engineers: “Can do!”

So we are going to keep on remaking the Colorado River in the image of man’s growing needs: the First Anthropocene River.

So what is the Colorado River going to look like when its reconstruction is done? This is where the deconstruction and reconstruction of the Colorado River is kind of out in front of the pack in the anthropocentric reconstruction of the earth portion of the planet. (The oceans are another world.) We have decided that we need the Colorado River to continue to look as much like it used to look as possible. “Need” is deliberately chosen there; we need this the way we need food to eat, water to drink. It can go to places where it is reduced to rational piping and plumbing, but there have to still be significant segments of it that “look natural.” Phoenix can do what it will, but the Grand Canyon must remain the Grand Canyon.

Sometimes this is pretty easy. The Gunnison River (my home basin) has a tributary, the Taylor River, that has a beautiful stretch of canyons — 20-plus miles. And at the head of that canyon stretch is a dam that used to be late-summer storage for a big irrigation district a hundred miles downstream. But some new dams on the mainstem of the Gunnison gave the irrigators a closer, better place to store their late water. So all of a sudden, they did not really need the dam up the Taylor River. One can hear the chorus that would erupt today: “Tear it down! Free the river!”

Instead (this being back when it was not yet a sin to be Anthropocene), a “local user group,” made up of Taylor River irrigators, the local anglers club, a couple rafting companies, the reservoir concessionaires and some wealthy second-home owners, went to the Bureau of Reclamation and proposed that the storage at the top of the canyon be used to run the river like a “natural stream,” only with periodic adjustments for special needs (late-summer irrigation, a river-runner event, et cetera) and also with the kind of year-to-year regularity that storage affords when the highly irregular Western water cycle does its extreme events. So now, every spring, the local user group sits down and figures out how the water will be released from the dam to operate the river. No one is entirely indulged, but everyone gets most of what they want, and it is a lovely little river — entirely a human economic and aesthetic construct at this point, but as beautiful and natural-looking (in a dependable sort of way) as it ever was.

So, sometimes it’s easy — especially when the cities of the plain across the mountains have not yet come looking for water to move out of the river and into their plumbing. What about a mountain river that’s not so lucky? Like the mainstem of the Colorado River in Colorado. Its major headwaters watersheds — the Fraser, Williams Fork, Blue and Eagle rivers — are so water-rich that they made a significant, and very convenient, eastward bulge in the Continental Divide. Today, two-thirds of the waters that originate in this bulge now go through the Divide in tunnels to the cities and farms (mostly the cities) of the East Slope rather than down the Colorado to the southwestern deserts.

Geologists say that this eastward bulge in the watersheds was the consequence of a huge glacial lake that broke through the Gore Range during some previous warm spell between Pleistocene glaciations. Had that not happened, the Gore Range might have been part of the Continental Divide, and those headwaters streams might have all been part of the Platte-Missouri Basin already when we Anthropocenes arrived a century and a half ago. It would have saved a lot of work — but that misses the point of the Anthropocene: imagining the work and carrying it out is what we’ve been all about.

The work today, a task finally being taken semi-seriously by the cities east of the Divide that have dewatered the streams, is to rebuild the rivers from which they have taken two-thirds of the water: to reconstruct them so they still look and even function like natural rivers — important to the human economy — and can adequately meet downstream obligations. (Those downstream obligations, I should note, are strictly the obligations to humans created during the Anthropocene; for the next half-millennium or so, it no longer includes the much longer-standing obligation the river apparently had to convey the entire Southern Rockies and the disruptive Colorado Plateau south to the Gulf of California as rubble and silt. An impressive but ultimately kind of meaningless task, maybe even more meaningless than creating huge transient cities in the desert.)

Much has been made of a recent agreement between Denver Water and something like 60 regional, county, municipal, agricultural and industrial water-oriented organizations west of the Divide in the Upper Colorado River tributaries, but no one seems to be announcing the Anthropocene triumph: when the cities of Eastern Colorado complete the job they are just beginning (and it will require many more cooperative agreements), the Colorado River mainstem will be, from top to bottom, a completely man-made river, the “first Anthropocene River” — and a lot of it, most of it in the Southern Rockies, will look really natural and beautiful.

The agreement involves fairly small numbers, for something that took five years to negotiate. For a surprisingly modest amount of water — around 18,000 acre-feet a year, less than a tenth the amount that now goes annually to the cities across the Divide — Denver Water will be investing millions of dollars in the Upper Colorado River. Much of the money this go-round goes to sewer plants that increasingly lack any dilutive capability in their systems due to reduced flows. But the rest — the ultimate Anthropocene act — will go to reconstructing some sections of the river where the amount of water taken to the Front Range has left the flows too shallow and sun-warmed to support the aquatic systems that fish, kayakers and those who cater to fishermen and kayakers depend on. They are going to construct a scaled-down version of the former river.

A friend in the Eagle River valley, who is less impressed with this cooperative agreement than many others, explains it thus: “They are putting backhoes and bulldozers into the water, to convert a former river into a creek.” There’s a more Anthropocene way of saying that: It will be a stream that will fit the amount of water still available.

It’s not cheap, maybe a million bucks a mile, more or less — it’s still a fairly new operation. But it is a definite step up in a more sophisticated understanding of the nature of rivers — say, from the engineers’ sense in the 1950s and before that a river was just a sort of sewer system for excess water on the land, and straightening channels made it function more efficiently. It is also a definite step up for Denver Water, which for most of the 20th century vigorously, even violently, resisted the idea that taking water from the headwaters of a river conferred any moral obligation. There’s a man named Chips Barry to thank for that change, although he was by no stretch a man who thought that rivers should run free just because they used to. He was a man of the Anthropocene all the way, but came to understand that the new world had to be remade somewhat in the image of the old one.

One could go on in this vein, but the point would be the same: wherever you go on the Colorado River, you are looking at a river that has been remade to render multiple services to a swarming species that likes to eat, drink and make merry. The question is whether the humans who benefit from all this are going to be able to adapt to the reality of their lives and acknowledge the miracle associated with the dual facts that there is still water in the Grand Canyon as well as in the faucets of Denver and LA, or whether we are going to continue to indulge the “nostalgia centers” in the cortex that can only see the half-empty river, but not the opportunity to half-size the river to appear full. That of course will probably precipitate other unanticipated problems to work on — but that is the road we are on; it’s what we do to avoid having to get some control over ourselves and our numbers.

The last step in the remaking of the Colorado River will probably be to bring certainty to the most common lamentation: “the Colorado River no longer reaches the sea.” Get used to that one — and not just for this river. Once we have thoroughly “firmed up” our control and utilization of the world’s freshwater resources — only a very small percent of the total water on the planet — no river will be drowning itself in that salty cesspool. It is wonderful that life has learned to live abundantly in saltwater, but that is another world on the same planet; it neither needs the leftover piss-in-the-ocean semi-fresh water from rivers, nor misses the evaporation that enables the recharge of those rivers in our mountains.

Watch a river at work — tearing stuff off the hillsides it can’t keep from running off of, then piling that debris in front of itself in leveler places, forcing itself into meanders, staying with the land as long as it can even as it continues to move the land around — there’s no evidence that a mature river is in any hurry to get to the ocean. And the rich delta zone it pushes as far as it can out into the sea before it succumbs to the sea — a river’s last hurrah. Why shouldn’t that final life zone instead be a lot of rich farmland and a megacity or two to contain the masses? There are problems to solve there too, of course — usually that “freshwater” isn’t that fresh by the time it gets to its final lowlands. The job of reconstructing the river in the image of ourselves and our needs and desires is not done; there’s plenty of work for another generation or two. As Ed Marston, former High Country News publisher, said to me once, “No generation should be expected to solve all the problems for the next generation.”

But there’s also the possibility that that “nostalgia center” in our cerebral hard wiring may be powerful enough so we find we just cannot tolerate the idea of the Anthropocene, and most of us (especially if we read all the sanctioned books of lamentations) will be like the ancient dispersed Jews: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” We’ll continue to paddle down the work-in-progress in our miracle-fabric boats with the lightweight carbon-fiber paddles and our freeze-dried foods and Nalgene bottles, deploring what we see as we write the next lamentatious epic in crocodile tears. And so we will abandon the half-done project — maybe the barely begun project, the first time life itself has ever presumed to take an active role in the evolution of life — and the world will become even more intolerable until three-fourths of us die fairly quickly from something, and the remainder goes back to the simple life, which will not be so simple …

We should probably also do whatever we do or don’t do in the secure knowledge that eventually, regardless of our efforts, the Colorado River will be back at its own primal obligation of removing the Southern Rockies and the Colorado Plateau, grain by grain, flood by flood, down to the sea-level peneplain that water dreams of. We know that the dams, as we currently know how to do dams, are only good for maybe half a millennia, maybe a little longer; that’s one of the problems we pass on to the next generation. But the real challenge might be making Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver last even that long. Unlike the climatological ages preceding this one — the Pleistocene with its flow and ebb of glaciations, the lovely moderate Holocene, the hot steamy eras like the Carboniferous to which we may be returning as we begin recycling all that banked carbon — the Anthropocene, at this point, depends on whether nostalgia or imagination will capture our minds from here on out.

“We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” 

— Stewart Brand

Senior correspondent George Sibley is the author of “Part of a Winter” and “Dragons in Paradise.” His next book, “Water Wranglers: The Story of the Colorado River Water Conservation District,” is scheduled to be published later this year. Sibley, a retired professor of journalism at Western State College, lives in Gunnison, Colo. 

Way of the Mountain #188

Rivers are the lifeblood of the planet, and the sculptors of mountains. Where I live, on the cusp between the jagged peaks of the Southern Rockies and the mesa tops of the Colorado Plateau, winter is finally relinquishing its hold and mud season still in force. Soon we will have our brief warmth, after bouts of storms and possibly even late snows.

Sometimes it seems like we live in a world of two seasons in Colorado — winter and summer, and what’s between them is a no-person’s-land where anything can happen — hot sun, cold snow, driving rain. Here’s a selection of short poems for this season between seasons.

— Art Goodtimes
Maverick Draw

Mazurka

Early morning snow flurry melts
within an hour.

During which, Dream Queen,
what did you achieve?

I listened to a crow’s mazurka
on a pebble roof.

— Anne Valley-Fox
Santa Fe

Common Sense #14

People who hold themselves
with the grace of a cat
do not fear the jump
from one platform
to the other

— David Patton
St. Louis

Jail Bait

Legs forming a perfect four,
bare shoulder leaning
into the side of the shore’s
ramshackle tackle shop.

Hook, line…

Johnny rsvp’d twice
before lock up.

— Kierstin Bridger
Ridgway

Envy 2

I envy the dirty and alive,
the sleeping tired
Who rise to no care
but to get out there
And ride snow water dirt
Lungs pounding and tight,
cursing and vivid.

— Bryan Shuman
Laramie

Anabasis

In spite of my
skinned knees

I pull myself up
square my shoulders

and keep on
going.

— Nancy Davenport
Menlo Park

On The Road

The gray swirls of its coat
still startling in the daylight,
the wildcat’s
guts spill across the Sumatran highway
and confirm its determination
in this jungle
to survive.

— James Penha
New Verse News
Jakarta

The Raindrops

Play the aspen leaves
Like piano keys.
They do not recite; they write.
And they recall nothing.
Bathe me
In symphony.
I am shattered; I am mended.
And this is my religion.

— Erin Duggin
Leadville

 

 

Forgetting in a landscape of memory

The Cabin

The Cabin

Upon our arrival in the canyon, with an evening chill following our footsteps down the steep grade, he confided that he might be suffering from Alzheimer’s. His eyes brimmed over, even as he laughed at the realization’s awkward profundity. I tried to comfort him, to hug him — as his trip leader and as a stranger. He pushed me away. He wanted to be alone with his mind and his fate. I had simply caught him at a weak moment.

We were in a remote reach of the canyon, miles from a road, a trailhead, a cell signal, a familiar voice or touch. Divorced from comfort and home. We were living on the canyon’s terms, with its flood-rushing river. And he, in turn, would also live by the terms of a mind — a self — rushing headlong into the unknown.

But he refused to leave.

Before embarrassment usurped candor, he told me how his wife had noted some strange behavior, but he hadn’t believed her. That his mother had suffered from Alzheimer’s, a dark misery for a once-sharp woman. That he never thought it would come on so fast. He pointed at his water bottles on the ground. He was sure he had filled them before the hike, and now they were empty. Had he actually forgotten to fill them? It didn’t occur to him that he had consumed the water on the walk in.

The plastic bottles, the mundane source of his realization, caused him to cry anew. And then the door into his heart abruptly closed. The remainder of the week found me wondering at the interior life of an inscrutable man. Which were the quirks that comprised his being in this world? And which were signs of its slow withdrawal? What could be chalked up to the man, and what was derived from his sudden absence? Unable to know, I simply observed: the strength of his work ethic, his disregard for group conventions, his occasional and brilliant wit, his confusion at meal times.

I once witnessed him standing alone, empty-handed, swaying, staring at the ground. There is no sight lonelier than that of a man again witnessing his own departure — and bearing its hollow emptiness.

Though the mind can be our worst enemy, it is at times our only comfort. Oblivion with a heartbeat seems a cruel existence. And perhaps crueler is the life of the loved one who bears a husband’s passing but continues to see his face, feel his touch, smell his scent, hear his voice — grief renewed and impermanence reaffirmed every day.

In contrast, our week together found us working in a landscape of memory, a place that has not yet forgotten. A long-ago cowboy chipped out our route of descent from the canyon wall. The man chiseled his name into the sandstone and constructed a small cabin overlooking the river. The building still stands, now holding only rusted bedsprings, mouse droppings and memories of ghosts.

Up-canyon from the cowboy cabin is a millennia-old wall of pictures, including bighorn sheep, turkey tracks, human figures and concentric circles. A wavy line — a seeming horizon — extends 50 yards across the rock face. Above it appears a celestial body with a tail, perhaps denoting the passage of Halley’s comet long ago.

The long-departed still tell a story in this place. The desert holds remembrances and present reality with equal grace.

However, cabins crumble and carvings fade, as do our bodies and minds. Succession, loss and the slow entropy of forgetting, while painfully poignant, make room for the next surge of stories and songs. And if we are fortunate, a heart or two will hold the spark of our memory long after the embers of our life are reduced to smoke. Remembrance becomes the greatest gift from — and for — the departing and the departed. Whether writ on a canyon wall, heralded by an empty water bottle, or carried silently in the depths of one’s soul.

Jen Jackson lives in Moab, Utah, where she writes to as an act of memory and presence in the midst of this all-too-fleeting existence.

Rivers of Cameroon

Editor’s note: My wife, Gay, and I just returned from a trip to Cameroon, during which we visited three different rivers. Herein, we share some of the photographs, along with appropriate annotation, from those tropical watercourses.

— MJF

The Chari

1] We visited Kalamaloué National Park, in the far north of Cameroon, specifically in hopes of viewing elephants. We first spotted these two juvenile males on the other side of the Chari, which is in Chad. The elephants made their way across the Chari right to where we were standing with our guide, our driver and a park ranger. Once the ranger realized the elephants were coming in our direction, he ordered us to beeline post haste to the vehicle, which, with the elephants a few meters away, upped the adventure quotient by refusing to start.

2] People crossed the river between Cameroon and Chad all day long with absolute impunity.

3] The Chadian capital of N’Djamena as seen from the Cameroonian side. The main visible edifice in the presidential palace.

The Lobé

1] Barely visible, off toward center/left, is a small monkey that was coaxed out of hiding in the impenetrable foliage by our guide, who apparently spoke fluent simian-ese. The chances of Gay and I seeing that monkey on our own were nil.

2] My kingdom for a basketball court. We visited a pygmy village on the side of the Lobé, where we met with this dude, the local chief, whose spear, lore had it, had once dispatched a full-grown elephant. The chief reluctantly let me hold his spear, but once I started taking aim at a nearby tree, he asked for it back.

3] The word “pygmy” is, by all accounts, a pejorative. I was unsuccessful in my attempts to learn a different name by which these vertically challenged people could be less insultingly addressed, but failed. “We just call them ‘pygmies’,” said our guide.

4] Lobé Falls, about 20 meters high, is supposedly one of the few cascades in the world that empties directly into the ocean. When we arrived, we witnessed a local lad come within a whisker of drowning. We did not see how he arrived at the lamentable circumstance of being swept out to sea right before our very eyes, but it was only via the gallant efforts of several locals that the boy was saved by the skin of his teeth.

5] For a man who is repulsed by the idea of eating food with his hands, this was a tough feed — locally caught shrimp (heads still attached) and the ever-present French fries and fried plantains served up in a small restaurant near Lobé Falls.

6] Gay and the guide effortlessly paddling a hand-made wooden boat that can hold 10 people in a squeeze and, judging from the effort it took to haul it onto shore, probably weighed several hundred pounds.

7] It took some coaxing, but the guide eventually gave in and let me try my hand at paddling the boat. Though I have considerable experience paddling canoes on flatwater, my attempts to keep this vessel pointed in a straight line were not wholly successful. The guide was still laughing about my poor paddling several hours later over beers.

8] Canoe carved out of a single tree trunk.

The Ebogo

1] A short hike through the jungle from the Ebogo was this massive, 1,175-year-old tree. We never did get a grip on the name of the species, as the guide did not know the English name. We were constantly frustrated by our inability to understand French.

2] At 800 kilometers in length, the Ebogo is Cameroon’s second-longest river. At the time of our visit, it was less than a meter in depth. The rains were late. The flood-stage line, which was clearly visible in the proximate jungle, was about six meters high.

3] Modern African architecture (how to say this tactfully?) leaves a lot to be desired. These were the nicest new buildings we saw during our visit. They are tourist cabins that had never been opened because of some sort of bureaucratic snafu.

Ode to the World’s Best Traveled Man

Bruce Hayward

Editor’s note: Dr. Bruce Hayward (1928-2011) was a long-time professor of biology at Western New Mexico University (my alma mater) in Silver City (my current home town). He was known in professional circles as one of the world’s foremost chiropterologists. As such, he was often referred to as “Batman.”

Dr. Hayward was not only renowned, but very, very cool. He was a professor who got invited to student parties. More importantly, he was an educator who inspired those he taught, to the degree that many of his students opted to major in the sciences solely because of Bruce’s influence.

At his outdoor memorial service last fall, on prominent display was the last in a long line of Bruce’s passports. As I as thumbing through it with a combination of awe and jealousy, Mark Erickson, a close friend of Bruce’s, said words to the effect of, “If you think the passport is impressive, you should see his journals.” Ends up that, as Mark indicated, Bruce had spent a lifetime not only visiting an estimated 150 countries (!!!) in all, but recording his journeys. By the time he passed away, those meticulously crafted journals filled seven giant file-cabinet-sized boxes! And that was just the first batch. Few professional writers produce that quantity of verbiage.

Those journals would take first form by way of notes handwritten by Bruce while he was in the field. Upon returning home, he would transcribe his notes into typewritten form. Then he would bind the typewritten pages and add photos and memorabilia. The notes covered everything from scientific observations to observations about a given country’s culture.

On the way home from Bruce’s memorial service, my creative juices started percolating. I borrowed a copy of Bruce’s last passport, which was set to expire this year, and my wife scanned in several of the more captivating pages.

Then my friend Cat Stailey, a biology student at WNMU, spent many hours reading journals from trips that corresponded to the various stamps in Bruce’s final passport. Though it is an understatement to say the following package represents only the tip of the iceberg, we feel it satisfactorily represents the travels and the mindset of the world’s best-traveled man, a term I believe needs a bit of elucidation. Sure, there are people who have visited more countries than Bruce did, at least partially because there are lots of folks who collect passport stamps the same way peak-baggers collect mountain summits.

But, Bruce’s journals show that traveling for him was more than just an effort visit as many countries as possible. Travel for Dr. Bruce Hayward was about making deep connections with people and places. He was not just well traveled, he was WELL traveled.

A big thanks to Cat Stailey, for taking the time to put all this together.

— MJF 

Pitcairn Island, October 2006

“As usual, I look out my window upon getting up. I see a big olive-green chunk of rock 1100’ high, 1.75 square miles in size looming out of the choppy sea… This is an impressive, formidable island; landing will not be easy. Today will be an interesting set of events. I’m looking forward to going ashore on Pitcairn, it should be exciting.”

“Pitcairn, population 51 people, has a police presence (from New Zealand). This surprises me. There’s a stern police sergeant, a more mellow constable. He’s bummed out at the moment — no beer (and none till 5 Dec).”

Armenia, May 2005

“This area is the heart of the integration of Neanderthals (who never got to Africa) and Cro-Magnons who came north from Africa. The hypotheses of why Cro-Magnons replaced Neanderthals are many and fascinating.”

“So few people realize that the works of Nature far surpass the works of Man. The ugly monastery is supposed to be pretty; I don’t think so. The stream in the canyon, the birds in the rushes — that is the scenery worth seeing.”

Trinidad, March 2006

Caroni Swamp: “Clouds threaten behind us. Mangrove branches arch overhead forming a tunnel. Aerial roots dangle overhead like Christmas tinsel. Out of the swamp, we enter an open lake. Now I see the herons and scarlet ibises flying over in flocks of 2’s and 6’s. I glance left. Wow! An island of red and white spots. This is the famous roosting area, an island of mangroves.”

Asa Wright Refuge: “Honey-creepers come within a foot of me — boy! Such intense colors! Shiny cowbirds are the antithesis of the other birds, solid black with a hint of iridescence. A golden-winged woodpecker spends all day digging a new hole on the underside of a dead branch in the distance.”

“Once we leave the refuge, large homes blot the landscape, clearing the forest and planting ornamental shrubs. Having seen the Rainforest at Asa Wright, I feel sad to see what civilization has done to this place.”

Georgia, June 2005

“The homonid fossils found here are older than any site in Africa. These people made stone tools for 2 million years!”

“A plaster statue of Stalin stands majestically against a far wall, almost lost in the dim light. It hasn’t been maintained. Yet it seems to shed ‘a light’ or presence of its own, being separated from all this trash around it. It must have been elegant once.”

Pakistan, August 2006

“I’m standing on a pass 15,520’ in elevation, higher than any mountain in the Continental U.S. by a thousand feet. The Himalayas are immense in every respect.”

“The road to Eagle Nest is probably the worst road I’ve ever been on. I think of all my friends and relatives who would freak out on this road. It’s not for flatlanders!”

“The valleys and white Himalayan Peaks surround me; it’s like being in a theater with wide screen projection. I feel almost like that. The river is a tiny line below us. Farther along, the curves, potholes, rough surface never seem to end. On and on!”

“In Gilgit the number of armed guys wandering around with assault rifles is a bit puzzling. I am told that these guys keep the Shiites and Sunnis from molesting each other. Aha! We’ve gotten to the edge of the nasty region of Pakistan!”

“I wake 18 August 2006 at 0645 in Gilgit, Pakistan, a very far corner of the world. I often ponder this wonder — where I am, why I am here. Isn’t this a privilege? It beats being in Silver City this morning. There’s time for veranda sitting.”

Ethiopia, Jan./Feb. 2005

“Lalibela, Ethiopia has the longest archaeological record in the world. Some say it is the cradle of humanity. The australopithecine fossil, Lucy (50 bone fragments and teeth), which I saw in Addis yesterday, comes from here. It dates to 4.5 million years ago. ‘She’ was half man, half ape, 3.5 feet tall, weighing only 7lbs., possibly the earliest man-like character.”

“St. Mary’s Church, in Axum, is supposed to contain the Ark of the Covenant. No one, let alone us, gets to see it. A guard watches the entrance 24/7/365. Does he get to see it? I doubt it. I wonder if it’s really there. Possibly this is a game. At any rate, I’m not impressed, except by the lovely Spring flowers that grow around us (bougainvillea, jacaranda, and some orange ones).”

“A pair of kids have found a neat way to get tourists to stop for their pictures. They walk along the road on stilts. Tourists cannot resist the ‘cute index’. Well, the kids get their money, store it in their mouths since they don’t have any pockets. Original!”

“[Name redacted] sure is a bizarre fruitcake or possibly a full-blooded idiot. The things she talks about and asks questions about are amazing. She begins a bizarre conversation with our guide, Girma. ‘Girma, these people don’t seem to be circumcised. Why?’ Poor Girma! From here she asks about castration, its uses, traditions, biological efficacy. Strange! Whatever brought this up? Is she truly a dirty old lady, going around looking at penises?”

Canada, Alberta, September 2010

“A lady stops by my table to tell me how dapper I am (my Providenya cap and beard); she has been watching me all during her meal. People often tell me that I look very Muslim; I’ve not been called dapper before. Well, that’s an interesting way to start the day.”

“We’re standing at the shallow end of Lake Louise. Overrated. Suddenly, a short-tailed weasel, rich brown with a white belly runs over the rocks in front of us. I’m stunned! One seldom sees these animals in the wild. While we’re exclaiming and rejoicing, it comes back, closer this time. It explores under rocks no more than 6’ away… ignores us completely. This is the highlight of the trip.”

Bhutan, Oct./Nov. 2004

Paro Valley: “The afternoon will be devoted to hiking to the Tigers’ Nest (Taktshang Goemba), a small monastery on a thin ledge about a thousand feet above our valley. Legend has that it was established by Guru Rinpoche, a re-incarnate Buddha, the guy who started Buddhism in this country in the 8th century. This story says that he rode a winged tigress which landed on this very narrow cliff. He declared it sacred and a monastery was built here (using the same winged tigress? Construction must have been very difficult).”

“Thimpu is the only capitol city in the world without a stoplight. However, there is  a main intersection where a serious lady cop stands under an umbrella and waves cars through in several directions. Her white-gloved hands move rhythmically, almost as if in a dance.”

Australia, Feb. 2007

Thursday Island: “In most places in the world you don’t drink the water. In Australia, you don’t eat the food.”

Burma (Myanmar), Jan. 2010

Inle Lake: “What I am seeing is a large floating bog; called a floating garden by the locals. It’s a small village of sorts with houses on stilts. Steps lead up to the second floors where people live. They raise crops out here. The streets are waterways.”

“The #1 reason for this trip is about to happen — an annular eclipse of the Sun. Locals drift in to watch the gringo watch the eclipse; a better show for them than the eclipse perhaps. They borrow the eclipse glasses, are very impressed by what they see. Little kids freak out.”

“Bagan is the city of temples and stupas! A large lighted stupa provides an exotic introduction to this city. Ox carts block the streets at times; horse and buggies whip around; ghost like, bicycle riders w/o lights appear and disappear.”

China, April 1999 

“I sat in a park today; watched people and wrote notes. The Chinese watched me as well, and are fascinated by my cursive handwriting. In no time, there are 6 people standing around me watching me write notes.”

 

Big Bend

Open Sky
Photo cred: James H. Evans

I keep coming to Big Bend because other people do not seem to go there much. There are spurts of visitors in the spring and the fall and that is about it. In heat, I can own the whole place. This summer night is silent, no insect sound, just the occasional scream of a falling star. The rain has failed for eleven months. Big Bend is drying out. The terrain is a natural barrier and so in this zone, from Presidio down river to about Del Rio, human traffic has long been light. I once met a guy in a village in Mexico who had a bull get loose and head north. He crossed the river on horseback, trailed the bull over a hundred miles to Fort Stockton, lassoed it and somehow got it back home. What struck me about his story is that he didn’t think it much of a story. He was the kind of person Big Bend — on both sides of the river — seemed to breed.

The river is almost gone. Since the 1930s, the demands on the Rio Grande have exceeded the natural flow. Since about 2000, the river has failed to make it to the sea. With global warming and a drier weather pattern, it is certain to decline yet more. In the middle reaches of the Rio Grande in New Mexico, the annual floods ended in the early seventies when Cochiti Dam broke the back of the river. Now the cottonwood bosques are becoming senile and in a century will be gone if this management continues because there is almost no replacement by seedlings dependent on the yearly flood cycle of the natural stream. Which brings me to Big Bend, the only national park on the entire eighteen-hundred-mile river.

It was supposed to be half of an international park joining the Sierra del Carmen with the Chihuahuan Desert on the U.S. side, or at least that was FDR’s notion. This never happened. Now there is talk of walling off the river lest some Mexican come north and terrorize us with decent food. Big walls are the new form of American installation art. The federal government is also building new housing for Border Patrol agents within the park to catch a non-existent flow of migrants. This is becoming a problem on the frontier of the empire. Last fall, I had drinks with some Border Patrol people on the Arizona chunk of the line. Their station had 350 people and bagged only 300 migrants a month. They were a little concerned that the public might some day learn what it cost to catch a poor person seeking work.

I come to Big Bend to be alone. For years, people have told me why they do not come here. It is in Texas. It is a dead end with a long drive in and out. It can be very hot. It is a desert. One guy told me it was the commodification of the natural world. Yes, and be sure to tell others.

I avoid the river with the two major campsites and also avoid the Chisos Mountains with their forests and facilities. I prefer to dry camp at various primitive park sites. So far, I have never run into anyone at such locales, but there is no guarantee my luck will hold. Like all fine places, there is nothing to do. And as a bonus, in Big Bend there is not a lot to see by conventional standards. If one is careful, one can find a patch of creosote and dry ground that does not pester one with vistas. At night the stars make a lot of noise but I have gotten used to that.

I seem to blunder about aimlessly and then get tired and sit down for a spell. I have never had a big idea in Big Bend and of course I am very grateful for this fact. There was a time in my life when I would hole up in Marfa writing books and periodically would become insane because of marauding art galleries, a serious menace in the area. I would drive to Big Bend and sit down very quietly and these seizures would pass. Also, I am here to tell you that one of the best roads in the United States runs from Presidio, Texas, to Big Bend, a two-lane slow path along the river through little canyons. Don’t bother to take photographs in Big Bend. James Evans owns the place and frankly you should simply buy his books and save yourself some time. He not only has what it looks like, he has what it feels like and means. This is a very rare thing.

Big Bend is a place to be. And not much else. To my knowledge, anyone having an epiphany there is summarily executed. I cannot prove this but I am a creature of hope.

Lately, I have realized I have spent my life surrounded by two kinds of professional liars — the normal Chamber of Commerce felons and the pious trolls of academia. They have always said there would be enough water, they have always said you can’t stop people from coming here, they have always said national defense was job number one, and that if we simply had some more meetings, it would all work out. They have always lied. Big Bend, for me, is a haven from this talk. It is pretty much uninhabitable and the Mexican side is equally isolated. I have a friend who ran dope in this area for years — he’d bring it north through Panther Junction. One of my first visits to Big Bend was when he showed me his former haunts and routes, including where in the beginning he’d crawl through the bosque on his belly dragging a burlap bag of grass. He soon advanced to better days and was doing about $750,000 a month when he made a fatal error: he refused to pay a bribe to a U.S. Custom agent because of his prejudice against crooks in law enforcement. This moment of integrity cost him five years in a federal pen.

Three javelina root around in the brush by the river. The sky is overcast and soon comes the first rain in months. The arroyos run here and there from desert showers. The walls of the wash are red and lavender and yellow. The water rolls over the rocks and the ground comes up and slaps my face with scent.

Just across the river is the village where they killed Pablo Acosta.

He’d come back from the United States in 1976 and found disorder. The man in charge of the plaza in Ojinaga just upriver had quit his post and no one knew exactly who to contact for payoffs. Drugs were small time, a sideline in a poor area. Acosta grew with the industry and soon things were big enough that the Mexican federal police set up a headquarters in town to collect their cut. Acosta also shipped money to the Mexican army. By 1983, Acosta was big time and bringing planeloads of cocaine in from Colombia. He once considered executing my friend.

And then he was gone. He was murdered by a Mexican commander with the help of the FBI.

That happens in that business and in this place.

Just to the west is the gouge of Santa Elena Canyon, the river now a latte color from the waters rushing in from the flooded arroyos. The thunder is near now, and lightning slices the sky. Steam rises from the road as fresh raindrops fall.

A couple pulls over by the suddenly rising waters, she carefully wades out a short bit and he takes photographs and this is right across the river from the machine-gunned building where they took down Pablo and my God life is good at this moment and I suck down the breeze and believe, well, if only I knew what I believed.

Chisos at Night
Photo cred: James H. Evans

The Chisos Mountains loom like gods in the mist and across the river the Sierra Carmen walls off Mexico. Los Diablos stand around and chat. They are a firefighting group formed in Boquillas del Carmen, the Mexican village just across the river. The Diablos fight fires in Big Bend and elsewhere — last spring, they were up to save Los Alamos, NM, America’s city of scientific death. On the rocks are small wire creations of scorpions, roadrunners and ocotillo cactus. They go for five or six bucks a piece and a hand-printed sign says the money helps schools in Boquillas. Traditionally, visitors to the park went across the shallow river for breakfast and to buy little bits of Mexico. 9/11 ended that for Boquillas and Santa Elena a ways upstream and both villages fell apart. The small wire figures are contraband and the government warns against such commerce. The Federal authorities also ask visitors not to give water to any illegals they may encounter in the desert but to promptly call 911.

The sign says that God will bless for any donation.

The creosote is brown. Dead prickly pear heaps dot the floor of the Chihuahuan Desert. The diggings of the javelina show desperation. I woke up at gray light on the ground and listened and there was nothing, not the dawn song of the coyote, not a single note of birdsong. Nothing.

A ranger says in time this place will be like the Sahara. He goes off on how the U.S. has the habits of a cancer cell and is killing the earth in general and Big Bend in particular.

The fresh air is suddenly rich in scent after the first slight shower in eleven months.

Down by the river, the government has posted a warning: “Beware of Javelina! Protect Your Property. Javelina in search of food may rip up your tents.”

At the mouth of Dog Canyon, a javelina bolts. The early camel corps came through in 1859 as they tested the Middle Eastern beast for the War Department, an early foray in national security. The experiment was cut short, when the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, decided to quit his job, and lead a movement to destroy the Union. Before things settled down, 600,000 Americans were dead.

Back at the Boquillas crossing, Los Diablos laugh. Their caps sport the flags of the U.S. and Mexico, plus a big red devil.

There’s talk of reopening the crossing in the spring of 2012. But I am not sure my fellow citizens can bear such a risk to their safety.

There was a moment in my childhood when I realized my family and my school and my friends and my neighborhood all meant death. I took to sleeping on the roof until my parents outlawed this behavior.

But when I roll out my bag in Big Bend and look up I remember this and know, at least for a little moment, why I am here.

The sky has always meant freedom to me.

Big Bend still has sky.

Charles Bowden is the author of many books, including “Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family,” “Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing: Living in the Future” and, most recently, “Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields.” Bowden’s last story for MG was “The New Colossus,” which appeared in #184. He lives in the Chihuahuan Desert. 

Read about one man’s journey through climbing and divorce in Where It Ended

Destination Occupy! Your Principled Resistance Tour Planner

“For months the great pleasure excursion to Europe and the Holy
Land was chatted about in the newspapers everywhere in America
and discussed at countless firesides.”
— Mark Twain, “Innocents Abroad”, 1869

It started with a frustrated street vendor in Tunisia, who set himself on fire and ignited an Arab Spring. Or maybe it was Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Libya’s Benghazi-centered breakaway, Madison’s capitol take-over, Spain’s “Indignant” movement, Greece’s Aganktismenoi (“The Outraged”), or … — maybe you’ve already formed an opinion of the circumstances, but, by autumn 2011, a fair number of public parks and squares world-wide looked like Yosemite’s Camp 4 in the 1970s. A sometimes motley and contentious, always opinionated crowd of campers gathered into discussion groups and planning committees with as much passion as dirtbag climbers debating “first ascent” ethics.

After Wall Street’s bronze bull statue was briefly “occupied” by a group of American protestors and scenes from New York’s Zuccotti (nee Liberty Plaza) Park had become a nightly news-bite, one multi-millionaire presidential wannabe (former pizza-chain mogul, talk-radio host, “success gospel” preacher) felt moved to say, “Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself!” while another (a mega-millionaire job-hunting ex-venture/vulture capitalist/governor) fretted, “I think it’s dangerous, this class warfare.”

While thinking of class warfare on the 10th anniversary of the opening of our apprehensive empire’s ongoing experiment in perpetual “extra-judicial” detention known as Guantanamo, I bought this little book that’s been touted as a philosophical grounding for the burgeoning protests of 2011:

Time For Outrage
"Time for Outrage," by Stephane Hessel (Twelve/Hachette Book Group, 2011)

The book’s red cover does looks a lot like the “Quotations from Chairman Mao” that a Fidel-cap-wearing, latte-sipping fellow revolutionary thought I’d found as I browsed the shelves of Tucson’s Revolutionary Grounds coffeehouse/bookstore, but in a tale of divergent career paths from the seldom-mourned Chairman/Emperor Mao, it was written by a French Resistance fighter whose life after World War II has been devoted to universal human rights and non-violent principled resistance.

Occupy! FUQs

After duly considering some Frequently Unanswered Questions:  Quis (who?), Quid (what?) Quando (when?), Ubi (where?), Cur (why?), Quem ad modum (in what way?) and Quibus adminiculis (by what means?) through many long winter nights, this out-of-seasonal-work warrior’s thoughts lightly turned to vacation planning.

Now, as mud-season rules mountain trails and High-Country powder slopes become time-sensitive minefields of corn and concrete, the editorial brain-trust has permitted me to share my resources for designing your own once-in-a-lifetime Occupy! Adventure.

“Indignez-vous” and its English translation, “Time for Outrage,” have sold more than 3.5 million copies world-wide since its publication in late 2010. Now 93, Stephane Hessel exhorts oppressed younger citizens to turn outrage into a force for change. Though some reviewers have disparaged “Indignez-vous” as reminiscences of an old man that lack examination of the extenuating circumstances of the oppression he cites, I suggest using it as a pocket guide to your own journey of resistance.

Here you may wonder, “Well, resistance to exactly what?” Good question, future traveler! Shall we turn to M. Hessel’s little red book? “The wealthy have installed their slaves in the highest spheres of state. The banks are privately owned. They are concerned solely with profits. They have no interest in the common good. The gap between rich and poor is the widest it’s ever been; the pursuit of riches and the spirit of competition are encouraged and celebrated.”

He continues, “The basic motive of the Resistance was indignation. We of the French Resistance and combat forces that freed our country, call on you …” — and I can’t help personally reflecting just a little on whether my dad came home from World War II with an “American Dream” of obscene profit for a wealthy 1% amid social insecurity for 99%; but I digress — back to Hessel: “Franklin Delano Roosevelt articulated the ‘Four Freedoms’ he felt people ‘everywhere in the world’ had a right to enjoy. Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.”

Points taken, and I could go on quoting old Stéphane until I get labeled a Francophile and placed on a “do not serve Freedom Fries” list, so I’ll just note that Hessel’s “Indignez-vous” and outrage led him to help write 1948’s United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and leave the rest of his story in his books and writings for further consideration. If you’re curious about what some Americans resent about the concept of an elite 1% pillaging the economy while everybody else eats humble pie, click on something called Wearethe99percent.tumblr.com. It had this graybeard 99%er mumbling worker-solidarity slogans.

So, let’s say you’re feeling outraged, indignant and want to know when and where to go. Ah, fellow traveler, look no further, for this is an election year in the empire, and the world-wide web of social networking is a dream date for any budding revolutionary, at least until evil corporate/empire genies take over the filtering technologies of your local internet provider. Facebooking protestors, cell-phone-wielding citizen journalists, tweeting reporters, adbusters.org and an on-line group called Anonymous (self-described as “a decentralized network of individuals focused on promoting access to information, free speech, and transparency”) have worked around almost every attempt to block information about protest times and actions. For the latest techno-wizardry designed to defeat jack-booted digital censorship thugs, my best advice is to visit the group of disaffected youths that haunt certain parks and internet cafes in almost every mountain resort town. Your source may have a hard time trusting anybody who doesn’t fluently speak the jargon, so approach slowly and with latte in hand.

OK, now you’ve done your networking research while finding common ground with some local rabble-rousers, and may be ready to book passage on the 2012 Resistance Tour. Since experienced “Occupiers” are already on the ground in most major urban areas around the world, climate considerations, the proximity of family and friends and your own “bucket list” of travel desires should be your guide. I do, however, have a few suggestions to offer, and some of them could re-define adventure travel.

According to one Spanish “Indignant,” some of the “Occupy Wall Street” organizers visited Spain in July to research techniques, and now we have a vast pool of experienced citizen-protestors on our own shores. Pick a city, and take an expendable tent. With proper timing, you could help shut down a port for a day, or get yourself YouTubed while overzealous authorities go all redneck on you. For overseas adventures, tread lightly in any country that doesn’t remember its last election, beware the zealots of any class, and the world is your oyster. Faded empires Britain (Olympics anyone?) and Rome have fresh “austerity measures” to keep the masses unhappy. Greece and Spain should be restive as always, and springtime weather on the Mediterranean sure looks attractive.

Closer to home, the Repubs will convene on Tampa, Florida, in August, and the week after that, it’s up the coast to North Carolina for the Dems. Meanwhile, all political candidates will be pressing flesh and pounding our eardrums in search of votes, and a little “occupation” theology birdie tells me that some should be facing uncomfortable questioning by an indignant constituency. I’m just saying …

A merry band of “occupiers” followed the Rose Bowl floats through Pasadena a few months back. Though national television didn’t see fit to leave the cameras running, by all accounts, the parade-watching crowd cheered them on, and several thousand joined in. This opens an entire season of civic-minded possibilities — just avoid steaming piles left by equine-mounted royalty and remember to keep waving at the masses as you pass. Don’t enjoy crowds? OK, consider helping a foreclosed neighbor re-occupy a bank’s “troubled asset” with resources from www.occupyourhomes.org.

Occupy Tour
Photo cred: B. Frank

IF YOU GO

For more ideas, search for 2011 word-of-the-year “occupy” on your favorite corporate search engine (two sites that come up on my searches are: www.meetup.com/occupytogether/ and www.occupyeverything.org), network with the home-grown resistance ideologues in your own backyard and then follow your conscience to a deeper understanding of an observation spoken during the year I first embraced principled outrage as a motivational tool: “Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee, the cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free!’” (Martin Luther King, supporting Memphis garbage workers on April 3, 1968).

The day after MLK delivered the above speech was a reminder that ideologues with guns can end lives and terrorize dreams, but 2012 can reaffirm the ineffectual nature of violence and intimidation against a citizenry grown indignant with the status quo. Now go “occupy” your own destination, and see what the FUQs are all about.

 

Senior correspondent B. Frank’s last piece for the Gazette was “Snipe Hunting in the War Zone: A Diary of Peculiar Madness,” which appeared in #186. Frank, author of “Livin’ the Dream,” splits his time between the Four Corners and the Border Country.  

 

Crash Landing

Smoke Signals by M John Fayhee“With your feet on the air
And your head on the ground
Try this trick and spin it, yeah
Your head’ll collapse
If there’s nothing in it
And then you’ll ask yourselfWhere is my mind?
— The Pixies, “Where Is My Mind?” 

There’s a stunningly fine line between a “misunderstanding” and an “incident.” And the best time to try to suss out the relative lexical semantics associated with those two words is definitely NOT while you’re on a 747 that has yet to reach cruising altitude and is headed at 600 miles per hour out over the Pacific Ocean.

Unfortunately, I was right then in no condition to be pondering the subtle nuances of etymology. One second, there was relative calm. The next second, every head on the plane was turning fast toward the distant recesses of the coach section, as five flight attendants made their post haste way to seat 58C. Guess who was sitting in seat 58C?

Admittedly, I was not exactly in a jovial mood to begin with, though it was not my dour disposition that caused the flight crew to descend upon me. It was the action of a well-dressed middle-aged Oriental gentleman in seat 57A. Almost as soon as my posterior was planted, I had started to doze off (read: pass out with my tongue lolling out of my head) but, before achieving total blissful insentience, I was jerked back into consciousness by an agitated, albeit understated, conversation by my seatmates, a young married couple. “I thought this was a non-smoking flight,” said the women to her husband. “It is. Maybe we should call the stewardess,” the husband responded to his spouse. With great effort, I cracked one eye open and saw the aforementioned gentleman in seat 57A smoking a cigarette. It was here that my foul mood asserted itself. “Dude, there’s no smoking allowed,” I snarled. His reaction, while holding his cigarette in between his index and middle fingers, was to draw deeply, turn around, look straight at me, and blow two full lungs of smoke directly into my face. It was total instinct when my hand shot out to grab the cigarette from the man’s mouth. It was surely the result of fatigue associated with an arduous six-week trip that reached something of a climatic anti-climax with an ill-advised all-nighter that ended a mere hour before take-off that caused my aim to be askew. Basically, I overshot my target. Not by much, mind you, but enough that, in something of a physical manifestation of a Freudian slip, instead of snatching a smoldering cancer stick with my digits, two knuckles made solid contact with the schmuck’s lips.

The Oriental gentleman did not react calmly. Verily, he went ballistic, screaming maniacally in Chinese, blood seeping from his mouth, trying to climb over the back of his seat to have at me.

It was borderline anarchy. And, when it seemed things couldn’t get any more chaotic, all of a sudden, smoke started filling the cabin. Turns out the irate Oriental gentleman’s cigarette, which had been lost in the shuffle, had starting burning a hole in seat 57A.

My photographer buddy Norb and I had been sent by Backpacker magazine to the most remote corner of China’s Yunnan Province, to cover the first commercial rafting descent of the class-39 Yangtze River through 17-mile-long, 11,000-foot-deep Tiger’s Leaping Gorge. We had no intention whatsoever to so much as stick a toe into the Yangtze through Tiger’s Leaping Gorge. We, rather, planned to hike above the river, where we could more easily witness the inevitable carnage.

About two seconds before we were scheduled to leave for the People’s Republic, those malcontents in Tibet who have lived for 50 years under Beijing’s unconscionable repression decided now would be a good a time to revolt. Why they couldn’t have waited another month, who can say? But, as a result of their actions, all of Tibet, and those parts of China proper that bordered Tibet, were pretty much closed to foreign visitation while the People’s Liberation Army went about liberating a whole bunch of Tibetans of their mortality. Well, guess where Tiger’s Leaping Gorge is? Not to worry, we were told by the proprietors of Sobek, the company that was charging customers something like $20,000 apiece to risk life and limb in Tiger’s Leaping Gorge. They would simply add our names to their special-exception permit list, and all would be well.

So, we arrived in Hong Kong, where we had a two-day layover before our flight to  Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, with a sense of ease that ought to have, right off the bat, worried us.

The plan was to hook up with the Sobek people Dali, a lovely little mountain town eight hours by bus from Kunming. Sobek co-founders Richard Bangs and John Yost had some bad news for us: They had forgotten to include our names on the permit — meaning, because Tiger’s Leaping Gorge was, as I indicated earlier, closed to all non-special-permitted foreign visitation, we would be legally prohibited from venturing there to cover the impending rafting catastrophe. The liaison to the Chinese Sports Ministry said, maybe, we would be able to get some sort of special dispensation if we took a hand-written note from him to the Public Security Bureau — the dreaded PSB — in Lijiang, the next sizeable town up the road. While understanding that the scribble he had jotted down might very well have been an admonition to the Lijiang cops to shoot us on sight, we boarded yet another bus for half a day to Lijiang, where the local gendarmerie handed us a typed note in English stating, unambiguously, if we tried to go to Tiger’s Leaping Gorge, we would be arrested, jailed and “eventually” deported.

Were it not for hefty quantities of fortifying beverages, that typed note would likely have signaled an ignominious defeat. But Norb and I have always been far too stupid to face failure without doing something asinine to make that failure even more undignified. We opted after numerous adult beverages to defy the PSB. Somehow, some way, we were going to make it the last 60 miles to Tiger’s Leaping Gorge. We had two days before Sobek was scheduled to run the Yangtze.

We hatched a scheme that was deceptively moronic. We figured, after our conversation with the PSB, they would surely be on the lookout for us, which would be pretty easy, since there was only one road from Lijiang to Tiger’s Leaping Gorge. Ergo: It would not take much in the way of law-enforcement acumen to catch us in the act. So we opted, rather than walk through the middle of town early in the a.m., to sneak through the back streets to hook up with the road we needed to be on. Thing is, this was long enough ago that round eyes were decidedly unusual in small-town China. For the most part, as we slinked our way along muddy alleys as wide as my desk, people eyeballed us warily and silently from the shadows. Then, we passed in front of a goddamned elementary school, which literally disgorged before our very eyes. Every one of the 6,000 students had evidently, the very day before, learned two, and two only, words of English: “Hello” and “Good-bye.” Not that it mattered to Norb and I at that moment, but these 6,000 screaming schoolchildren displayed no discernible pattern whatsoever in the use of their limited English vocabulary. A third yelled “hello” at the top of their little lungs the entire time we passed by, while a third yelled “good-bye,” while the remaining third used both terms randomly, like they were trying to work out the lyrics to the old Beatles song. In short, our attempts at subterfuge were counterproductive.

Then, though, a miracle happened: Through no fault of our own, our dumbass selves were suddenly on the road to Tiger’s Leaping Gorge. Then, another miracle happened: We managed to hitch a ride in the back of a dump truck all the way to the village of Dachu — walking distance from our destination. Next morning, we hired a rickety boat to take us across the frighteningly roiling Yangtze to the downriver gateway to Tigers Leaping Gorge!

An hour later, up walks from the opposite direction, of all perplexing and disheartening things, the entire Sobek crew.

“Uh, aren’t you folks supposed to be rafting this section?” we asked.

“We decided it was too dangerous,” was the almost-indifferent response. With that, they were off. Off too was the story we had traveled 12 time zones to cover. For the next four days, we did not know what would befall us when we emerged on the upper end of Tiger’s Leaping Gorge, whether there would be a troop of PSB agents standing there ready to arrest us. And we did not know what would become of our story once the editors at Backpacker learned that the Sobek people had sanely pussied out at the very last possible minute. Those were not things we could control, so we pressed on, took pictures and, on those few instances when they did not sprint away from us screaming, chatted with locals. Lack of Sobek carnage notwithstanding, it was an astounding hike through one of the deepest canyons on the planet.

Two miles from civilization, we walked right through the middle of (and I am not making this up) a Chinese prison chain gang, dressed in ripped-up striped suits, breaking rocks with sledgehammers, just like in the movies. This was not a happy-looking lot, and the thought that, maybe in a few hours, we would be joining them in their labors almost made us piss our pants. But, when we arrived in the first town large enough to have bus service, not a single person paid the slightest attention to our presence.

We were free.

And that was it. We returned to Hong Kong for one last night before this demanding adventure was over and done with. What could possibly go wrong?

Funny you should ask …

We arrived in Hong Kong during the earliest hours of October 19, 1987, otherwise known in fiscal circles as “Black Monday,” the worst single day in the history of stock exchanges. By lunch time, Hong Kong, a place that survives off the electronic shuffling of dollars, pounds sterling, francs and yen the way most societies survive off food, water, shelter and oxygen, was in utter turmoil, and, by the time the closing bell rung, the entire colony was shaken to its core, because, in one short business day, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, the third-largest in the world in terms of actual capitalization, had lost almost 50 percent of its value. By the next day, when the shockwaves of Black Monday rippled their way to New York, the Dow Jones would suffer its biggest one-day loss ever.

Even as people were running down Salisbury and Nathan roads, bumping into buildings and wailing in abject despair, Norb and I, being insulated from the vagaries of the stock market via our perpetual destitution, opted to deal with this international crisis-in-the-making by venturing forth into the Kowloon evening. Our destination was Ned Kelly’s Last Stand, an Aussie-owned bar so popular with ex-pats and tourists that, if you did not arrive on the scene by happy hour, your chances of getting a seat were nil, and if you did not have a seat, there was nothing to do save stand there in the middle of walkways the wait staff traversed in their noble quest to slake thirsts.

We thought we were ahead of the crowd curve, but, given the fact that half the inhabitants of Hong Kong were at that very moment liquidly lamenting their newfound residency in the poor house, Norb and I arrived at Ned Kelly’s too late to get seats. The only spot I could find to even stand was next to a 10-top horseshoe-shaped booth — at that moment completely filled with a group of very loud, young and drunk Aussies. The 10-top was the closest table to the swinging doors that led to the kitchen. Every time a waitperson passed through those doors, I had to suck in my stomach and hold my breath, lest I get knocked over. At one point, my attention wandered ever so slightly, just as a waitress from, of all places, Evergreen, Colorado, exploded through those swinging doors holding high above her head a well-laden tray. I leaned back as far as I could, as fast as I could, and, as she passed, my center of gravity was no longer centered and, as a result, the smallest part of my ass made the slightest contact with the edge of that 10-top table and, as it did so, I could hear behind me 10 tall glasses of beer topple over in unison, like bowling pins.

The rowdy Aussies saw what had happened and were good-natured about it. Still, they were all soaked from the waist down, so they left to change into duds a bit drier. Bad as I felt, when the Aussies left, Norb and I found ourselves with ample seating. Shortly after we took advantage of the situation, a young Canadian, who was living and working in Hong Kong, asked if he could join us. He said he was meeting someone, an Englishman, who arrived in short order. The two men chatted conspiratorially and, under the table, a wad of folded bills was passed from the Canuck, who received in turn a small foil-wrapped packet from the Limey. Almost immediately, the Canuck asked if Norb and I would be interested in joining him back at his flat. “I’ve got something here that you might enjoy,” he said, without indicating exactly what that “something” might be. We said sure, and, minutes later, we were in a 40th-story abode about the size of my car, which the Canadian shared with one of his countrymen and two locals.

The Canadian had purchased from the Englishman back at Ned Kelly’s several grams of opiated Kashgari hash, which was debilitatingly potent. After one hit, Norb and I found ourselves fused to the couch, completely unable to so much as twitch, for the rest of the night.

It would have been one thing if that were essentially this end of the story. But, well — shit! — the entire time we were parked comatose upon the Canadian’s couch, one of his roommates, a young yuppie-type of Chinese heritage, had been … trying … to … commit suicide. He had lost his entire family’s multi-generation wealth during the Black Monday meltdown and wasn’t handling the situation in any way that, say, Thoreau would have sanctioned.

He had arrived shortly post-smoke, and, after exchanging pleasantries with the Canadian, he calmly placed his hat, briefcase and umbrella aside, screeched at the top of his lungs and dashed full speed to the closest window, which he impacted with the top of his noggin. The window, fortunately, was closed tight. Before anyone could react, or, in the case of Norb and I, not react, he had the window open and one leg was dangling 40 stories above the street. This man was not bullshitting; he was going out that window. In one of the more heroic acts I have ever witnessed, the Canadian, who was surely as stoned as were Norb and I, was up and pulling his disconsolate roommate back into the land of the living. This suicidal savior dance proceeded apace every 15 minutes until the figurative roosters began waking a Hong Kong that, in economic terms, was in utter ruins, and thus pretty much remained until China reclaimed its territory a decade later.

There came a point when Norb and I had to move. With Herculean effort, we wobbled back to our hovel, retrieved our filthy piles of gear, hailed a taxi and made it to the airport by the skin of our teeth. We parted ways, Norb headed for Sea-Tac by way of Tokyo, me headed toward Stapleton by way of San Francisco.

And so I found myself in seat number 58C, with a gaggle of flight attendants huddled around me. The irate Chinese guy had been moved up toward the front of the plane and the smoking seat had been doused with hot coffee.

One of the flight attendants leaned over my seat and asked: “You think we can make it all the way to San Francisco without further incident,” she drawled.

“I thought of it more as a simple misunderstanding,” I responded.

With that, I crashed hard, and, when I awoke, we were on final approach to economic chaos that had no bearing whatsoever on my humble little life.