The Atacama Desert

Trekking the Atacama

The Highs and Lows of the Chilean Desert

Cliff Lancey

My friend and I were sipping wine beneath an Algarrobo tree when a tall fellow crossed the courtyard and introduced himself.  His name was Wilhelm, a German Peruvian from Argentina.  He preferred to be called Billy.  Billy was working as a freelance guide.  The Chilean border is pretty open to Argentine passports, but not for work.  This job, Ken and me, he let us know, was just the other side of the law.  No problem, he assured us.

This is San Pedro, a town in the Atacama Desert.  We crossed the desert from Calama a few days ago. Much of the scenery has a patina of white – salt – except for the snow-capped mountains.  The Andes rise so high it is hard through the haze to tell the white peaks from the clouds.

Calama is a mining town, a remote corner of the extraction industry that is a major part of the economy.  The road from Calama runs straight as a string through the desert of the Atacama.

We are in what was once Bolivia.  The two countries fought a war – the War of the Pacific – over the nitrate deposits.  Bolivia lost.  The desert and the seacoast to the west have been part of Chile ever since.

The outskirts of Calama are monochromatic in the blistering afternoon sun, brown apartment blocks the color of the desert beyond.  It is North Las Vegas without the charm.  The personality of the desert changes with the miles.  Outside Calama the table-flat plain changes to lumpy red hills and broken cliffs.

A dust devil spins across the road and flies apart.  In the distance a solitary transmission line runs obliquely to the horizon.  As we climb, clumps of yellow grass start to dot the roadside.   There is no other sign of life.  The few dessicated plants, we read, draw moisture from fog.  It never rains.

We ascend a plateau.  The mountains that seemed so far away are nearer now, looming high against the sky. Most are in the shape of cones – the hulls of old volcanoes.

At the top it seems like the desert unfolds before us. It’s a landscape from science fiction, empty surreal distances stretching to the horizon.  In the middle distance the land is broken into canyons and spiky outcrops.  Beyond that, nothing, a whiteness gone to haze.  The road winds through a corridor of rubble into a shady cut where hoodoos stand at attention; then out again onto the sun-blasted plain.

Finally there’s a village, its narrow lanes hemmed by rock walls. The vehicle lurches to a stop in a cloud of dust. The driver yells Takha Takha, my hotel. I am half asleep from an overnight flight, the altitude, the torpor of the desert.

A carriage door swings open onto a courtyard. Inside are trees and welcoming shade. Ken greets me, a glass of wine in one hand, a cigarette in the other.  He pinches the cigarette between his lips to grab a bag.  Welcome to San Pedro de Atacama, he says, the garden spot of Chile.

San Pedro is an oasis town.  From the cliffs above the desert floor, the village is a green patch on the bleached hide of the Atacama.  It is at once fascinating and appalling, a wasteland of salt flats and spiny gulches, a canvas stretching to the horizon in a palette of bleached brown. In the distance, beyond the rooftops, is the salar, the Atacama Salt Flat, stretching to the south.  Rising beyond are the mountains, defunct volcanoes, the impossibly high country of Bolivia.

The village is watered by the slender thread of the Rio San Pedro. It begins in the Altiplano to the north and expires just a few miles south in the salt flat. A network of small aqueducts carries the muddy water into fields and courtyards. There is a schedule and a day when they turn a tap for each part of the village.  The concrete channels, most no more than a foot wide, are the margin between the tolerable shade of the Algarrobo trees and the parched void that lies beyond.

Aside from a one-lane dirt strip called Caracoles where the tour agencies and eateries cater to the Chilean tourists, the town is a scorched jumble of adobe homes and walled yards pressed up against the dust-choked streets. Sheets of corrugated metal, some held down with rocks, keep out the rain.

But rain isn’t much of a problem.  It rains so little in the Atacama that its ecology has been studied as an approximation of Mars. Science suggests that if microbes can live here, where it hasn’t rained in a hundred years, they can live on Mars. To witness the barren sands stretching in every direction, I can see the point.

The darkened entries of the small storefronts all have sign boards plunked in the dirt advertising geysers, volcanoes, lagunas, sandboarding, and super “ofertas” for the Valle de la Luna.  The Valley of the Moon.  Nobody speaks much English.  I have been trying to learn some Spanish.  I’m about to find out how much.

The idea of tourism is dissonant in a place like this.  Tourism connotes something almost religious in its consensus.  Tourists come to see what other tourists have seen, to be awed by the majesty of El Capitan, the brazen distances of the Grand Canyon.  It’s all defined and filtered, reduced to a simulacrum of real experience.  Seen so often, these places are no longer seen at all.

Then there is this wilderness of desert.  For several days we saw no one.  Not another hiker.  These austere distances are on no one’s bucket list.  The motive to travel here is more idiosyncratic, to find something different.  In making sense of the place there are mostly blanks to be filled in. There is a tug of a primeval wonder.

We’re not sure why we’re here.  It’s almost a joke.  Neither of us can quite remember whose idea it was.  Part of the answer I think lies in our lost kinship with nature, an urge to make contact with what lies beyond the frontier of comfort and familiarity.

The narrow, dusty lanes give San Pedro a primitive, time-forgotten quality, though virtually every hut has a satellite dish, and every worker seems to have a tool in one hand and a phone in the other.

The images of urban culture permeating the world’s far corners are said to be the root of social unrest.  But there are few signs of Maoism in San Pedro.  Billy is the closest thing.  A socialist, a proud beneficiary of the Argentine welfare state, but happy enough to confess that he detours his money through Germany to avoid the welfare state taxes.

The political winds blow a little differently he says. Elsewhere in the world the indigenous people live in communities of poverty and despair. In San Pedro, the Atacamenos, the ancient people, are the ones in charge. They are certainly a race apart from the Chilean women, the tall, dark-eyed beauties who have perfected the Creole ancestry. The Atacamenos are short, thickset, with round dark faces.

At a security point a young Atacameno in a green uniform looked at Billy’s permit. He was short but powerfully built, with a broad face, his expression indifferent behind wraparound shades. His jet black hair was shaven on the sides, but long on top and tied in a flowing top knot.  He did not look like a guy to mess with.

The women on the other hand, even the young, are plump and figureless, with the symmetry of an oil barrel. Although the Chilean women enrich the landscape, every tienda, bodega and bar seems to be run by the Atacamenos.  In a land whose oppression by the Spanish has left an indelible stain, it is hard to imagine how they pulled it off.

Down a winding lane, the tour companies and shops in the village center yield to pastures and vacant yards. In a land of few trees, the Atacamenos build with rock.  Every courtyard lies behind a rock wall.  There is an air of seclusion.  Living at the edge of such a boundless, lifeless expanse, there must be a craving for scale, privacy, the reassurance of close and ordered space.

At the end of one road I head down another which runs to the edge of town.  The walls and yards end.  It happens quickly.  Here a house, a courtyard; there but a hundred yards away, the end of civilization, an infinite vista of sand and salt.  Nearby, a wind-break of some sort has not worked out. A line of shrubs planted in the uptipped cavities of cinder blocks has gone wilted and brown, a forlorn screen of withered sticks.

Where the road bends around a shady corner, there is a commotion of some sort.  The road is full of goats led by two donkeys and followed by an Atacameno herder tapping the ground with a stick.

I step past a woman walking a large dog to get closer. The hooves make a muffled clattering in the dirt. The donkeys are now even with me.  I stroke them on their hard, hairy snouts.  The dog goes suddenly ballistic, lunging and snarling, his teeth flashing, the woman wrestling with his leash. The animal is completely out of his frame and has not ruled me out as target preference. I slip sideways patting the donkeys, preferring to be nibbled by goats to being devoured by this mastiff.

On the map, Rio San Pedro lies up a nearby road at the outskirts of the village.   The afternoon heat is wilting. Like almost all of the streets Calle Domingo is unpaved and the dust is awful. Each bone dry dirt track I wander seems to attract a convoy of traffic.  A bus and two SUVs pass. A miasma of dust billows from the bus.  The SUVs add their contribution to the mushrooming cloud.  Nobody seems much distressed.  They bicycle through this tempest as if it were nothing.

In the morning we head south to Toconao and up to the Altiplanico lagoons. Reaching east and north into Peru and Bolivia is the Altiplano, the high plain of the Andes. The Altiplano rises to remarkable elevation. We criss-cross it several times, from a manageable 10,000 feet to an enervating 14,000 feet. It is literally sickening – at least to me.

Between Ken and me, it is I who is the weak link. I sag at 14,000 feet, head-achey, dog sick, usually followed by a zombie-like coma, from which I emerge a day later my winsome self.  Ken is a good friend, and has agreed to hang around San Pedro a few days to let me get acclimated – basically so I don’t screw everything up by getting sick.

On a rising scrub plain above 11,000 feet we leave the pavement and head east, winding into the mountains.  Not too far away is ALMA, the large radio telescope.  The stars are bright out here, enhanced by the elevation and lack of water vapor.  Licancabur, a postcard perfect volcanic cone on the Bolivian border, dominates the sky.  The peak is more than 18,000 feet high.  It is huge, visible almost everywhere, worshipped by the Atacamenos, they say.  Nearby, steam rises from Volcan Lascar, one of the few active volcanoes.

We approach a ridge of golden hills. The pale thread of road slips out of sight up ahead but reappears as a thin line tracing the top of the ridge. I am growing sleepy with the altitude which is approaching 13000 feet.

The Miscanti Laguna and it’s sister Mineques are cerulean blue,  pendant jewels in a setting of salt, surrounded by snowy peaks.  The opaque blue water is hypnotizing, ethereal as a cloud yet with a density like a bowl of paint.

The lagoons are saline and support little life beyond tiny brine shrimp.  But the shrimp are the staple food of the flamingoes, who flock to the shallow waters.  Los Flamencos are a big tourist draw.

Salt is everywhere.  We visit a cavern whose dusty brown walls belie that the whole thing is salt.  Press the wet end of a finger into a crevice and it comes back salty.  Walls of salt groan and crack in the afternoon sun.

The trek begins.  Billy picks us up in a small truck with two other guys, Ruben and Ariel.  Billy is the only one who speaks any English.  We heave our bags in back and jam into the truck. We head north into the desert, climbing away from San Pedro. A few miles in, the road disintegrates into ruts cut into the hard dirt the color of dishwater.  The truck stops. We seem to be in no discernible place.  The thought crosses my mind that they could rob us and kill us.  Not even the birds would find us out here.

But Billy, we are learning, is a good fellow, and suggests we walk slowly at first to gauge our acclimatization.  Even with some imagination there is nothing that suggests a trail. As if in some existential reverie, we simply start walking toward nothing.  We climb to a cliff and follow the ledge which becomes more or less the route.

Beautiful may not be the perfect word for this tough, hostile landscape, but it is nevertheless a place of awe and even mystery.  From the cliffs we look down upon the Valle de la Muerte – The Valley of the Dead.

The floor of the valley is a warren of sand dunes and rocky spires.  It is all sand and rock and stony gravel baking in the sun, a no-man’s land.  There isn’t a tuft of grass.  Dry and desolate, yes, but not exactly dead. On a far off sand dune we make out people. They are sandboarders. They strap themselves into what are really snowboards, and catch the dry waves.

We come to a place where an enormous dune rises to the lip of the cliff, Billy hops into the sand, and we descend. We climb up and down the dunes, our boots filling with sand. It is a challenge.  The sand is moving underfoot and we with it.  Ken and Billy look like survivors of the apocalypse staggering over the empty dunes.  Finally we slip down into a gravel wash, winded, and stop for a drink. No one said crossing the Valley of the Dead would be easy.

For a morning we crash around dry river bottoms in the truck. I am growing fond of it.  My yen for a little adventure is matched by an affection for tossing empty beer cans in the back of a pickup.  But there’s not much room back there.  The bed is piled high with trek equipment.  The gray vehicle looks vaguely like an elephant with a rounded hump of equipment bundled under a bedraggled gray tarp

Our first full day is to climb.  We are already at 11000 feet.  We walk slowly.  Even a couple of brisk steps leaves us breathless.  We spend the morning climbing to 13000 feet.  Even with just daypacks, it is exhausting.

Camp appears to be wherever Billy decides to stop.  There are no campgrounds or fire-rings or shady groves; there’s nothing.  We pull off among the outcrops.  One place looks as good as another.  We smooth the rubble and pitch a tent. Billy and Ruben set up the kitchen tent, that looks to be about a hundred years old, but serviceable.  They haul a couple of large coolers and boxes, and unfold a table.

As Ken and I put up the tent, we discover not ten feet away a panel of petroglyphs on a large rock, a suite of animal figures and totems etched into the stone eons ago.

Billy sets up a cook stove. He slices a melon. A bottle of wine appears. Billy slices tomatoes, onions and avocados while something simmers in a pot. Dinner is humita, a Chilean dish of raw vegetables over a cornmeal tamale.

It grows quickly dark once the sun sets.  Dinner over, we step outside the kitchen tent.  The night sky is flooded with stars, so close they seem within reach.

Next day we are in the canyon of the Rio Grande, a tributary of the San Pedro.  The sun is bright.  We hike nearly all day through a gravelly wash, crossing and re-crossing the shallow river.

This is the Altiplano, almost as dry as the desert below, but braided with small streams draining the summer melt of the mountains to the east.  Most of the river bed is dry and choked with rocks and boulders.  There is no trail.  Billy wanders ahead, climbing boulders, scouting a path.  The boulder hopping is tiring.

Higher in the canyon we hear a sound like the honk of a car horn.  We look at Billy.  He points to a grove of trees against the far canyon wall.  We see mostly ears.  Wild burros.  They are not native.  Years ago, when the mines closed, they simply turned the burros loose.

They have multiplied.  We stumbled across them several times, climbing over boulders to find them grazing nearby.  They are feral now, wild animals perturbed by our presence.  They honk and bray in protest.  They watch us warily and then bolt.  They huddle in the brush, eyeing us, their long jack-rabbit ears giving them away.

Next morning we drive through a village, smaller than San Pedro.  It is little more than a few turns down some narrow dirt streets.  Here it has rained.  But it doesn’t merely rain, it comes in a diluvian cataclysm.  The dirt road out of the village is ruined.  We bump across broad washouts.  It is hard to tell the road from the gullied river bed.

Again, Ruben pulls the elephant over at what appears to be no place in particular and we get out.  Billy pulls out a bag of coca leaves.  It is common here, he says, to chew the leaves.  They are a mild stimulant to counteract the altitude.  If it’s good for altitude, I’m in.  We follow Billy into the hills.

After a couple of hours of climbing, we enter the valley of an abandoned settlement.  It is a ghost town of rock dwellings and animal enclosures.  They decamped not that long ago, according to Billy.  Life is too hard.  We pass strange burnouts, where a stalk of pampas grass is charred black.

Puma, Billy says.  The herders fire the big plant to frighten off the mountain lions.  We stop for lunch on the porch of a crumbling stone building, one of several lining the trail.  The remnants of a thatch roof offer shade. We are too tired to explore the dark reaches inside.  It looks like a hideout for Butch and the Sundance Kid.  Populating the steep mountainside overhead are saguaro cacti, standing like sentries.

By the end of the day we have leveled out onto a featureless expanse of volcanic rubble. We have been trekking for six and a half hours across a moonscape of broken stone. The afternoon sun is intense, a glowering eye fixed above the canyon wall.  My mood succumbs to the fatigue.  The figure of my friend stumbling over the rocky flat puts me in mind of a sinner damned to purgatory. I pick my way like a Giacometti figure dwarfed and scorned by the barren landscape.

We drop from the flats and cross the Rio Salado.  Again in the most impossible of places, we spy the elephant, clinging to the side of the mountain over our heads.

In the morning we are headed to Machuca, which is close to 14,000 feet.  It is almost too much.  We stop for a drink.  The elevation is sour in my stomach.  But there is only one direction – up.  One step at a time.  Take a deep breath.

We cross an unusual landscape called a bofedal, a high altitude marsh, where two streams meet in a bottom, and high golden reeds grow rampant.  The herders bring their animals here.  A stone shelter sits on a low hill.  An empty clothesline stirs in the wind.  Billy points to a slab of mountainside rising beyond the moor.  Over that is Machuca.  He must think we think just another hour and a half of hiking straight up is encouragement.

At dinner a few days ago, we were talking about Toco, another volcano cone, our climb for the next day. It’s 5600 meters – 18,000 feet. Everything out here seems to be 18,000 feet.  Mt Whitney in the California Sierras is the highest peak in the Lower 48 at 14,505. Toco is 3500 feet higher.

The typical hazards of elevation are headache, nausea. I know from personal experience.  Also, he mentions, as an afterthought, the risk of stroke, what they call ischemia or blood clots in the brain. This is mind-focusing.  Ken is a doc and describes the dangers of your heart pounding in an oxygen starved frenzy.  Bad things can happen.

Instead, the last hiking day, we climb Copacoya, a 16,000 foot peak overlooking Tatio, a geyser field. According to Ken, our statistician and custodian of records, this would be a personal best, far higher than the 14,200, logged in the San Juans several years ago.

Copacoya is a beautiful hike but slow.  Anything much beyond a trudge is impossible in the thin air. The views of the Atacama to the west and the Altiplano to the east are panoramic.  There is an interesting plant, almost the only plant, the Jarreta, a bright green, moss-like blanket almost as hard as the rock it grows on.  We climb past 14,500, and finally clear 15,000. We stop for lunch at the peak, at 15,750, a record I have no interest in surpassing.

That night, our last, the elephant lurches down a miserable, stone-strewn track into a canyon. How the tires, loaded to the axles, survive seems like a gamble to me.  Next to a cluster of steaming geothermal pools we stop.

We camp at 14,200. It is late afternoon but already cold at this altitude.   It will become bitter cold with nightfall. I have been acclimatizing for a week but it’s for naught. The night is hard, the first in decades without the first wink of sleep. Each time my eyes close, my breath stops.  In moments I am jolted awake, suffocating. I pull out a book and count the minutes till dawn.

At dinner, while I glumly consider the options of medical evacuation, Ken is full of cheer, smoking cigarettes and sloshing down wine.  He is animated, explaining to our baffled companions his accountant daughter’s compliance challenges with American insider trading rules.  They have no idea, of course, what he is talking about.  I think it is contributing to my nausea.   But he and they seem to be enjoying themselves.

After a sleepless night the chilly dawn feels surprisingly good.  Why not, there’s no place to go but down.  In the semi-dark I help Billy strike the kitchen tent.  The water jug is frozen.  The cold is biting but clean and astringent.  As we descend into the desert my brain cells soak up the oxygen.  I feel almost giddy.  Billy takes one more detour, plunging off the Calama highway into the scrub.  He drives and drives down a winding track, crashing through the desert shrubs.

Under a bright sun, in the middle of a sandy flat, he stops the truck and pulls a table from the equipment pile.  He spreads a cloth, makes coffee, and puts out some breakfast.  We enjoy one more moment surrounded by the Atacama.  We sip coffee in the midst of this splendid piece of nowhere, a tabletop plunked in the middle of the desert.  Ken lights a cigarette.

Iceland Trek

My Trek in Iceland

 

The sleet made progress slow.  Ahead a white light flickered atop a pole sticking from a pile of rocks.  It was a beacon of some sort.  Hope flutters in my breast.  Maybe it’s the top.  Maybe we can trudge through the wind, sleet and snow, but at least do it downhill for a while.

We’ve been climbing all day in full packs, the last few hours through a wilderness of snowfields.  At the crest of each slope, we peer into the sleet, looking for the hut where we’ll spend the night.  But … nothing.  The trail dips and begins another climb.  It’s been doing this all afternoon.  At the rock pile Jim holds his hiking stick in the air.  The wind is blowing.  I joined him.  He pointed through the sleet.  There it was, the hut, our hut, a hundred yards away.  Hrafntinnusker, it’s called.  Don’t even try to pronounce it.  Clear your throat twice while rolling your tongue.  Our relief is hard to describe.

Snowfields below Hraffntinuskerr

The plane touched down in Reykjavik at 6:30 in the morning.  Groggy with missed sleep and four hours out of our time zone, we head to the Blue Lagoon.  It’s a famous spa, a lake of hot water, heated in the deep fissures of an extinct volcano.  The volcano no longer erupts, but heats enough hot water to warm most of Reykjavik.  They pipe the hot water through their houses and even under parking lots to melt the snow.  Its how they heat the bunkhouse at Hrafntinnusker.  There are no fireplaces or propane heaters.  Thin metal pipes run from floor to ceiling.  It’s a comfortable heat.

It’s a good way to wake up, wading in the mist of Blue Lagoon.  A water-side kiosk offers a tub of silica mud – to give the skin that ingenue look. Here we are two hours off the plane, wandering half-awake in a fog of steaming water surrounded by half-naked people painted like Amazonian cannibals.  Welcome to Iceland.

We drove on to Reykjavik and found our lodging for the night – although here, close to the Arctic Circle, night is a relative term.  It never gets dark.  Nine days and not a moment of darkness.  It puts you a little off balance.  At a quarter to midnight it could be late afternoon.

I wandered through the city.  It’s not big, two hundred thousand people maybe.  It rises from the harbor up a broad hill.  At the top is Hallgrimmkirja, a new and starkly modern church.  Its gray pyramidal tower has become the signature of the Reykjavik skyline.

Jim and I dispute whether its a church or a cathedral.  We debate this kind of stuff.  Its Lutheran, he insists.  They don’t do cathedrals.  Architecturally, it’s a basilica, like the Vatican, I point out – prideful of the first and very last fact I possess about religious architecture. If it quacks like a duck.

He and I have had this sort of relationship since school, oh, so many years ago.  I enjoy the back and forth with Jim.  He does not.  It irritates him.  It is one of my defining traits: the talent for irritating even my friends.  But we’ve been doing this for so long, we forgive and forget.  For almost forty years he and I, Ken, Phil and Randall have been hiking together.  Its a great friendship.  I have come to appreciate it more.  We can call it a church.

The city is Nordic, which means it’s clean and things runs on time.  The transport people said a van would be at our hotel at seven.  It was there at the strike of the hour.  It’s modern, cosmopolitan, with great restaurants and even a sense of humor.  A billboard for one of the older outfitting companies carries the caption “Waiting for summer since 1927”.

The city is also growing, with cranes everywhere stabbing the skyline.  But the language is old, a legacy of the early Norwegians who settled the place.  Many of the words are unpronounceable.  Full of growls and clicks.

Downtown Reykjavik

The people are polite and considerate.  I waited in line in a crowded bakery, in a hurry one morning, and failed to take a number.  At the counter, I was embarrassed.  The fellow behind me silently handed me his number, stepped back and took another.  When I thanked him, he bowed without saying a word.

Iceland is expensive.  Presumably much is imported.  The prices, once you’ve done the mental currency conversion, are shocking.  A basic burger runs something like $25.  If I didn’t know my friends better I’d worry it might discourage their alcohol consumption.

The Laugavegur is an internationally popular trekking trail.  It’s close to 40 miles long, and runs through some of the world’s most spectacular scenery.  The country is an island in the North Atlantic, southeast of Greenland.  It is slowly but inexorably being ripped in two by the tectonic forces prying open the Atlantic Ocean.

The volcanic seam that traces the middle of the ocean runs right through Iceland.  You can step on the fault blocks where the North American plate and the European plate are pulling in opposite directions.

It’s a land of lava and volcanoes, many of them extinct, a number of them distinctly not.  Eyjafjallajokull (unpronounceable unless you can reverse click) erupted in 2010, throwing up enough ash to shut down European air traffic.

The green livery of Iceland

From the high points on the trail the distant landscape has a fairy-tale quality.  It is no surprise I suppose that they are big on elves and trolls.  There are few trees.  Everything is draped in a livery of yellow-green moss.  It is a heavy frosting dripped across the lava fields, a velour carpet on the farther hillsides, and a veneer of paint on the distant peaks.  The landforms are a jumble of old volcano cones, table-top mountains – the curious offspring of sub-glacial volcanic eruptions – and basins sinking as the earth divides.

Hitting the trail and Landmannalauger

The trek begins in Landmannalaugar, a half-day’s drive into the interior.  It’s a bustling camp.  A few small buildings, a field full of tents, and two converted busses, offering sandwiches and potato chips to the trekkers.  There is a crowd of day-trippers, heading into the sunny hills.

We are climbing out of a caldera – the collapsed remains of an old volcano.  We are entering what they call in Iceland a “high heat area”.  The trail threads among steaming, sometimes boiling, pools, fumaroles of stinky gas, and in many places boulders by the side of the trail venting clouds of hydrogen-sulfide – the smell of rotten eggs.  It is the smell of magma, the molten rock simmering somewhere below.  Here, in Landmannalauger, it is not that far below.

Rocks venting hydrogen sulfide gas

 

As we climb, the day-crowd disappears.  We have full packs, which was not my idea.  So the going is a little breathless on the steep sections.  By midafternoon we emerge at what feels like the top of the world, a weird landscape of snowfields and dark lava hills.  The trail runs from snowpack to lava, back and forth.  There is no break from the wind.   It is relentless and pelts us with sleet.  But the sleet comes and goes, turns to drizzle, peters out, returns and is gone again.  This is Icelandic weather.  They can be a little snippy about it.  What’s the weather, you ask.  Look outside, the reply, it’s Iceland.

The climb is more than we expected.  I don’t remember anything in the guidebooks about a torturous, unforgiving ascent through wind and sleet.  One fellow did mention his exuberance at arriving at Hrafntinnusker.  Now I understand.  We have made reservations to stay in the bunkhouses – called huts – at Hrafntinnusker, Aftavatn, Ermstrur and Thorsmork.  They are sanctuaries from the weather.

The huts are crowded with people mostly from Europe.  One couple, a German fellow and his Spanish wife, spoke Spanish.  A larger group was French.  Another from Spain.  But everyone it seems, except the French of course, speaks a little English, particularly the Icelanders, almost all of whom speak it well.  For myself, I know enough French to elicit contempt from the French, enough Spanish to elicit pity, and enough Icelandic to prompt uncomprehending stares.

Our corner of the hut, which houses twelve bunks, is our group and the French.  No struggling through the snow with packs for these people.  They had food shipped in ahead of time and are busy cutting up vegetables and meat for a large pot of soup simmering on a propane stove in a communal kitchen.  It appears that what they say of the French, that they live better than we do, is true.  They certainly eat better.  We paw through our packs for freeze-dried dinners, sip a little bourbon, and try not to envy the French.

The first day was tough and tiring.  Aftavatn, the next camp, is not so bad.    We spent an hour or so traversing the snowfields, up steep hillsides and down, but eventually began to descend.  The sun came out.  There’s a river to cross.  This is a drill we’ve prepared for.  Pull off boots, pull on river shoes.  The water was painfully cold.  My feet sort of liked it – for a minute or two.  And that’s all it takes and we’re across.

The rivers swirl and churn with summer’s glacial melt.  Iceland, predictably, has a lot of glaciers and snowpack.  At a crest on the trail we spy the looming edge of one of Iceland’s larger glaciers, Myrdalsjokull.  It is a sprawling, gleaming snowfield of immeasurable size.  It creates a sense of infinity, where the whiteness rises to the sky and dissolves in the distant horizon.

Aftavatn sits by a lake and in fact the name refers to a lake.  Descending from the highlands, we can see it blue and serene in the distance.  But it’s not serene once we arrive.  The wind is ferocious.  We watch a couple of campers staking out a tent whose flaps are blowing horizontal.

Our small bunkhouse shares a kitchen with a group of Americans from NOLS – national outdoor leadership something or other.  It is a group of Western people who live for the outdoors.

One woman did her qualification test, dropped somewhere in the tundra of northern Sweden.  It is an unusual calling to devote your life or at least your free time – they all seem to have day jobs – to mastering life in the wild outdoors.  They insist they are not survivalists – it is more than that.  Although I don’t think I quite got the hang of it, it sounds like a type of guide training.  One fellow was leaving in a few weeks to take a group of devotees sea-kayaking in Croatia.

Trail markers

There are hot showers at Aftavatn.  Five bucks for five minutes, or five hundred kronur.  The currency sort of works out to moving decimal places.  A thousand kronur is something under ten bucks.  You can make mistakes.  I gathered up a handful of skin care stuff at Blue Lagoon, thinking I was spending 35 dollars, only to find out I had just spent $350.  I begged to reverse the transaction.  They were very nice.  I’m not the only dumb one apparently.

In a cruel trick, the ticket desk for the showers is at one end of the camp; the showers themselves at the other.  The blustery wind is cold enough just getting from the bunkhouse to the ticket building.  The sprint to the showers completes the freezing process, where we wait in line shivering on a windswept porch, counting the people ahead and multiplying the minutes.  Five minutes is barely enough time to thaw.

Aftavatn is a part of the island rift zone.  As the plates move apart (what was once poetically called “continental drift“ is now called plate tectonics) forces in the Earth’s mantle fracture the surface causing places like Aftavatn to sink.

The geology is complicated by the volcanism, much of which takes place beneath thick glacial icesheets.  Strangely, there are volcanoes which don’t see the light of day, where the heat of molten rock, for a while at least, is matched by the bulk of the ice.  The rock created at the meeting of volcanic magma and glacial ice has the technical name of hyaloclastite and is one of Iceland’s unique minerals.  Here the icy cold lives cheek to cheek with the super-hot.

If you have curiosity about the way the planet hangs together, there is no place like Iceland.  In Thingvellir, the site of the first Icelandic Parliament more than a thousand years ago, a footpath descends between rock walls, which year by year, inch by inch, are pulling away from each other.  We are walking, in a sense, between two continents.  Where the land is pulling apart, magma – molten rock from the mantle – rises to the surface as lava.

Between the fault blocks at Thingvellir

Underground, Iceland is in a state of flux and violence.  There are hundreds of earthquakes each year, most too small to notice.  The more or less constant jostling of the tectonic plates are continually reworking the faults and fissures, recharging the geysers, replumbing the channels for the deep geothermal water.

Lava defines much of the landscape.  There are long stretches of highway running between moss-draped plains of lava rock.  The airport is built on a lava plain.  Roads are built along ancient lava flows.  Many mountains are simply accumulated lava flows left standing after the ravages of Ice Age glaciers.

The hike out of Aftavatn heads straight up Bratthals, the hyaloclastite mountain flanking the lake.  It is a sullen uphill slog.  After Bratthals, we headed down.  Today is a ten-miler.  We enter a sunny and picturesque valley.  The sun is warm.  We take a break at an old shepherd’s shelter.  Next to us is the Storasula, the cone of an extinct volcano.  Soon we cross the Blafjallakvisl, and then over a sturdy a footbridge over the raging Kaldaklofskvisl.

Storasula, an ancient volcanic cone.

We are soon heading into a desert – a broad plain of black dirt.  Here again is Myrdalsjokull.  We see only a glimpse between two mountains but it is otherwordly, a trackless expanse of ice and snow.  Beneath the glacier is an active volcano, Katla, which last erupted in 1918.

Emstrur, the next camp, comes into view far below as a cluster of red roofs.  The sun is out as we approach, but the sky grows gray and begins spitting rain as we arrive.  There is something going on.  A vibe of concern.  People are talking about the weather.  The warden confirms it.  “Crazy weather” coming in, she says, waving her hands.  It may make the bridge to Thorsmork impassable.

People are beginning to leave.  Are they going to Thorsmork?  It’s ten miles away.  This is hard to make sense of.  Its 6:00 in the afternoon.  Okay, so it doesn’t get dark, but it still seems a little hysterical.  I’ve just hiked ten miles with a backpack.  It would just about take an asteroid strike for me to put that pack back on.

A glimpse of Myrdalsjokull Glacier

My friends and I dismiss the weather scare.  We’re Americans, optimistic, practical and just a little lazy.  The report is already changing.  The front won’t arrive until tomorrow afternoon.  The warden concedes that communication isn’t so good here, so the weather report can be taken with some skepticism.  We’ll just get up early.

The weather crisis is actually working in our favor.  There are fewer people and the hut is no longer crowded.  The upper bunks where Randall and Ken and I have scattered out things are almost empty.  The bunks are little more than a platform up in the gable with mats laid side by side.  There’s plenty of room.  It’s also a little darker up here in the windowless garret.  Less of the midnight sun.  I’ll sleep better.

We’re out by 7:30 and headed to Thorsmork.  We cross a gorge.  It’s called the Markarfljotgljufur.

Markarfljotgljufur, a river or a canyon

I’m not kidding.  The stream is wild, pouring through the canyon walls beneath us.  To stand on a narrow foot bridge a few feet over a seething river gives you a different perspective.  I’m not sure of what, but a sense of the good things in life one might miss.

We drop out of the canyon country into another desert, this one larger than yesterday’s.  An endless expanse of monotonous black dirt stretching to distant mountains etched dimly on the horizon.  Its hard to photograph.  There’s nothing to take a picture of.  Which, of course, is the special beauty of it.  It’s a nothing like you’ve never seen before, a stark windy plain stretching to low spiky ridges.  It could be another planet.

On the first day we saw no vegetation at the high elevations.  Too cold and windy.  Here, it’s different.  The ground is littered with volcanic debris.  I pick up a couple of lava pieces to take home.  Its not even cold, but there’s barely a tuft of grass.

Ken has reserved a Volcano Hut in Thorsmork.  In the trail guide we are given to understand that we are buying into some level of luxury.  In fact it’s a simple bunkhouse.  It’s small and crowded.  But at least it’s just us.  No French folk making us feel like American society has lost its way in anomie and commercialism.  The weather prediction is about right.  Not long after we get in, the rain begins.  But there are hot showers and no time limits.

Randall outside Thorsmork

We’re a second day in Thorsmork.  It’s rainy, not raining, but rainy in the Icelandic mode of drizzle that turns off and on.  Ken, Jim and Phil won’t budge.  Randall and I pull on rain gear and head out.  I’m delighted just to hike with a daypack.  We pick a two hour hike, miss a turn, end up at another hut by a river.  We get our bearings and head back out.  We stop at Skaggi, a cave memorable for my stumble into a man-size hole in front of Skaggi.  I’m hypnotized by the cave and walk right into it.  Its full of bushes and roots, more a gentle tumble than a full-scale plunge.

Not sure where we are outside Thorsmork

We climb a trail that heads uphill and away from the settlement.  Randall, who is the corporate suit in the group, a highly paid tool of some multi-tentacled hydra in New York, is actually the most adventurous.  He and I climb a knife-edge of rock overlooking the river.  The current has undercut a promontory which juts over the water.  We find another path leading who knows where and just follow it.  It takes us up and through a welter of low birch groves into a clearing at another promontory.  A large pile of rocks announces that this is the end of the trail.  Below us and away we see a corner of the Thorsmork camp.  We share a bar of something.  I adjust my jacket to accommodate the assortment of lava rocks I am compelled to collect.

At dinner Ken announces his retirement.  He is a psychiatrist and his group has just sold their building.  He’s grown weary of the profession, not so much the hopeless parade of misery he sees each day, but the accelerating bureaucracy of medicine.  We toast him with shooters of Bjork, a good Icelandic drink.  Skal, as the Icelanders say.  Cheers.

Final night at Thorsmork

Tuckermans Ravine, New Hampshire

Postcard / TUCKERMAN RAVINE, NEW HAMPSHIRE
      There aren’t too many places like it, at least here in the Northeast.  Up and down Route 93 are manicured ski areas, with trails cut like avenues down forested slopes.  But for wide-open powder skiing, the standard, at least east of the Wasatch, is Tuckerman Ravine.  But skiing is a gleam in the eye here in July, where my cousin and I, and a handful of teenagers, are hiking Tuckerman Ravine – with our sights on Mt. Washington.
      Cut from the flank of New England’s highest mountain, Tuckerman is a glacial basin, beneath a steep headwall, above which, somewhere, is the summit.  The basin and headwall are part of a geologic formation called a cirque, where an Ice Age glacier sheared off and carried away a slice of the mountain.
      The result is a bowl, broad but steep, cut from the granite.  It’s something of a legend.  There aren’t any ski lifts at Tuckerman.  You carry your skis.  It’s for purists.  Rick’s father, my Uncle Fred, skied it in his youth, with the old slat skis and break-a-leg bindings.
      Unlike Georgia, everything here is glacial.  The trail is glacial moraine, choked with rocks which were simply dropped when the ice sheet melted.  And the backstory to the picturesque stone walls of New England.  Behind my father’s house is a strip of old woods where you can hop from one rock to another, almost all the way across, without touching dirt.  Another New Hampshire landmark, strikingly visible from the top of Mt. Monadnock, are the myriad lakes and ponds – every one a glacial excavation. From the mountaintop they look like strips ripped by a giant claw.
      It must be cold in winter at 6,000 feet, but not today.  It’s a sunny warm afternoon, as we scramble over boulders toward the headwall.  From the top of the Ravine, we have a long view of the Presidential Range of the White Mountains.
     Across the valley are the slopes of Wildcat Mountain, another premier ski area.  I guess you’d call it Northern New Hampshire, though it’s still a long drive to the Canadian border.  It took us more than two hours to get here this morning from Hillsboro.
      The trail starts in Pinkham Notch, which sports a visitor center and ski lodge – and not much else.  For the first hour it’s nothing but a trudge uphill through the trees.  Not much to it.   Just keep walking and try not to twist an ankle in the rocks. Two and a half miles in, we enter the Ravine.  Through the trees we can make out the granite walls that frame the basin.  There are a number of huts at Hermit Lake, shelters for the skiers.  Today, though, it’s a bunch of hikers, taking the sun on a broad veranda, most of them already on the way down.  Not us.  We’re not exactly morning people.  It’s already two o’clock in the afternoon.
      The Ravine is above the timberline.  I love it up here.  If I fall over dead on one of these boulders, they can leave my body to the birds, like they do in Tibet, and let my soul enjoy the panorama.  The close quarters of the forest fall behind us.  Rick disappears.  As I hump over a knoll he pelts me with a snowball.  In a shady crevice, where a stream pours from the mountainside, he has found a slab of last winter’s snow.
      We are staying outside Hillsboro, in a lakeside cabin my father rented.   He’s generous with my brothers and me.  Each year, he rents a place for a month so that my sons and grandsons can spend some time with him.  A nephew and one of his friends have joined us.
      My father still lives in Massachusetts, in the town I was raised in.  On the evening we arrived, I went jogging, with an eye out for the marker tucked away in the front yard of a leafy neighborhood, declaring that here Nathan Howe dropped his plow in the field on April 15, 1775, to respond to the Lexington Alarm.  I’m a sap for this stuff.  One of my ancestors was a Minuteman; another, a Tory Loyalist.  I have roots in this place.  
      As I run through the Common, there’s a small crowd in lawn chairs.  A horn band is in the bandstand.  They are playing Simple Gifts on trumpet, trombone, French horn and tuba.   It’s so pretty it damn near brings tears to my eyes.I have detoured to visit my mother’s grave in the cemetery north of the Common.  The grave is on the far side.  I can never seem to find it very easily.  Her death still confuses me.  Memorizing its location is beyond me, and I always wander through the markers looking for her headstone.  The wind changes and I can just hear the strains of the band.  I think they’re playing Nothing but Blue Sky. A corny old tune, but a good choice for an evening on the Common.
      Drawn back to the music, I pause in the old section.  The headstones tell poignant stories about life in old New England.  Elener and Eliza Howe, 3 and 2, died within five days of each other in early March, 1805.  Little Danny Newton died December 19, at six months old.  Winters here can be long and hard. I remember the exhilaration as a boy when winter slouched off, and a warm spring sun, almost forgotten, finally returned.
      It’s an old town.  Down the hill from the center is the sprawling home of Artemis Ward, the first general of the Continental Army.  It sits back on a broad hillside.  He didn’t last long.  The Continental Congress sought more regional diversity, and perhaps ability, in George Washington.  The Virginian had difficulty at first with the New England fighters.  Unlike the hierarchical society in the South, these Yankee farmers had never taken orders.  They elected their captains, and when it came time to plow or harvest, they simply went home.
      Returned from the run, I suggest a movie we can watch over my father’s chicken pot pie.  I’ve got The Man Who Would Be King in my bag, I tell him.  He pays me no attention, and peers at a shelf of DVDs.  Have you ever seen The Jerk, he asks.  I don’t know it.  “It’s a really good movie” he assures me, and gathers himself for an exposition of the plot – such as it is – of The Jerk.  It could be worse.  I’m actually bracing for My Cousin Vinny.
     I can never visit my father without an invitation to watch My Cousin Vinny.  My father believes that My Cousin Vinny represents the high-water mark of American film.  It concerns some cartoonish New Yorkers accused of a crime in some Alabama town.  He likes Marisa Tomei, who is ethnic and scrawny and just not to my taste.
      I have to tread carefully with this.  I don’t want to tell him it’s really a pretty dumb movie – this might actually hurt his feelings; although on the other hand I do know my father.  He is usually nonplussed by such criticism, assuming that it is just me who is ignorant and uninformed about the subtle delights of My Cousin Vinny – a condition he will now correct.  What I usually do is explain to him that it is a fine movie but I’m really not in the mood for anything too serious or thought-provoking.  Nothing too heavy for me right now, Pop, I’m on vacation.
    Although a few days with my father, my son, and assorted nephews and cousins up in Hillsboro are a lot of fun, the evenings are dull.  The cabin itself is dark and drab.  My nephew and his friend have an acoustic guitar which they are learning, with obvious difficulty, to play. In the corner is a small TV, on top of which is a dusty VCR.  There isn’t even a DVD player in this place.
     Down below are a handful of VHS cassettes.  It looks like the media room in a state prison in South Dakota.  The small stack of cassettes includes favorites like NFL Great Moments, Mulan, the Lion King, Part II – and, the Godfather.  I never thought I would find myself grateful to find a copy of the Godfather.  But my son has never seen it.  We pop it in.
      Brando is in great form.  Other actors pale a shade when he’s on screen.  My father gives me a sharp look and stabs a finger at the screen.  “Do you know what his best film was?”  I had no idea Dad liked Brando.  “No, what?”  “Citizen Kane.”  I look at him.  “I don’t know, Dad, I’m not sure Brando was in Citizen Kane.  Are you thinking about Orson Welles.”  He wags the finger again.  “You know, I think it was Orson Welles.”  If we’re not talking about My Cousin Vinny, Dad’s film criticism falls off dramatically.
     On the mountain, toiling over the boulders of Tuckerman Ravine we are running out of time.  My nephew’s friend, whose Goth T-shirt and long black jeans do not suggest a hiking proclivity, is getting sore feet.  We’re two hours at least from the car.  Atop the headwall we’re still a mile from the summit, with something like 2,000 vertical feet to climb.  It’s late afternoon.  I’m starting to think about the fun of hiking in the dark – and the two and a half hour drive back.  It’s not hard to convince the boys it’s time to head back down.
      It’s the right decision.  After an hour picking our way down a fall of boulders to the approach trail, the rain starts.  It’s a warm rain and not so bad.  It toys with us, though, starting, stopping, coyly showing a sliver of blue sky, and resolving finally into a steady downpour.  The footing among the rocks is slick, and one of the boys has gone from foot-sore to something he describes as an ankle sprain.  He and I are way behind the others, soaked to the bone, but grateful, at least I am, that we’re not up on the ridge dodging lightning.  This has to be easier on skis.
     On the road outside Pinkham Notch, there are cars pulled off to the side.  It’s not a wreck; it’s a moose.  He’s gnawing at a tree just off the road.  He’s a big animal, not as handsome as a horse, but a lot smarter looking.  A small crowd creeps closer, snapping pictures.
      Bullwinkle is oblivious.  Without any natural predators, he has little fear of us.  Despite his size, like most animals of the wild he is well-camouflaged in the shadows and vegetation of the forest.  Although he sticks to this one tree, he’s hard to see.  There is a preternatural nothing in the viewfinder.  We spend ten or fifteen minutes watching this marvelous creature.  But I’m dog tired and the novelty wears off.  Unless he’s going to start strumming the ukulele, I’m ready to get going.
    It’s late when we return to the cabin.  The boys are passed out in the backseat.  I’m feeling pretty good that I’ve made it back at all, nearly hallucinating with fatigue.  But sleep cures a lot of ailments.  The next morning is sunny and beautiful on the lake, and almost takes the limp out of my step.

Fenway Postcard

Gulf Shores Postcard

     During Spring Break we went to the beach.  Our beach is in Gulf Shores, Alabama.  We have a ground floor condo unit, with a pleasant stretch of lawn in front, beyond which is nothing but blue ocean.  We like the sand, the seafood, the sunsets.   Wheeler, our twelve-year old, brought his friend Cameron.  I think they had a good time.  They were, the very first day, talking to some older 8th grade girls in the hottub, my wife reported.  “How are the girls”? I asked when they got back.  “They were totally digging us,” he grinned.  Totally digging us.  This is not the answer I’m looking for.  I am not sure why.
     There was a church group from Indiana.  Wheeler and Cameron were in luck.  Right out our front door the Hoosiers put together a dodge ball tournament.  Somebody yelled “dodge ball” and in moments, it seemed, the place was screaming with kids.  It was pretty organized: a mesh bag full of colored balls, and an assortment of plastic cones to mark the field.
     A loud, beefy, forty-something guy, Dave, was apparently the commissioner and was running the show.  Shirtless and clutching a Corona, he refereed the games, bellowing like a drill sergeant.  “You, you, yeah YOU, you’re out, out, get out, you’re out”.  And a kid would slink over to the sidelines.  I’m with Sergeant Dave on this.  It is a contest, it turns out, that requires something like military supervision.  I can’t recall ever seeing a game so full of, well, cheating.  It is almost part of the happy chaos of the game.
   The way dodgeball works, of course, in theory, is you sit down if someone hits you with a ball.  But in practice you sit down only if several people saw you get hit and won’t stop howling until you do.  With so many kids darting in so many directions it is hard to keep up with which ball hit which kid, so very few, at least in the early going, when there are lots of kids, ever sit down, knowing the chances are pretty good that nobodybut the guy who hit you saw you get hit.  He can yell all he wants, but if nobody saw it, how long is he going to stand there protesting before he himself takes one off the forehead, in front of Big Dave no less, and gets yanked off the field, miffed and indignant, while the culprit on the other side throws him a quick smirking grin.
    Even when a kid, caught in flagrante delicto, actually leaves the field, more often than not he re-appears mysteriously a minute later, playing as though nothing happened.  This is tough on the adults, who have lost most short-term memory and really can’t recall if the kid got hit this game, last game or yesterday.  As bad money drives out good, the cheating largely takes over, and gives the whole matter just a tinge of a street fight.
    And the rules.  My childhood memory of dodge ball was a whole lot different.  It was gym-class on a drizzly day.  You took a ball, an old volley-ball typically, scuffed and dirty, and winged it as hard as you had at the guys across the gym.  Not exactly chess.  In 21st Century dodge ball, there are exactly so many lollipop-colored balls stretching across the centerline, maybe ten or more.  I say “exactly” because if Detective Dave doesn’t count the right number, game is suspended for an easter egg hunt through thebushes.  Variations include setting the balls in patterns to make the scrum more interesting.
     The opening moments are dramatic.  His eyes narrowed, Dave scans the array on both sides, telling this kid to move back a few inches, this kid over a little bit.  He rubs his jaw, studying the teams, and finally drags one kid over to the other side, and drags another the other way.  He must be more bark than bite, however, because more than once he ordered a kid to move back behind the line, only to have the enterprising young fellow simply reach behind him, pick up the cone and put it down in front.  As I said, devotion to the principles of fair play is not on parade here in dodgeball.
    When there is, finally, a perfect symmetry to both teams, Dave barks, in a bootcamp voice, “DODGE-ball”. The kids then rush to the balls and commence to bonking the beans out of each other, balls ricocheting all over the place.  If you hit someone, they’re out, unless they catch it, then you’re out, but if they’re holding a ball and your ball hits their ball, nobody’s out, unless someone else on their team catches your ball on the rebound, then you’re out, or you catch your own ball on the rebound from their ball, then they’re out – I think.  The game moves fast, the cheating faster, so sometimes its hard to divine just which rule it is that has this kid jumping up and down in protest.
     There are also infractions, policed by you-know-who.  He harbors a special contempt for the “line-huggers” – those kids who stick close to the back line, either as a tactic or in huddled terror of those flying balls.  It is no less than cowardice under fire to Field Marshal Dave, who struts Patton-esque along the sideline, hurling insults and threatening consequences to those who won’t come out and fight.  It is a metaphor for life, with Dave, a prism through which to glimpse the depths of the soul, the elation of victory, the bitter taste of defeat, not to mention the subtle human satisfaction of riding to victory on the wings of guile and deceit.  I’m not sure I get it, but then I don’t have to.  I’m on vacation.

Beartooth Mountains

A Stop in Beartooths      Phil and I were talking about age and elevation, as we climbed over the rocks to Clover Leaf Lake, at ten thousand feet.  The first day of backpacking was hard.  We hiked all day.  At Martin Lake, I was stumbling with fatigue.  It was eight miles, the last couple a monumental grind up a mountainside of roots and rocks.
     We’re hiking in the Beartooth Mountains.  I didn’t know where they were on a map eight months ago.  The range straddles the Montana-Wyoming line just northeast of Yellowstone.  They are not the youthful Tetons, still pushing pointed fingers into the sky.  The Beartooths are high, but hunkered down and massive, great blocks of billion-year-old granite, autochthonous rock the geologists would say, sculpted by the eons into sheer walls and plunging valleys.  Into the 1880s they were impassable, until a coal miner from Red Lodge, a missionary of the Almighty Buck, found a way.
      His trail is now Route 212, which runs from Red Lodge, Montana, over the mountains to Cooke City, just a few miles from the entrance to Yellowstone Park.  It is called the Beartooth All-American Highway.  From the prairie at Red Lodge the road winds up through piney hillsides – blackened from recent fires – to a series of dramatic switchbacks.   Around hairpin turns, the road climbs above the timberline, to distant views of gray mountains.  The skyline is not one of jagged peaks – the “bearteeth” we were expecting – instead, a vista of lofty Olympian meadows overlooking the world of mortals below.
     Along the highway, the steepness creates the danger of falling rock, cobbles of which lie here and there in the road.  In more active areas, enormous steel nets, anchored by heavy cables, catch the debris.  At one troublesome switchback, in what looked like an act of desperation, the road crews had simply covered the entire hillside in concrete.
    At the passes – there are two of them between Red Lodge and Cooke City – the terrain is alpine, a russet brown skin, like the hide of huge beast, pocked by rocks and a few sprouts of grass.  The wind never stops blowing.   An hour or so out of Red Lodge we stop at the Top of the World, a general store in the middle of the Beartooths.  It is an improbable place, miles from anywhere, run by a fellow and his family who live in a few rooms in the back, selling gasoline, snacks, fishing lures and Wild West gifts.
     This week there’s a biker rally.  Wherever we go in the West we seem to find ourselves in the middle of some sort of biker festival.  Each time we visit Top of the World, on our comings and goings, there are motorcyclists flying colors from some Ohio or Illinois town.  These motorcycle groups are no longer the monopoly of young sociopaths.  All of these folks are middle-aged, with graying hair swept into pony tails, and heavy paunches corseted in black leather.
      It was my turn to plan this year.  I found a bed-and-breakfast in Red Lodge, with big rooms, good breakfasts and a hottub.  I also culled from the guidebook a trail with a six mile hike to a cluster of lakes where we would make base camp for three nights.  The trailhead, I boasted to my friends, was the same elevation as our destination.  It would be a stroll.  It wasn’t.
     The book said six miles to Martin Lake.  We left around noon from Clay Butte Lookout, trending down to Native Lake.  As we hike, Leetz entertains us with discursions about the Civil War.  We emerge from the pines into a meadow on the flank of Clay Butte.  The trail runs the high edge of the meadow, which tips gently away from us, before disappearing into a steep valley.  Across the valley the mountain range seems close enough to touch.  Leetz is now regaling us with descriptions of the neurosis of Civil War generals – Lee, obsessed with shame, Jackson, phobic about – of all things – pepper.  It looks like it could be a long hike.
    It was a long pull from Native Lake up to Mule Lake.  The Beartooths are filled with “tarn”, the term for the myriad lakes that dot the mountains like jewels.  There are nine hundred of them in the Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness, fed by glaciers and filled with fish.  They are waypoints in a great staircase.  Reach a lake, take a break, hike up to the next.    
     Somewhere after Mule we crossed from Wyoming into Montana.  It was down and down – and then up; it was now growing late in the afternoon.  We came across a couple of hikers on their way out.  They warned that we were still a couple of hours from Martin and it was a tough climb.  We decided to keep going.  The book said Martin Lake was so abundantly beautiful that it could not be missed.  And we were, after all, veterans of the pack trail.
    We soon found ourselves on a climb that wouldn’t end.  Strapped to 40-pound packs, we climbed and climbed, over roots and rocks, up the staircase.  I was breathless.  The day before I was breathing Ellijay’s sweet and profuse oxygen.  There was no oxygen that I could detect up here, and my body was sagging.  Up ahead, a few hundred yards away, I caught a glimpse of sky – the top, and surely the lake.  It was a lake sure enough, but not ours, and the trail disappeared at the foot of another escarpment.  It went on like this: a difficult climb, a view of sky at the top … and another climb.  My gait became leaden, one boot dragged in front of the other.  My legs were starting to give up.  My left thigh began seizing in a spasm.  The pain in my back and hips from the pack was getting worse.  My shoulders ached.  I had run out of water.  It began to rain.  Leetz was ahead somewhere.  Behind me were Phil and Jim, I didn’t know how far.  I hadn’t seen anybody in a while.   
      At the top I found Leetz.  There were no greetings.  We looked at each other.  Looks say it all.  Phil and Jim appeared.  They had the same hang-dog look.  No sign of the lake, but no climb in front of us either.  We started down.  After a mile or so we crossed a shallow stream where I stumbled so badly, from pure exhaustion, that I almost fell in.  We found a clearing and sat down.  I was having a hard time thinking clearly.
     But we were at Wright Lake.  The right lake, it seemed to me.  It wasn’t Martin, but its sister next door.  A few yards further we found an old fire ring overlooking the water.  As the Mormon said, this is the place.  By Ken’s GPS we had gone nine miles.  It was sunset and would be dark soon, but we sprawled in the grass for fifteen minutes catching our breath.�
 The nice thing about high elevation exhaustion is that 75% of it is oxygen depletion.  Fifteen minutes of just breathing, without carrying that hateful pack, is a pretty good cure.  We needed tents pitched, firewood gathered, stoves fired up, wet rancid clothes changed.  As darkness fell we were finishing dinner and stoking a fire.  Clouds that had cast a pall on our preparations cleared.  Above us stars filled the sky.  It must have been a sky like this that inspired the name of the Milky Way.
     Around the campfire we argue.  We’re talking about depression in the cultural context.  Two of my friends are psychiatrists, for whom the topic has some professional interest.
     I don’t subscribe to the idea that depression, as the term is commonly used, really exists as a pathology treatable by experts.  It’s a cultural artifact, an emblem of the modern therapeutic sensibility.  As culture yields to the forces of commerce and materialism, people are simply more alone.  People, dogs and ants derive the sense of their existence from community.  The response to this alien loneliness what we call symptoms of depression.  In a hundred years, in a different time, it will become a footnote, one of those phenomenon that marks the antiquity of the era.      �
Ken and Jim are happy to argue.  How can any discerning human being deny the evidence of depression all around us.  All those hopeless housewives and overbearing husbands, all that sleeplessness, substance abuse, sexual dysfunction.  All that lost earning potential!
      The answer is that life isn’t pretty; and for many it’s just plain awful.  But if anesthetizing ourselves with some pill is what the doctor orders, well, I’m not sure the doctor is helping.  Some people, true enough, are really sick, and you may call their illness whatever you like, but taking every miserable housewife and her angry husband and putting them on Wellbutrin is problematic.  The legions of modern psychiatrists, once guides to the unconscious roots of human despair, are now quartermasters for the chemicals that provide the solace that was once the province of communal life.
     But maybe that was the sore legs talking.  The next day was sunny and warm.  Phil and I went down to fish.  It is my lot that I’m the guy who buys the fishing license, the lures, lugs the pole and tackle, and the other guy catches all the fish.  Wright Lake was full of brook trout, who darted here and there in the shadows of the clear water.  I could not interest them in my gold spinner.  Phil, however, harboring a talent I had never seen, with my same gold spinner, was soon hauling them in one after the other.
     An hour later we left camp and headed to Clover Leaf Lake, yet another step up the staircase.  We skirted the shore of Wright, and hiked up to the next watershed.  We promptly lost the trail in a meadow braided with streams.  Straight ahead, a cleft in the mountain looked like the direction of Clover Leaf.  Without a trail, we scrambled over boulders, climbing up into the notch, where we traced the flank of a narrow gorge.  At the top the terrain leveled off, and turned uphill, gently this time, along a stream, which emptied into the lake.
     Here, at what felt like the top of the world, I cast a lure into the deep blue water, and a fish hit.  My friends, wholly without licenses, poles, or for that matter, skill, knowledge or experience, lined up.  It was a fine afternoon.  Few fishermen hike to these distant pools, and the fish were jumping into our laps.  We filled a ziplock bag with trout.  The cutthroat were a foot long.
     Camp was lively that night.  Freeze-dried food tastes better with trout.  Another threat of rain passed and the stars again crowded the sky.  The next day we wandered up and down the lake country.  At each promontory a blue lake sparkled at our feet.  We descended into Green Lake, 400 feet down an endless series of steep, dusty switchbacks.    We hiked up to another lake, over a morass of boulders.  The boulder fields are slow going.  At a break on the shore, we noticed two backpackers approaching from the far end of the lake.  They were the first hikers we’d seen all day.  They were in full packs, headed for the boulders and Green Lake.  They were old, at least late in their sixties, maybe seventies.
     They were a husband and wife from Red Lodge, and had just climbed Castle Rock, the highest peak in Carbon County.  They had been doing this for years.  I’ve already forgotten his name.  Her name was Betty.  They were skinny, weathered old folks, looking fit as mountain goats.  Their packs were old, the bedrolls looked like film props from Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  They were friendly, chatty.  They never sat down.  Finally they swung around and headed toward the boulder field.
     In Red Lodge, a couple of days later, we ate dinner on the patio of a restaurant on Broadway, the main street here.  The sidewalk was busy.  Red Lodge has not yet made the A-list of Western resort towns, so it lacks the gentrified look of Park City or Ouray.  The Californians have not yet landed.  Dwarfed by the Western landscape just beyond the rooftops, little towns like Red Lodge feel comfortable and homey, like a campfire in the outback.After dinner we drove out into the prairie, speeding almost weightless over the flatland, listening to the music we listened to as teenagers, already thinking about tomorrow’s flight back home.

Huckabee Revolution

The Associated Press/February 6, 2008
HUCKABEE AND THE EVANGELICAL REVOLUTION
Republican presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee’s recent primary victories across the South have brought new focus to the long-simmering debate between science and religion.  The former Baptist preacher’s public and popular rejection of evolutionary science has underscored the success of religion in refuting science’s claim to a defining role in the progress of civilization.  That success is being echoed across the nation.
     The New York Times reported just last week that the aerospace research center at Boeing, the giant aircraft manufacturer, has replaced the wing design team on the Boeing 787 with theology PhDs.  The move was a direct response to criticism that the new generation of jet engines had become wholly dependent on scientific principle to the exclusion of more faith-based ideas.  Said one executive, “For far too long, we have allowed aerodynamics alone to dictate the parameters of aircraft development.  We believe that turning the design of these wings over to the preachers recognizes the essential and necessary partnership between science and religion.”
      There are changes afoot also in the pharmaceutical industry.  Eli Lilly is poised to announce a major restructuring of its research and development program.  According to the press release: “The company’s dependence on the science of biochemistry has been under review for quite some time.  We feel that the time has come to emphasize the role of revelation in the development of life-saving drugs.”  Joel Osteen, the well-known tele-evangelist, has agreed to serve as acting head of R&D, promising to replace Lilly’s costly research facilities with a “Laboratory of the Soul.”  Separately, Lilly’s shares closed higher yesterday on news that fellow evangelical, Pat Robertson, had agreed to appear in Lilly’s new “A Little Piece of Heaven” ad campaign promoting Cialis, its erectile dysfunction medication.
      At the same time, the chairman of a major medical school accreditation association announced sweeping changes in medical school curriculum.  Under the new system, the association will drop anatomy and organic chemistry in favor of updated course offerings such as “The Saints and their Miracles; an alternative view for the medical practitioner”.  Likewise, the onerous routine of medical residency may be replaced by a structured program of bedside prayer vigils.  Said a spokesman: “Frankly, we looked at the Afghan model and found that we had a lot to learn.”
      Finally, Microsoft, the software giant, is instituting its own changes.   The company has launched a new initiative to phase out the old binary algorithms in its next generation OS, and replace them with a more scriptural logic. The decision, however, may reflect more pragmatism than faith.  Bill Gates, speaking at a recent conference in San Diego, surprised the audience with his criticism of the often quirky Windows operating system.  “We’ve spent billions trying to make that suckerfish work”, he said, “an appeal to the Almighty is about the only thing left.”

Hip-Hop Summit

 April 20, 2008.     

     With a wife and kids and work to do, I miss most of the seminal cultural events of our times.  One is happening this weekend.  In Philadelphia, Temple University is hosting the Turn Up the Vote National Hip Hop Summit.  It’s sponsored by something called the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (in cooperation with various departments of probation and parole).

     Technical problems plagued Friday’s opening ceremony, when the metal detectors short-circuited.  When power was restored, the sponsors made a quick rule change.  Only fully automatic firearms would be checked at the door.  Knives, needles and crackpipes were permitted.

      At the top of the list of speakers is Clifford Harris, Jr., an Atlanta rapper known as “T. I.”  T. I. boasts an impressive curriculum vitae, recently polished with pleas to three firearms violations.  Barred from voting as a convicted felon, T. I. is reaching out to wannabe rappers to share what it means to lose this precious right.

      Reporters caught up with T. I. at a strip club in the city’s Combat Zone.  “I’m here to share the importance of getting out the vote”, he stated – as he slipped a few bills into the thong of a lapdancer.  According to Harris, the rap community wants to devote a full third of their probationary community service hours to making violent young sociopaths aware that they too have a voice.  “This is my way of giving back”, he remarked, as he and the lapdancer tossed back a couple of shooters.

      Asked about his previous voting experience, T. I. laughed.  “Well, I ain’t never been in no voting booth, but that don’t mean I don’t get my vote”, as he patted a sinister bulge under his jacket.  “And when I vote, dis m___ f___ be da majority.”

      When discussing his preferences among the candidates, T. I. immediately became serious and passionate.  “Kanye thinks he be the top dog”, he spluttered.  “The Snoop Dogg, he got ripped off.  Them Grammys ain’t worth nothin’.  You wait, though, T. I.’s on a comeback.  I’m goin’ platinum with my new download, ‘Talkin’ wit’ my Glock’.  Now that be a lean mean votin’ machine.” 

      As the rapper settled in for another lap dance, a reporter called out, “the name ‘T. I.’, where’d that come from?”  “Beats me” the rapper responded.  “If your mama named you ‘Clifford’, would you be asking questions?”

Evolution and Design

April 28, 2008
Dear Reverend,

     Your recent article concerning evolution was thoughtful and well-written but, to my mind, begs for a rebuttal on a number of points.
     As we all know, Charles Darwin, the author of what we call “evolution”, wrote the Origin of the Species to explain the variety of life on our planet.  He concluded, based on years of thought and observation, that the dynamic at work was “natural selection” – or the ability of successful species to change and adapt to their environment.  Prior to that time we really didn’t understand the diversity of nature.  It was nice to think that God simply made the birds of the air and the fishes of the sea.  But to many that explanation fell short.  Although he did not understand the mechanism, Darwin did recognize the “random” character of adaptation, and it did trouble him a great deal from a spiritual perspective.  
     Although man’s curiousity about the world stretches back to the earliest times, scientific advance has not been steady.  Greek and Roman civilizations made strides toward turning mystery into knowledge and reason.  The Fall of Rome, however, turned the clock back, and we entered 1000 years of tyranny that demanded that all thought conform to religious doctrine.  It is not accidental that during the Dark Ages little progress was made in bettering the lot of human beings.  It is also not accidental that such things as steam engines, electricity and penicillin came along only after reason broke free of religious authoritarianism.
     As much as I admire your convictions and your obvious good intentions, many of us regard “intelligent design” as proof that the Dark Ages are not completely behind us.  We look at Islamic fundamentalists, for example, and see that religious absolutism remains alive and well.  We believe that the future of society requires that we protect the distinction between scientific knowledge and religious belief.  There is room for both, many believe, but the two categories are essentially different.  We fear that intelligent-designers have lost that message.
     My strongest criticism concerns the fallacy that evolution and design are merely competing theories.  I believe this fallacy is particularly dangerous, first, because intelligent fellows like you should know better, but second, because it intentionally wraps its arguments in the jargon of science to mislead us into thinking that the two notions are comparable.
     They are not.  Evolution is, in fact, a remarkably sophisticated, comprehensive and detailed theory that explains phenomenon from the mammalian characteristics of the great whales to the behavior of anti-oxidant enzymes.  From the psychology of the human brain to the genetic clocks built into the mitochondria of each human cell, evolution opens a panorama of understanding of the world around us.
     Design, on the other hand, to put it plainly, explains exactly nothing.  It points to the “failures” of evolution, and does a victory lap.  Although you raise the strawman of the Scientific Method (and then decline to do much with him), I believe that you actually misconceive how science works.  When, in your view, evolution “fails” to explain this or that, you conclude that design is vindicated.  This is nonsense.  Most scientific experiments fail.  Indeed, many scientific discoveries arise from the most interesting failures.  The fact is that the physical world is deeply complex.  We don’t understand lots of it.  That we don’t, and that we frequently bump into a wall trying, does not prove design, but underscores how difficult real science is.                                                                                                                                You refer to the “monopoly” of The Theory of Evolution, as if it were a crime family bossing the scientific waterfront.  One might as persuasively include the monopoly of the Theory of Gravity or the Theory of Electromagnetism.  I believe, with all due respect, that you are missing an important point.  If a young biologist were to stumble over proof that evolution was in fact erroneous, akin to Einstein’s historic de-bunking of the theory of the “ether”, this person would, like Einstein, find himself not a pariah, but rather a hero.  Science, as the pursuit of flawed human beings, may not be perfect, but neither are we living in North Korea.  A discovery that refuted evolution – and we are not speaking of some crack-brain, pseudo-science – but a real discovery, would rock the foundations of science, just as did the theories of Newton and Einstein, and spawn a generation of celebrated professorships.  To misunderstand this betrays a profound blindness about the world we live in – and about the real integrity of science.
     You complain also, if I understand you, that supporters of evolution are somehow picking on the design supporters, even violating their civil rights (the great bogeyman of the Modern Age).  I cannot see that point either.  Science cares no more about design than the quarterback cares about the fat guy shouting at him from the stands.  He has work to do.  All that supporters of evolution are saying is that if you don’t subscribe to science, you don’t get a seat at the scientific table.  Science can be ruthless and will not tolerate cranks.
      Of course, Evolution may explain a lot, but it does not explain everything.  Life is too rich and complex.  “Evolution” itself has undergone substantial change.  We have traveled from the early notion of “survival of the fittest” to a theory of steady mutational change, to the prevailing idea of environment-driven “punctuated equilibrium”.  Notably, design suffers no such growing pains.  The proponents of design simply sit on the sidelines and heckle.  They are not, to make a point of it, scientists.  In fact, they are quite the opposite.  They are anti-scientists who are unhappy, as was the Roman Church with Giordano Bruno, Galileo, Copernicus and the hundreds of others who challenged the existing power structure.  The proponents of design are simply threatened by evolution.  And I can’t say I blame them.
      Religious faith in the Age of Science is difficult.  The cold, random character of evolution, man’s unmistakable descent from earlier primates, the vast antiquity of the Earth, the incomprehensible size of the universe, the baffling and bizarre behavior of matter at the quantum level, and other progeny of science unsettle our faith.  It unsettles mine.  But finding faith and morality in the modern world – the real world – is the challenge, isn’t it?  Denying evolution, and cobbling up some hollow and jejune substitute, is beneath both of us.

Postcard from Boston Garden

POSTCARD FROM THE GARDEN

     It’s good to go home from time to time.  Especially in the winter.  There’s nothing like a few days of February in Massachusetts to remind you why you left.  It’s 13 degrees.  I was going to say ‘above zero’, but at that temperature what difference does it really make.  When I went jogging yesterday a frigid gust swept up the street, slowing me almost to a stop.  Through layers of clothing it chilled me right to the skin.  �
      It’s been snowing forever this season. There’s two feet on the ground, plowed into peaks and ridges on street corners and in parking lots.  Snow is like a rock star.  Great when its young – but it doesn’t age well.  It’s only been a couple of weeks, but it already has a Keith Richards kind of look to it.  It’s mottled, speckled, past its prime.  When the sun is out, the glare is blinding.  Winter is a challenge here.�
     Wheeler and I arrived Wednesday night.  We had tickets to see the Celtics in the Boston Garden – though that’s not what they call it anymore.  In what has become a commonplace act of prostration before the whore goddess of ‘branding’ the place is now called TDGarden.  I don’t know what a TD is.  I’m hoping  it’s not a boner pill.  But I was raised here so for me it’s Boston Garden, or just the ‘Garden’.  Yet I got a head’s up on that too.  I pulled up to the toll-booth in the Sumner Tunnel.  “Afternoon” I said.  “Hiyowahya”, the guy responded, in his native tongue. “Am I heading toward the Garden?”  He looked at me.  “You mean, the GAH-den?”  I stand corrected.  It is, in fact, and always will be, the Gahden.
     Alas, in truth, Boston Garden is gone.  The Celts played there from 1928 until 1995, when it closed and they moved next door to the Fleet Center.  Had to happen I suppose.  The old building didn’t even have air-conditioning.  Although the four walls are new, the spirit lives in the avatar of the Floor.  The new Garden, even with all the hi-tech screens and graphics, has the feel of a shrine when you walk through the portal and gaze down on Red Auerbach’s old parquet floor, built from scraps in the 40s, and transplanted here from the old building.  The Leprechaun still grins at mid-court as he has for decades.  In the rafters overhead are the championship flags – ten alone from ’59 to ’69.  And the jerseys.  Auerbach, Cousey, Havlicek, Larry Bird.
     In Boston sports is more than entertainment.  Boston is an ethnic city.  They live in neighborhoods that are Irish, Italian, black.  The Red Sox, Celtics, and the Bruins hockey team are part of the tribal identity. They’re crazy about these teams.  We saw the Celts play – and beat – the New Jersey Nets.  When the Celts re-took the lead in the 4th Quarter the crowd was riotous.  And this is Wednesday night – playing the Nets.  �
     I’ve been gone from Massachusetts for decades but I’m still a fan.  I actually have a brother who doesn’t like the Celts.  Of all the loathsome apostasies, he roots for the Lakers.  I hold it against him – in a small way.  I can’t understand it.  An ancient team, an historic pageant of accomplishment – and he prefers the Lakers?  And while we’re on it, what is a Laker, anyway?  There aren’t any lakes in LA that I’ve ever heard of, and if there was one, you wouldn’t let a dog swim in it.
      The occasion for the trip is my father’s birthday.  He’s 82.  He’s doing pretty well.  Although you have to watch him carefully to detect that he’s doing anything at all.  He watches a lot of TV, takes walks and rides around town.   But the house looks good (except for the snow), and he’s healthy.  I think he’s reached a plateau where boredom is accepted as the blessing of few problems.
     Like a lot of old people, he tells the same stories over and over.  Yet he seems to enjoy the latest telling as much as the first.  It is hard to say whether he really doesn’t know he’s telling me for the tenth time that his divorcee neighbor is sleeping with a Brazilian or that the father of a childhood friend of mine, who used to live a few houses down, was all those years a raving manic-depressive – or whether he in fact enjoys some secret dispensation of old age that disdains the conversational etiquette of the young.�
     Whenever you spend a few days with my father, you become a captive of sorts.  This season he is inexplicably enthused about old musicals.  For much of the time that we congregated in his den, he had on some DVD narrating the fabled era of MGM musicals.  I watched Gene Kelly perform Singing in the Rain probably five times.  He can become pedantic about it.  He stops me in mid-conversation to ask who was Gene Kelly’s favorite dance partner?  No, he prompts me, it wasn’t Cyd Charisse.  Alright, I give up.  Its Fred Astaire, he informs me.  I don’t know where this is coming from.   I didn’t think he even liked movies.  We couldn’t get him in the car to see the King’s Speech.  Yet here he is holding a seminar on Gene Kelly.  I guess it could be worse.  We could be watching My Cousin Vinny.
     The culmination of the weekend was dinner at an old restaurant the family used to frequent when we were young.  It’s an hour away.  He’s letting me drive.  This is new.  He has an immaculate Lexus that he washes, oh, about every single day.  He has a season ticket to the car wash, and no matter what he paid, it was a bad deal for the car wash.�
      But tonight he’s OK with my driving.  I think this is a good sign.  He’s letting go a little, learning to play better with others.  I too am learning to be a little nicer.  In years past when he was a passenger, I would drive up quickly on the cars in front, just to watch his right foot thumping the floor board.  I’ve quit doing that – mostly.�
      There is a big family gathering at the restaurant, nieces, nephews, and a proliferation of new spouses and girlfriends.  I have no recollection of this place at all.  It makes me uneasy that my youngest brother speaks so fondly of it.  How much of my childhood have I simply repressed?  The conversation is lively.  The menage of aunts and uncles growing ancient, brothers growing a touch gray, a newly married niece, my brother’s four little children – the intersection of these souls around a long table makes for a pleasant evening. The mid-winter night, just outside the window, is howling cold.  The food, a buffet of some sort, looks like it’s been sitting under a heat-lamp for a week, yet life really couldn’t be better.  And the last I checked, the Celts are still on top.