The Journey Ahead – Vietnam, Laos and Hong Kong

We will soon leave for SE Asia but I do so with trepidation despite extensive preparations. It is hallowed ground that we will walk. Here I provide a list of books, films, podcasts and other resources that I’ve relied upon to prepare for our arrival in Vietnam.

We are now less than a week away before my friend Tony and I leave for our trip to Vietnam, Laos and Hong Kong (see Tony’s post here).  I’ve been scrambling to digest books, documentaries, films, podcasts, World Bank reports, newspaper articles, guidebooks and travel blogs.  Yet, I’ve only scratched the surface.

Why do I feel so unprepared?  In the past, I’ve done my homework and plotted out detailed itineraries for travels to Cambodia, Egypt and Tanzania.  Why is this any different?  My rambles have taught me the value of letting a day unfold at its own pace so I’m less concerned with mapping each day in excruciating detail.  Of course, I have lists of historical sites, great restaurants and food stands, and cultural attractions but these are simply a reference point should our path take us in their direction.

I sense that my unease lies in the gravity tied to the steps ahead.  I was in elementary and the early years of high school during the Vietnam war (or the American War as it is referred to in Vietnam).  Yet those nightly news casts are seared into my memory.  When we tread the ground in Vietnam and Laos, we are standing on land infused with so much death and destruction.

Tony and I just went to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial here in Washington DC to contemplate the 58,318 individual names inscribed on that wall.  We will now be in the land where it is estimated that up to 3.5 million people lost their lives during the war.  And death is a desperately inadequate measure for the pain and destruction.

 

 

Some of you may also know that I’ve served in the past on the board of Legacies of War, an organization dedicated to the clearance of unexploded bombs in Laos.  From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. An estimated 30 percent of the ordnance did not explode on impact, leaving one-third of the land contaminated.  As a result, more than 20,000 people have been killed or injured since the bombings ended.

No wonder I feel the weight of this trip. I know there will be much to celebrate.  The street food is renowned, and we plan to gorge ourselves.  We are also excited to delve into the culture, the religion and the history that extends back centuries.  And, of course, we’ll spend evenings experiencing the night life and racking up a few three bar nights.  But the history of that twenty years of war will never be far.

For those of you who are interested, I’ve listed materials I’ve consumed over the past weeks below.  Please share your suggestions on other books, films and resources that I should track down.  Our visit is only the beginning of my journey.

  • The American War, podcast by the Washington Post (2017)
  • A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, Neil Sheehan
  • City Between Worlds: My Hong Kong, Leo Ou-fan Lee
  • Dispatches, Michael Herr
  • Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam, Fredrik Logevall
  • Go Tell the Spartans, Hollywood film (1978)
  • Ho Chi Minh, a biography by William J. Duiker
  • At Home in the World, Thich Nhat Hanh
  • Pete Peterson:  Assignment Hanoi, PBS film (1999)
  • Regret to Inform, a documentary by Barbara Sonnenborn (1998)
  • Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg
  • The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen
  • The Ugly American, Hollywood film (1963)
  • Viet Nam: The Atlantic Philanthropies, Lien Hoang
  • Vietnam: The Next Generation, PBS film (2005)
  • Vietnam Now: A Reporter Returns, David Lamb
  • Vietnam Passage: Journeys from War to Peace, PBS film (2002)
  • Vietnam: Rising Dragon, Bill Hayton
  • The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, a ten-part, 18-hour documentary series on PBS (2017)

The End of 50 States of Rambling??

As I turn a page, it is time to call an end to 50 States of Rambling, Listening, Celebrating and Reflecting.  But fear not — McFramblin: Adventures and musings from a gap year that doesn’t seem to end — is here! 

It is time to call an end to 50 States of Rambling, Listening, Celebrating and Reflecting.  My high school and college years were filled with struggles as my parents grew ill and my mother passed away.  Throughout those days, I desperately wanted to escape – to jump in a car and hit the road.  It took me more than 40 years, but I finally made it.

Starting in October 2017, I crisscrossed our nation several times.  Blueberry, a name for our car bequeathed at one of my first stops by Sadie (the young daughter of my friends Kent and Anastassia), was my trusty steed

Over the course of the year, I was on the road 204 days (with Linda by my side for 84) and covered 39,200 miles in 48 states.

Yes, it is true, I missed Alaska and Washington, but I’ve been to both before and am waiting for an opportunity when our whole family can experience the astounding vistas of the “land of the midnight sun” together.

While 50 States of Rambling may be retired, it is now time to launch – McFramblin: Adventures and musings from a gap year that doesn’t seem to end.  I’ve taken a break from posting as I sift through my experiences and plot the next stage of my life (more on that later).  While I’ve luxuriated in repose in our home in Arlington, I have fit in multiple trips to California, New York, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, a meditation retreat, several conferences, and more dinners, concerts and informational interviews than I can count.  But now, I’m preparing for a major international trip so it is time to rev up the blog.  A new post will appear tomorrow on that front.

I anticipate I’ll be reflecting on my year of rambling throughout most of my life.  I’ve just compiled a short, annotated list of each step of the ramble below.  That exercise filled me with memories and joy.  There is so much I learned about myself on the journey and there were so many fabulous experiences.  I look forward to continuing to share those insights in the posts to come.

Louisiana and Mississippi October 26 – November 2, 2017.

  • Blog Posts. Rambling, Listening, Celebrating and Reflecting in Louisiana and Mississippi
  • Major Stops.  Louisiana: New Orleans for VoodooFest; Cajun Country – Breaux Bridge, Lafayette, Eunice; Mississippi: the delta – Natchez, Rodney, Port Gibson, Vicksburg, Clarksdale, Indianola; Jackson; the Gulf Coast – Ocean Springs, Biloxi, Beauvoir, Gulfport

Arlington to Aspen November 27 – December 18, 2017

Aspen to California  December 19, 2017 – January 2, 2018

Oregon to Spirit Rock January 3 – 15, 2018

California to Florida January 16 – February 8, 2018

  • Blog Posts. My Friends go to Austin and the Hill Country – Why am I in Odessa?, Whose History, Dive Bars, Taking My Breath Away
  • Major Stops. California: San Francisco, Palo Alto, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Joshua Tree National Park, Palm Springs; Arizona: Yuma, Tucson, Kitt Peak National Observatory; New Mexico: Silver City, White Sands National Monument; Texas: El Paso, Marfa, Big Bend National and State Park, Odessa, Lubbock, Amarillo; Oklahoma: Oklahoma City, Tulsa; Arkansas: Bentonville, Cass, Little Rock; Tennessee: Memphis; Alabama: Oxford, Talladega; Georgia: Bethlehem, Macon, Valdosta; Florida: Citrus Springs, Crystal River, Tampa, Clearwater

Florida to Arlington February 8 – 15, 2018

Boston Trip March 22 – 26, 2018

  • Major Stops.  Connecticut: Mystic; New Hampshire: Pelham; Massachusetts: Andover, Cambridge, Boston

Big Island (Hawaii) Trip March 30 – April 9, 2018

  • Blog Post.  The Big Island and Our ‘Ohana
  • Major Stops. Hawaii: Hilo, Akaka Falls State Park, Honoka’a, Waipio Valley, Pololū Valley, Hawi, Waialea Beach, Kamuela, Papakolea Green Sand Beach, Punaluu, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

Tennessee, Alabama and New Orleans Trip April 13 -30, 2018

New England Ramble June 1-24, 2018

  • Blog Posts. Moving Ahead by Stepping Back, Art in Many Forms, Driving Down the New England Coast, An Ode to Small Towns
  • Major Stops.  Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Mifflinville, Lewisburg; New Jersey: Trenton; New York: West Point, New Windsor, Woodstock, Hudson, Fort Ticonderoga, Altamont, Clinton, Watkins Glen, Elmira; Massachusetts: Amherst, North Adams, Williams, Harwich, Provincetown; Vermont: Wallingford, Bennington, Waterbury, Bristol, Warren; New Hampshire: Woodstock, North Conway; Maine: Belfast, Bar Harbor, Acadia National Park, Stonington, Castine, Camden, Ogunquit; Rhode Island: Newport; Connecticut: Gillette Castle State Park, West Hartford

Arlington to Red Rocks to Burning Man July 29 – August 24, 2018

Burning Man to Utah National Parks to Home  August 25 – September 30, 2018

Flesh and Sand

The sand and pebbles ground into my feet but the vastness of the Sonoran Desert in the pre-dawn light was glorious.  As I leisurely scanned the distance, I saw a small cluster of travelers walking toward me.  A moment later I realized I was in the midst of migrants that had crossed the border – a handful of working-age men, a pregnant woman with a child, someone my age that collapsed on the ground rubbing her foot and crying.

Before I could collect my thoughts, a helicopter flew in from over the horizon with an intense spotlight and then two vans screeched to a halt.  Everything changed in an instant.  The sound of the helicopter was deafening but there was no mistaking the orders of the border patrol agents as the dogs bared their teeth and growled and the AR 15s were pointed at us.  You knew to get on your knees with your hands up (if you weren’t scared into running and hiding behind a shrub bush.)  I was shaking.  I wasn’t part of this caravan.  I’m a citizen.

I’m still unsettled.  And it was only a virtual reality (VR) installation.  But it was so chaotic, so visceral, so frightening.  I’ve primarily seen VR in museums where it is employed by avant-garde artists.  This exhibit, Carne y Arena – Flesh and Sand, takes that technology to new levels.  It was created by Academy Award®-winning director Alejandro G. Iñárritu.  In his words:

 During the past five years in which this project has been growing in my mind, I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing many Mexican and Central American refugees. Their life stories haunted me, so I invited some of them to collaborate with me in the project, I’ve experimented with VR technology to explore the human condition in an attempt to break the dictatorship of the frame—within which things are just observed—and claim the space to allow the visitor to go through a direct experience walking in the immigrants’ feet, under their skin, and into their hearts. — Alejandro G. Iñárritu

I hesitate to describe it in more detail, since you need to see it for yourself.  What you experience is dependent on where you walk and how you engage with the people that you meet and the place where you have been transported.

It is more than just technical wizardry.  Each of the three rooms is tailored to open you to embrace the exhibit.  The first room is very cold.  There are lockers on the wall where you are instructed to place your shoes and socks and sit on narrow metal benches until a jarring alarm goes off.  Everything about it removes you from the safe world that you inhabit in your day-to-day life.  I later learned that the room mirrored the experience of those caught on our border.  The first place they are taken is to rooms like this that are named, las hieleras, the freezers.  According to Freedom of Information Act requests, migrants spend nearly two days on average in these forbidding holding rooms.

If the intent is to destabilize you, it worked.  As I walked into the darkened and cavernous room with the sandy and rocky floor to start my VR journey, I was on edge.  After your time in the desert, you collect your shoes and socks and walk into the third room where mute videos of the people that Iñárritu interviewed are displayed.  Portions of their heartbreaking stories scroll across the screens as they stare out at you blinking, swallowing, gazing into your eyes.   No matter where you stand on border security and immigration policy, this is the portion of the experience that truly conveys the humanity, the desperation, the hope and the tragedy.

Proponents of virtual reality approach it with an exuberant ardor.

 It’s  a machine, but through this machine we become more compassionate, we become more empathetic, and we become more connected. And ultimately, we become more human. In other words: We don’t need to read someone else’s mind, we can do one better: become them.  — Chris Milk, documentary filmmaker in 2015 TED Talk

But the experience leaves me questioning.  How do you go beyond an audience composed only of those that are already sympathetic to the subjects or the perspectives you are profiling?  Do participants simply affirm pre-existing narratives and positions or do they revisit their beliefs or are they simply exhausted?  Does it lead to any action?  As I was trying to catch my breath in the post-experience room where you are directed to rest and reflect after leaving the exhibits, there was no engagement on how I might deepen my understanding or contribute or take action.

I’ll be following the growth of VR more intentionally now.  What I do know, is that my legs still quivered an hour afterwards and it has filled many conversations (and now a blog post).  Perhaps I’ve answered some of my own questions.

Continue reading “Flesh and Sand”

Dreams

I had the honor of attending the service of thanksgiving and remembrance for Matthew Wayne Shepard yesterday.  I reflected on Matt’s dreams as passages from his journal were read.  It also inspired me to reflect on my travels over the past year and my own dreams. Now that I am home, I am sifting through my experiences and contemplating various options for my next adventure. One thing that calls to me is the need to reflect further on how we can best bear witness to our history and to create welcoming spaces and vehicles for reflection and learning. I’d appreciate your advice, connections and inspiration on that journey.

Gently rest in this place, you are safe and, Matt, welcome home!

Bishop Gene Robinson

I had the honor of attending the service of thanksgiving and remembrance for Matthew Wayne Shepard at the Washington National Cathedral yesterday.  It was particularly touching in light of my recent visit to Laramie Wyoming, the site where Matt was brutally murdered.

It took twenty years for the family to settle on a resting place for his ashes.  They feared protests and desecration and that was understandable.  Matthew became a symbol and a lightening rod.  His father had to wear a bullet-proof vest under his suit at Matt’s funeral as protestors hurled hate at those attending the service.   When the owner of the Pulse nightclub in Orlando expressed surprise that there was no memorial for Matthew in Wyoming, Judy Shepard responded — “you don’t understand, Orlando embraced you. Wyoming did not embrace us.”

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Matthew was embraced yesterday.  The service was attended by thousands.  For those of you that have not been to the cathedral, it is glorious.  Its nave was filled with moving and joyous music, inspiring remembrances and tributes, scriptural readings and impassioned calls to action.  Most of all the cathedral was filled with love.  There was simply a mother and father with tears in their eyes and a community that gathered in remembrance of this ordinary boy and a life cut so tragically short.

I reflected on Matt’s dreams as passages from his journal were read.  I reflected on what has been accomplished in his name.  The tragedy is still a tragedy.  The gains that have been inspired by this heinous killing do not counterbalance the loss – the years of joys and struggles, the love and loss, the life he deserved.

It also inspired me to reflect on my travels over the past year and my own dreams. While I did not set out with any mission other than to let the road unfold, I have returned again and again to the tragedies in our nation’s history.  I have been called to witness.  Some of this has been covered in blog posts:

Other stops reside only in my personal notes and memories but are no less powerful – a sunny afternoon sitting by a marker on the small Roubidoux river in Missouri where Native Americans took respite for a night while on the Trail of Tears.

Now that I am home, I am sifting through my experiences over the past year and over my lifetime.  I pick up and contemplate various options for my next adventure from a shift to social work to executive coaching to a new run at public policy and electoral reform to further exploration of mindfulness and meditation.

But the one thing that calls to me is the need to reflect further on how we can best bear witness to our history, to create welcoming spaces and vehicles for reflection and learning, to build bridges and to grow individually and as a nation.

I’d appreciate your advice, connections and inspiration on that journey.

At a Lonely Railroad Crossroads in Nebraska

At the world’s largest “railroad classification yard” in North Platte Nebraska, history converged with orphan trains, a major “canteen” for WWII troops and Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.

While your image of Nebraska as mile upon mile of farms and grasslands is not off the mark, my time in the state uncovered bizarre roadside attractions (Carhenge), natural landmarks for Native Americans and emigrants on the Oregon, California and Mormon trails (Scotts Bluff National Monument and Chimney Rock) and the urban joys of Omaha with its innovative cuisine, outdoor sculpture gardens, music clubs, riverside parks and boutique hotels.

 

 

North Platte, however, was the surprise.  Half way through the six-and-a-half hour drive across the state, I decided to stop at the world’s largest “railroad classification yard” where personnel sort, service and repair locomotives for Union Pacific Railroad.  With the golden spike observation tower providing a birds eye view over the 315 miles of track, 985 switches, and 766 turnouts, , it would offer anyone a good excuse to stretch your legs but the history of this rail crossroads quickly draws you in for a longer visit.

Photographer Select (?????)

In the late 1800’s, Buffalo Bill located Scouts Rest Ranch at North Platte because it allowed him to move his Wild West Show by train or by wagon across the United States quickly.

From 1941 to 1946, the North Platte “Canteen” supported more than six million service members being convoyed across the United States.  Every day for 55 months, volunteers from this small community would offer 3,000 – 5,000 troops sandwiches, coffee, cookies, newspapers and friendly smiles.

“Upon stopping at North Platte, we were invaded by a swarm of angels, beautiful girls and charming women, all with a simple smile and cheery word . . . and food and drinks and candy bars and all the other things we needed.  We were dumbfounded. . . .

We know you call us “your boys” but I wonder if you realize whom we saw in you.  We saw our mothers, our wives, our sisters and daughters and sweethearts . . . above all this we saw America.”

Letter from a wounded serviceman published in the North Platte Telegraph

North Platte was also a major destination for the “orphan trains” that ran from 1854 to 1929 transporting more than 250,000 orphans and unwanted children out of New York City to find homes thousands of miles away in the Midwest.  The “placing out” system was originally organized by Methodist minister Charles Loring Brace and the Children’s Aid Society of New York. His mission was to rid the streets and overcrowded orphanages of homeless children and provide them with an opportunity to find new homes.  Some found loving parents.  Others ended up closer to indentured servants and field hands.  In arriving at a train platform, people would gather to look over occupants of the train and decide if they wanted to take one home.  Orphans that were not chosen stepped back on the train riding to the next town and starting the process all over again.

All of this and so much more transpired at a single rail crossroads in one small community in the middle of Nebraska.

Averting Our Eyes Yet Again – Laramie Wyoming

Readers have seen examples of my interest and my struggle with the way we convey the darker sides of our history.  I’ve always believed that we must face our demons no matter how painful.  I don’t do so to cast blame. but to acknowledge that evil resides in all of us, to take time to reflect upon what transpired, and to commemorate those that suffered.

Readers have seen examples of my interest and my struggle with the way we convey the darker sides of our history (see post on the powerful lynching museum in Alabama and the pathetic memorial at Wounded Knee).  I’ve always believed that we must face our demons no matter how painful.  When our family traveled to Cambodia to visit the glories of Angkor Wat and the beautiful capital of Phnom Penh, I insisted we go to the killing fields and walk through buildings where horrific torture took place.  I don’t do so to cast blame since evil resides in all of us. but I have a profound need to acknowledge that fact, to take time to reflect upon what transpired, and to commemorate those that suffered.

As I approached Laramie, Wyoming, I decided to stop to commemorate Matthew Shepard.  Most of you will remember his tragic death two decades ago.

On October 6, 1998, Matthew Wayne Shepard met Aaron McKinney, and Russell Henderson, both of Laramie, in a local bar. Contemplating robbery, the two led Shepard to believe they were gay. Matthew followed McKinney and Henderson into their truck. Inside the truck, McKinney pulled out a gun and demanded Shepard’s wallet, then hit him with the gun repeatedly as Matthew begged for his life. They drove to a remote location, tied Shepard’s beaten body to a fence, and left him to die.

For over 18 hours Shepard bled profusely in near-freezing temperatures until a cyclist happened to discover him the following day. A police officer who responded to the 911 call would later testify, “Though his face was caked in blood, his face was clean where streaks of tears had washed the blood away.”

The 5-foot-2-inch, 102-pound Shepard never emerged from his coma and died five days later.  He was 21 years old. 

Due to the defendants’ testimony describing the crime and their attorney’s reliance on a “gay panic defense” (the judge and jury rejected that defense and the defendants received extended sentences and remain in prison), Matthew became a poster child for the LGBTQ community and those advocating for an expansion of hate crime legislation.  It took a decade but the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was signed into law in October 2009.   (Many of you will remember that James Byrd was an African American man who was tied to a truck by two white supremacists, dragged behind it, and decapitated in Jasper, Texas, in 1998.  If any of you have gone to Jasper, I’d appreciate learning what memorial, if any, exists there for James Byrd.)

What shocked me was that Laramie was virtually devoid of any true acknowledgment of what had transpired.  On the University of Wyoming campus in Laramie, there is a bench with a plaque that says “Matthew Wayne Shepard December 1, 1976 – October 12, 1998. Beloved son, brother, and friend.  He continues to make a difference.  Peace be with him and all who sit here.”  They are worthy sentiments but grossly inadequate for any of us to remember, to commemorate, or to learn.

 

While the street names have been changed and there is no marker or memorial of any type beyond a private road sign designed to dissuade those who feel compelled to make this pilgrimage and complete the detective work to find it, I went to the location where Matthew perished.  It didn’t offer any epiphanies, but it felt right to offer a moment of silence at that spot.

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The Natural Wonders of Southern Utah

Southern Utah offered an astounding wonderland of national and state parks and monuments. The hikes we took are manageable for even a novice hiker and provide life-changing vistas and experiences.

Just think of it – Linda Caudell-Feagan camping and hiking.  For those of you who know her well, I know I will need incontrovertible proof so I’ll provide photographic evidence and an ode to our hikes across ten (yes 10) national and state parks and monuments.

What I offer here is a phenomenal itinerary through the natural wonders of southern Utah.  While I’ll highlight our hikes, the vistas were astonishing throughout our journey.  Many of the highways are officially labeled “scenic” but it seems to me that every road in southern Utah deserves that designation.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer a shout out to our drives through Glenn Canyon National Recreation Area and Dixie National Forest, as well as our rafting trip down the San Juan River near Bluff Utah.

Now on to the hikes.  While experienced hikers may discount some of our choices, I can highly recommend those we chose.  You can never see every nook and cranny of the parks but the 45 miles of charted trails and all of the overlooks and stops throughout the parks certainly impressed us AND Linda kept up every step of the way.  Here are our recommendations.

Arches National Park was our first stop after settling in with our inspiration and spirit guide, Lauralee Green.  Lauralee was a life changing teacher for both of our daughters in elementary school.  She was not only our gracious host in Moab but also helped plot out each step of our adventure.  Arches was a wonderful start with more than 2,000 natural red-rock stone arches and hundreds of pinnacles, fins and giant balanced rocks.

Windows Loop and Turret Arch Trail offered our initiation.  Don’t fail to climb behind the arches and take the “primitive” trail.  You’ll escape the crowds and get great photos.  Double arch is also right across the parking lot.

Landscape Arch Trail was likely our favorite. This huge spanning arch threatens to collapse as part of the natural evolution of arches that continually form and fall.  We were glad it waited for us.

Delicate Arch Trail leads to the iconic image on Utah license plates.  Since the day was ending, we were only able to get to the viewpoint but next time I’d love to take the three-mile round-trip hike to the summit.

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Canyon Lands National Park is one of the five national parks in the high desert of southern Utah where erosion has crafted an amazing landscape (we hit them all).  It is divided into four separate districts by the Green and Colorado rivers and we were in Island in the Sky.  Much of our visit was stopping at each viewpoint immediately off the park road but we did fit in two official hikes.

The Mesa Arch Trail offers a spectacular sunrise hike to an arch perched on the edge of a cliff.  It perfectly frames your photos of the canyonland that plummets 1,000 feet below

Upheaval Dome provided a fun hike to an overlook of a three-mile wide 1,000 foot deep crater that defies any clear theory for its origins.

In comparison to the national parks, Goblin Valley State Park was miniscule and while I resist ever anointing a favorite, it was top of my list because it is so strange and the small campground was idyllic (I’d highly recommend campsite 10).  The landscape is covered in sandstone goblins and formations that are often compared to Mars.

Carmel Canyon Trail – A 1.5-mile loop through the desert floor gave us an array of different perspectives on this wonderland.

Natural Bridges National Monument was not even on our itinerary but we had time so we drove in to see its three grand bridges named “Kachina,” “Owachomo” and “Sipapu” in honor of the Native Americans that once made this area their home.  We only took advantage of the viewpoints but already have scoped a hike at Owachomo for our next trip.  (For those of you who don’t know, a national park is established by an act of Congress while a national monument can be designated through executive order, hence why President Trump could unilaterally roll back the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante.)

Capitol Reef National Park was our third national park and our second night of camping.  The campground is set in the middle of fruit orchards originally planted by the early Mormon pioneers so we enjoyed apples off the tree.  We knew little about Capitol Reef but came away impressed by the canyons, cliffs, mesas and petroglyphs.

Hickman Natural Bridge offered an early morning hike (most of our hikes started early to avoid the heat of mid-day) but my favorite was –

The 4.5 mile Grand Wash Trail.  It has my favorite attributes for hikes in this region – long enough to stretch your legs thoroughly with high canyon walls that offer splendor and shade much of the day.  “A Desert dry wash is a North American desert biome occurring in the flat bottoms of canyons that lack water at or near the surface most of the year, and are subject to periodic severe flooding events.”  Fear not – we checked the weather so we knew we were safe from rain and the flash floods that follow.

Bryce Canyon National Park was phenomenal.  I use so many superlatives in the descriptions of our journey but Bryce . . .  Bryce . . . Bryce.

Queen’s Garden Trail and Navajo Loop – We combined two trails to hike to the canyon floor to get close to the hoodoos.  A hoodoo is defined “as a column or pinnacle of weathered rock” but that definition fails to convey the magic.  The truth is you just have to see it for yourself and this hike which includes both Sunrise and Sunset points is my recommendation for the experience.

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Kodachrome Basin State Park was our next stop.  It contains 67 monolithic stone spires, called sedimentary pipes, and multihued sandstone layers on the canyon walls that “inspired a National Geographic Society expedition to name the area Kodachrome, after the popular color film, in 1948.”

The Angel’s Palace Trail offered a 1.5 mile stroll to get our legs warmed up but wasn’t my favorite hike.  Down the road however were two highlights.

Grosvenor Arch Trail in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument was down a dirt road from Kodachrome.  I knew nothing about it but Linda had fallen in love with arches so off we went.  It is actually two sandstone arches towering 150 feet over your head.  The largest is 100 feet in diameter. I thought they were spectacular.

Cottonwood Canyon Narrows was one of my favorite but most stressful hikes.  It had been suggested by a ranger at the Grand Staircase Escalante regional office.  I knew nothing about it.  I had no trail maps.  I only had its location and a regional map that showed it had a north and south entrance.  But it was a narrow canyon so if offered adventure and shade.  It was another ten miles down that dirt road from Grosvenor Arch.  Fortunately, we didn’t read the description since the ranger assured us we could get there in Blueberry but according to descriptions I’ve read since – “This road is infrequently maintained and subject to washouts. Throughout much of its course, this undulating winding road traverses bentonite clay, which when wet can become impassable and, at best, is very dangerous to drive. A high-clearance vehicle, preferably with 4WD, is recommended, though not required unless runoff has damaged the road.”  The road wasn’t the problem.  The challenge was the fact that most people hike the canyon narrows as an in-and-out experience.  Not knowing that we hiked the entire canyon from the south parking lot and then exited at the north parking lot and started down the road.  It was doable, but it was a long hike on the dry and windy road and we had no idea when it would end.  It did end and we are still married!

Zion National Park reminded me of Yosemite with its towering vertical walls and striking formations.  It also had my all-time favorite hike.

Weeping Rock Trail is a short hike to one of the distinctive features of Zion – hanging gardens of ferns and wildflowers fed by water that filters through the Navajo sandstone and Kayenta shale forming a steady slow rain at overhangs.  Quite a change from the normally arid landscapes.

Watchman Trail offered a switchback up to tremendous vantage points up the canyon with plenty of wildlife and other entertainment.

But the Zion Narrows was the showstopper.  Linda joined me as far as the Riverside Walk when I plunged into the river that cascades down the canyon.  While it often goes up to your chest, it was only up to my knees on the three-mile trek I took.  It was fabulous

The Grand Canyon North Rim was our final national park and final night of camping.  We returned to the Grand Canyon after our trip to the South Rim in December to take another moment to absorb its all-encompassing vista.  I’ll have to admit that after the parks in southern Utah, I wasn’t enthralled but I also have a fear of precipices so that could offer an explanation.  We did take two short hikes on the Bright Angel Point Trail which offers a great vantage point but one that terrified me and on part of the North Kaibab Trail.  Camping was beautiful in the cool forested campground but we were ready the next morning to head back to Salt Lake City and enjoy an airport hotel before Linda flew home and I started the final stage of my year-long ramble.

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All in all our travels were fabulous and we are already planning a trip back with our children.  I’d highly recommend it to any reader and would be happy to go into even more excruciating detail if you have the patience.  It took a great deal of discipline to limit the number of photos so feel free to visit for a full slide show.

I’ll leave you with some of our favorite restaurants just in case you have read this far and plan to follow in our tracks.

Adventures Around Every Corner

Who knew that a stop on the road to Salt Lake City to clean-up after Burning Man would introduce me to the Grand Canyon of Nevada, Basque poetry-slams, and the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

While I enjoy all the national monuments and well-known tourist sites I visit on my rambles, I get some of the greatest joy from unearthing treasures at locations I know little about.  On my escape from Burning Man, I booked an AirBnB in Elko Nevada.  The only reason I stayed in Elko was because it was on the highway to Salt Lake City where I’d pick up Linda for our adventure in southern Utah.

It also offered a respite to cleanse myself of playa dust since I was skeptical she would enjoy the clouds that followed me.  That cleansing involved 8 loads of laundry, two automatic car washes and hours scrubbing the dust out of crevices by hand, hosing down my air mattress, and servicing Blueberry at the local Toyota dealership since I’ve already driven over 22,000 miles.

And then Elko started to reveal itself.  Who knew I would stumble upon:

  • Lamoille Canyon. Known as the Grand Canyon of Nevada, it offered fabulous scenery as I drove into the heart of the Ruby Mountains and went on a two hour high-altitude hike up to scenic lakes and canyons.

 

  • An immersion in some of the unique aspects of Basque culture. Basques moved into Northern Nevada, central Idaho and southeastern Oregon in the mid-1800s during the Gold Rush and stayed as sheep herders. They are a genetically and linguistically distinct people from a region of the Pyrenees straddling France and Spain.  They speak Euskara, one of the oldest languages in Europe.  While its origins are uncertain some speculate that it comes from the Caucasus but no one has been able to definitively trace its beginnings.

In Elko I learned about bertsolaritza festivals described as “Part poetry-slam, part hip-hop freestyling, part a cappella singing and 100 percent improvisational.”  Now that would be worth experiencing.  I also learned about the tradition of Basque immigrants carving family history and art into aspen trees as they watched over herds of sheep.  These tree carvings are a treasure trove of folk art and documentation of times gone by.

 

  • Elko is also home to the annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. The Poetry Gathering started 34 years ago as a place where Western ranchers and cowboys could gather to share poems inspired by their lives working cattle.  “The tribe is now a nation of Western poets, musicians, artisans and storytellers, sharing their creativity across the country, telling their stories of hard work, heartbreak and hilarity, and what it means to make your way in the rangeland West.”  I learned from an extended conversation with one of the volunteers that they even let Basque participate recently – a major step since the divide between cattle ranchers and sheep herders remains deep.  Who knows – maybe I’ll make it back this January.

National Cowboy Poetry Gathering

Well I certainly got more out of this stop than clean clothes and a polished car.  Elko  affirmed my belief that there is fascinating history and unexpected adventures around every corner.

Lessons from Burning Man and my Ramble

Burning Man and my rambles across the country have offered many lessons from being present to the joy of celebration to the importance of family.

After almost a year of rambling, I entered Burning Man different than in the past.

My first immersion in the playa in 2011 was simply overwhelming.  Your senses are assaulted on every front and your moods and emotions can be on a roller coaster.  The photos in my prior post gave you a sense of the visual stimulation, the festival atmosphere and the frenetic pace but, trust me, they don’t convey a fraction of the reality.

You turn yourself over to the experience. In fact, the community has its own lexicon that reflects the unique landscape, culture and character of the event. You start referring to Burning Man as “home” and the world outside its boundaries as the “default world.”  You adopt (or are given) a playa name reflecting an alternate persona.

Burning Man taught me many things.  It taught me to be present.  One midweek afternoon several years ago when I was dusty and sweltering and feeling sorry for myself I had one of those experiences of serendipity when a campmate took me on an adventure.  Who would believe that I could go from exhaustion to exhilaration from being disheartened to joyful within a matter of minutes.

In my prior years, I also exalted in taking campmates out for nights filled with dancing and partying as we went from one rave and camp to another.  For those of you who have been out with me on a three-bar night, you have a sense of the pace and the delight that I take from these quests.

This time, I was more introspective.  I’ve had a year to decompress from work so I didn’t need to blow off steam.  I’ve also spent time reflecting.  With my close friends that have joined me in prior trips to the playa remaining at home this year, I had the freedom to let the pace of the day evolve, to participate in some of the camps running meditation sessions and other spiritual offerings, to listen to more of the lectures and performances at the Center Camp, and to simply absorb rather than orchestrate the experiences of others.

I also became more rebellious.  I dropped my playa name since I didn’t feel the need for a different personality or persona.  And while I fully embraced much that Burning Man has to offer, I also rejected the terms home and default world.

If there is one lesson, I’ve gained from my months of rambling it is a true sense of home.  It was only deepened in my time in Colorado last month.  Linda, Jane and Leah all came out for a weekend in Denver.  The precipitating factor was the opportunity to see a concert by Brandi Carlile at Red Rocks Amphitheater.  Before I go on, let me simply state that everyone should see a concert at Red Rocks.  Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, it is simply breathtaking and, according to Rolling Stone, is the best concert venue in the nation.  Everyone also should see Brandi Carlile in concert.  Whether you characterize her music as pop, rock, alternative country, or folk, her ballads can tear at your heart and her performances are so energetic they will sweep you away.

 

But let me get back to my topic.  Being together as a nuclear family for that weekend was truly magical.  Being in a loving family is the definition of home from my perspective.  We had fun tubing down a river in Golden Colorado, imbibed at a number of brewpubs, and had some fantastic meals including a memorable one at Linger.   We were wowed by our night at Red Rocks when Brandi seemed to be singing just to us at moments in the evening.

Most important, however, we had time together.  We shared our joys and struggles.  We embraced in pairs and as a group and we gathered strength from our history together and our love. The great thing about family, whether defined by genetics or chosen on your journey through life, is that you can reveal your inner self.  At places like Burning Man you have the joy and opportunity to test out different skins as you try to refine how you define yourself.  With the lifetime that you share with family, you inevitably unveil your inner self, even the flaws.  And, in the best of families, you are loved despite those flaws, or, perhaps, because those flaws reflect the struggle that we all share and the striving to be our better selves.

Home is family.  Family is home.

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What is Burning Man and why are YOU there?

So many of my friends are baffled by my attendance at Burning Man.  Others have never even heard of this bizarre annual festival on a dried lake bed, known as the playa, two hours north of Reno Nevada.  There is simply no way to fully describe it.  It is one of those things that you need to experience.  For those who have heard salacious snippets – it is all true.  Yet, it is so much more.

Burning Man is held annually the week leading up to Labor Day.  During those seven days, 70,000 people descend on the beautiful, remote and inhospitable Black Rock Desert to form a temporary metropolis.

 

So to get past it – yes there is extensive drug use and nudity.  There are raves that go on nonstop. There can be dust storms that rage for hours.  A huge wooden structure of a man is burned on Saturday night along with a massive temple and many other structures that are immolated over the week.  But there is also a guiding philosophy that deeply grounds this temporary community with shared values (see the 10 principles that range from self-reliance to radical inclusion to gifting to leaving no trace to . . .).

I stay with Duane’s Whirld, a camp that is assembled by an eclectic array of 40 friends and strangers to survive the week.  We jointly purchase all the food and drink needed, share in a treasure trove of critical materials packed in a storage space in Reno that includes our bikes (you cannot drive once you reach BM so the main way to traverse the expanse is by cycling), couches, shade structures, kitchen equipment, etc.

 

As with most camps, we also plan some joint gifting.

Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift-giving.  The value of a gift is unconditional.  Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.

There is nothing to purchase once you reach the playa, other than ice.  You bring what you need.  Gifting is deeply embedded in the culture.  In your first trip, you’ll likely be confused by this principle and end up bringing some trinket out of desperation to hand out to everyone you meet.  The truth is you don’t need to do so.  A gift can be a hug, offering someone chap stick or sunblock, or inviting someone into your camp to eat a meal with you.

For our camp, we have two wonderful traditions.  We bike out into the more remote sections of the playa with a chest full of ice-cold beer to hand out during the heat of the day.  On other nights we pedal out the necessary paraphernalia and set up a station to make smores.  One of my favorite camps, Northwest Mist, comes down from Portland Oregon and sets up a large tent with misters that lightly spray water from the ceiling to help you replenish after days in the desert.  Another camp is filled with Mathematicians that “gift” lessons on math and statistics throughout the week.

The most momentous aspects of Burning Man are large art installations (scroll through slide show for a small sample),

 

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the mutant vehicles or art cars that are the only motorized transportation allowed on the playa (They typically have extensive sound systems and astonishing designs, lighting and/or flame effects), and, of course,

 

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the structures that BURN!  The theme for Burning Man this year was IRobot so you can see its influence on the Man.  The Temple is a much more sacred space that is filled with tributes to people that have died or are suffering and narratives and art reflecting the struggles of those in attendance.  The burn of the temple on the last Sunday is done in silence as all of these tributes carry off their messages and reverence.

 

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What stands out for me however is the relationships that are built.  Typically, you plan a vacation or attend an event intending to experience it with your friends, co-workers or family.  You deepen your relationship but it is a more insular experience with only limited interactions with strangers. At Burning Man, everyone enters with an intention to meet others.  The principles of gifting, immediacy, inclusion, and communal effort leads you to strike up conversations with others continually and to build relationships.  I’ll be in camp one day and someone whom I’ve never talked with will walk up and ask whether I want to bike out to a sculpture on the other side of the playa that they’ve heard about and an adventure begins that lasts all day.

Ben Von Wong is a great example.  I met Ben and his partner, Anne, on our first day.  They helped immensely as I organized a massive shopping expedition at a grocery store in Reno before our camp’s trek to the playa.  Later in the week, I joined a small group he assembled to photograph images at sunrise.  In the days since leaving BM, he has shared more of his life experience and I’d encourage you to view this TEDx Talk he gave on art and social change.  My life is enriched by the opportunity to engage with a true visionary creative.  For me, such opportunities are the greatest gift at Burning Man.