Erosion

Posted on 4 August 2017

I’ve learned I can simultaneously expand with wonder and implode with despair. It’s a hard thing, working in a beautiful place and knowing it’s degraded, its soils are crumbling, rolling into the lake, leaving scars of absence. It’s also a hard thing to be degraded, to be regarded either too hard or too little, so like the soil you run away and scars mark your retreat.

Walking back to my tent-room after tracking down documents, I’m greeted by a man who shakes my hand and then refuses to let go, he grips harder and I yank away and shuddering, hurry off. He knows exactly to where and I don’t like that. I have to work, or I don’t have to but I want to, we’re trying to do the right thing and write a decent, helpful report, but I sit on the edge of the hill and stare out over the lake a bit first. It is beautiful. I know it’s choking.

Gwassi Hills, KenyaSunset over Lake Victoria

At night, we stare out over the water some more. The sunsets are some of the most stunning I’ve seen. I read my book before bed. In the morning, before our tea and toast, we stare out over the water again to see what we’ll see: fishing boats, a smudge of a midge hatch, contrasting currents. I feel a bit more curious and energized. I think about the complex projects that can maybe help restore this place. But then I’m deflated the next time a group of men largely ignore me in a meeting about microloans. The only words for me are: hello, goodbye, and you should stay here and get married.

I prefer the words in my book, or the ones that I myself type, so I huddle back in my tent-room and do some work, or just sit in murk of discontent and unease. I can’t stay inside for long, though; it’s too beautiful.

Suba Tent RoomSunset Grass

With my colleagues I make my way down to the edge of the lake and I leave them for the women’s side of the dock. I’m happier there. I’m showered with smiles and questions and the ladies laugh at my swimming as they wash. They ask me if I’ll come back tomorrow. I wish I were coming back tomorrow. But I’m leaving tomorrow, with the men. Well, I should say there’s one man in particular who holds on too long, who grabs me close, who appraises me, who says things. He’s my boss.

I come back to these hills some weeks later, though, and now we sip tea in the dining area. We met my colleague in Kisumu after flying from Nairobi, after an hour’s drive from where I lived and worked. I was relieved to be with my colleague as we drove and ferried and drove from Kisumu, a buffer from him and the tense hours I’d spent just the two of us in the airport, on the plane. I was shown off to a government minister: look at her! His eyes pierced and I couldn’t avoid them. So now I was back in the hills, sipping my tea, and dissolving quietly, but more calmly, less rapidly than in those anxiety-tinged hours as I forced myself through the motions of politeness as I was subdued, devoured.

Tea Time

We visit gardens and offices and factories. We work on our report. We stare at the lake. I chat with the women. I shy away from the men.

Another Lake Victoria SunsetRed Clouds

One last sunset, and then we walk to dinner. The cook has made me another special vegetarian meal. She is very kind and seems as eager to make new dishes for me, as I am eager to eat her food. I’m eager to talk to her too. I ask her a lot of questions. I have learned a question is a friendly thing and I can’t, sadly, just be friendly because friendly is too much, friendly is dangerous. Except with women, of course. We get it.

Lake Victoria Current

The beauty crowds my emotions, and I feel bad about that because the hills are falling apart and the lake is curdling. I also feel bad for not enjoying myself but I’m curdling too. I’m getting mean. And I’ve learned I can concurrently appreciate and despise, for there are different components to everything. Currents cut through in different shades, they cut through me and they cut through this place. I love it and I am deeply uncomfortable. I’m disturbed and I’m excited.

More has travelled through these ravines by now. They’re six years deeper inside me. I’m sure they’re deeper in the hills too. Sadly.

Vacillation

Posted on 4 July 2017

 
I am an American. I am a bursting bubble!
I survey with an expectant smile.
Enthusiastically I trample around.
I offer hugs.
I throw myself.
 
I have a shadow self.
I say it will be alright.
And then it isn’t.
And then I squash the best parts of myself.
Down with all that isn’t boisterous glee.
 
Facets spark in different light.
In one hand I offer,
one hand is a fist.
Love me, hate me.
It’s fair.
 
I’m more restless than you know.
I know where I’m from, but
what is home? Still
I admit – proud? Of what, being born? –
I am an American.

Immigrant March

The South Rim

Posted on 11 June 2017

Another coyote gave us a glance and then pranced on as our car clunked along the rolling dirt road. The early January sun glared at us over the scrub. Dust billowed behind us. I settled back in my seat for the drive, which brought us winding through the Chisos Mountains. Pine trees began to line the road as we ascended, and browns turned to greens.

Big Bend Coyote

There are a lot of animals in the desert; it’s not nearly so barren as many people imagine. We began hiking and birds rustled in the trees alongside the trail. As we made our way into the meadows, deer abounded. If I had been inattentive, I would have been slightly concerned about colliding with them. And the plants, more specifically the cacti, presented their varied selves without modesty. I bent down and peered at many with glee.

Big Bend Deer

We were hiking Big Bend’s South Rim, a 12.6 mile hike up into the Chisos Mountains, that leads to a view extending over the rolling desert for miles. The border with Mexico fades away in the wilderness: just the mountains and the sky exist and stretch on. Trying to place our order on this landscape is silly; it holds its own. We sat on the edge and ate our snacks as the wind whipped our hair around. It was chilly, so we got up and started walking in the sun again.

South Rim ViewSouth Rim View 2Elephant Tusk from South Rim

More meadows. The grass stood tall and silver, bending in waves. Deer plodded their way through it. There wasn’t a cloud in the blue sky above. As we descended and more robust trees reappeared, we began keeping an eye out for bears. We came across fresh, steaming at that, dung, and though we didn’t see the bear, it probably saw us.

Big Bend Deer 2Meadow Near South Rim

I took a detour to climb Emory Peak, because when a notion gets in my head, I want to do it. I speed-walked up the path, past other hikers, and then with a bit more fear in my limbs, pulled my way up and over the rocks marking the scramble to the top. Amid other people and the radio equipment positioned up top, I took a few moments to stare around. And then, I hurried my way back down, to Ben, to the car in the parking lot, to our campsite, to San Marcos, to the airport, to home. The desert stretches out behind me, indifferent.

Big Bend BootSierra MadreView from Emory Peak

A Trail of Thought

Posted on 10 May 2017

Big Bend from Grapevine Hills

My thoughts go like this. I’m in a national park – a relatively remote one, at that – and one may think it’s untouched and pristine, but no, it’s not. There was a mine in this park. I scramble among the ruins, trying not to touch too much. The desert has worn out the mine by now: it’s just over a hundred years old and it looks the part. And I say desert. This used to be grassland, but ranchers’ cattle gobbled it up. It is still beautiful.

Mariscal Mine, Big Bend View from Mariscal Mine, Big Bend

So, okay, there was a mine in this not-pristine wilderness but what about before that? Before the treads of cattle and the settlers who brought them, Native Americans were here; you can see old symbols they left etched on rock. They left other marks too. The wilderness hasn’t been pristine (whatever that means) for many centuries, for homo sapiens wreak havoc wherever they tread: when they came to the Americas, and Australia, and New Zealand, and everywhere, they killed off most mega fauna in a jiffy.

There is hardly a pristine, untouched wilderness on this earth. When you read those descriptors, know it’s likely a farce. But for all the havoc we’ve wreaked over the millennia, we humans have not lacked our impressive moments, even hundreds – thousands – of years ago. Humans then were, I suppose, about as dumb or smart as we are now. Pass through intricately decorated churches built without the help of engines and think about how that happened. Check out the Incan cities – or the pre-Incan cities at that! – of South America. Goddamn, it’s a hike up to Machu Picchu, and they got stones up there how? Or gaze over the seemingly never-ending temples of Bagan, some of which have stood for about a thousand years. Today we have machines and computers, sure, but most individuals lack other bits of knowledge that used to be common.

Dormition Cathedral, MoscowLlamas at Machu PicchuBagan Sunset

And we don’t all have machines and computers, anyway. The world is vast and varied. Some populations have had recent technologies snatched from them, deprived by war and/or poverty induced by other populations. And some populations never got them. I walked through an Andean village where no electricity flickers. Smoke filled the homes as mist filled the valley as I walked up the trail, the only way in.

Cancha Cancha, Peru

I guess my conclusion goes like this. We are, and have been since our species’ inception, very much a part of this world and, more so, have been playing much the same game, though in varied ways. Humans are diverse, now and across time, but we’re much the same, too. And that makes everything complicated. Draw a line and it probably deserves a stomp because it isn’t true. But there is one truth: we love clichés and cling to stories. So are there truer, deservedly intricate stories we can compellingly tell?

Accidental Mindfulness

Posted on 13 April 2017

How many hours have slid by as I peered out of a window, strange lands passing along beside me? Of those times, how many have I disembarked from a train, bus, plane, shouldering my pack, unsure of where I was going next, where I would sleep?

Enough to almost fully know that fluttering panic won’t help. Enough to often suppress the urge. Enough to observe what comes and go along with it, nearly sans distress. A shaky stillness came to me unconsciously, over time.

Road in SW BoliviaCircum Baikal RailwayViru Bog Trail

This isn’t my natural state: it took plenty of those trains, buses, and planes to reach a place where—had you told me this before, I would have laughed at you, askance—I don’t think too hard and instead calmly move along. I simultaneously shut down strong emotion and skittering races of thought, and become translucent as moments and vision pass through me, leaving traces of emotion and memory behind, for later. It’s a transient state, but I have it in me now.

So maybe traveling as I have done taught me mindfulness, a skill I can sometimes – sometimes! – draw upon. This was inadvertent. My teenage self scoffed at shutting down what I consider the strongest, most valuable element of myself: my thoughts, my mind. But what degree of intellectualism can pull you out of a bus going the wrong way? Or up through a canopy of trees in a national park, miles from where you intended to be? Or into a room with a bed, when you’re currently hiking into a town with no place to stay? The thoughts don’t help. Only moving along does anything.

Cancha Cancha Dog, PeruIsla del Sol, Bolivia

I’ve become the opposite of what’s expected. Anxiety is for home; acceptance is for traveling. I’m trying to draw the ability to sit back and observe off the road and into my routine, more specifically, my pattern of news-reading and political activism which was a carbonated beverage that has now been particularly shaken. I downloaded a meditation app and as Tamara Levitt evenly spoke I realized I have felt these sensations – just not so much on my own couch.

Lass dir Alles geschehn: Schönheit und Schrecken.
Man muss nur gehn: Kein Gefühl ist das fernste.

Let everything happen to you: Beauty and terror
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
– Rainer Maria Rilke

Storm from Isla del SolThe first time I embarked on an utterly solo journey, I fidgeted hard on the plane, trying to breathe calmly. It turned out okay, even though those couple weeks spanning five countries included plenty of getting lost and last minute assurances of a place to stay. And then I returned to this situation and returned and returned. It lingers in my head when I am not there. I suppose a path has been worn and while not quite the way of least resistance – it’s there.

Sure, I don’t glide through all of it. Wandering the streets of Berlin felt very different from those of Bujumbura – while both have played host to relatively recent genocide, one is closer to what I have grown up knowing and one is home to a language I can speak, and commonly speaks my language back at me. When I am in a stranger space, where anchors of reference are harder to set, I do feel grabs of a spinning fright. But now there is more in me; I have stretched. It’s smoother each time.

Climbing out of Colca Canyon, Peru

The calm does not stem from repeated assurances that everything will be alright. Indeed, throwing myself around and sticking feelers out of my lucky, privileged shell, to see though I cannot know, tells me the opposite. There are horrors, and they are common, and my little slice of the world and the position I hold is not an indicative slice. But there is a depth and complexity into which we can sink, and know we’ll never quite understand, but we’re wrapped in the sight of a wide horizon. Known but unknowable in full. I accept.

I now sense and sideways-understand what changed in me. Maybe I cultivated the mindfulness that has been repeatedly proposed to me, gradually, on accident. A habit of losing control and an assent to the mixedupness of it all pushed me where I hadn’t intended to go. Now I walk a bit more lightly, sometimes. It’s just something I see.

Kiasma Installation, Helsinki

A Place Is What It Is

Posted on 14 March 2017

Alaska in winter. Skeptical and bemused expressions acknowledged my plans. “What will the temperature be? Will there be any daylight?” Interesting questions and yet, the answers don’t matter.

My friend alerted me to an airline ticket sale to Fairbanks, where she lives. I could get cheap tickets through February. So, I went when I could go and I was glad. February is a reality. Winter in Alaska is a longer reality.

The point is: I’ll go at any accessible time.

The corollary is: I want to see a place for what it is, not what I want it to be.

Of course, everyone has a mental filter through which their impressions fall. What is called reality is only a part-truth, for no one can encompass a whole place, and its everything. But still, I’m not waiting for a place to suit me. I will suit myself to the place. And in this case, borrowed jackets upon jackets and a wonderful host simplified this process. I was shown Alaska in February. When the timing is right, absolutely, I’ll see it in summer too. It’s just that anytime can be fun and interesting, if you let it be so. What I’m saying is: Abolish constraints.

Snow Trees Low Sun

Snow shapes glided beneath the wing of the plane as we descended. I followed an Alaskan Senator off the plane. My friend greeted me and showed me the bears (taxidermied) in the airport lobby. We crunched over the packed snow parking lot to her car. And then we went to a First Friday art show on microbes.

Awareness of microbes is important, and the cold is too. Quite a lot lies under our feet in broad swathes of the earth, trapped in permafrost. Which is melting. Representations of some of these no-longer-captives hung on the walls. There was also a partially decomposed shirt enshrouded in glass. And stuff to do with mushrooms. Despite having to weave my way through the crowded rooms, consider me fairly impressed.

Fairbanks Bar Dogs

The adventure switched gears. First, a visit to a local distillery, which was hosting a firefighters’ auction-art show (where we laughed at my friend’s art). Second, to a dive bar, complete with bar dogs who hung out on the porch. One in particular especially wanted in, just to socialize. Third, to a drag show. It was packed and I observed the observers (and who could help but notice the great queens?). A woman in a gun rights shirt enjoyed the show a row in front of me.

The night ended with a drive up a dome (as in, a rather large hill). I stood on the edge of the road in the snow, half sunk in, squealing about the aurora overhead.

KatnissSnow Light ShadowsAlaska Winter Sunset

The next day, I clumsily stepped into skis for the second time in my life and shuffled along with my friend, her brother, and her dog for about ten miles. The snow positively sparkled, refracting the low sun around us. Trees drooped heavy with snow. We skirted moose poop. The sun disappeared on our way back to the car but the moon was bright, and headlamps illuminated the tracks in front of us. I had stayed warm enough while skiing, but was eager to get into the Chena hot springs as our headlights cut a path through the darkness on the way there. My friend and I cautiously galloped through the frigid hall to the hot springs, and sat in the water as soon as we could. Steam rose around us, and my hair turned white once again. The trees lining the spring were entirely encapsulated with frost. Some lamps shone through the steam. We floated through the mist, dodging preemptive Valentine’s celebrations, doing a lap around the pool. And then I was too hungry and thirsty to endure the heat much longer, so we showered off and went to the resort restaurant where I easily ate all that I was served.

Trans-Alaskan PipelineGold Dredger

The following day was back in the city, visiting friends and cafes and downtown Fairbanks and an open-air museum and the Trans-Alaskan pipeline and an old gold dredger. Lest one think you must hide away the whole winter, let our putzing around show that’s not the case. We ended the day sitting in a hot tub waiting for the aurora. A faint green stripe was just visible across the sky. I jumped naked into the snow a couple of times, but that’s just me.

I couldn’t leave Fairbanks without having some Thai food (it’s legitimately a thing: Fairbanks has a relatively sizable Thai population and a cluster of restaurants to follow), so we had that for lunch, before I passed my final few hours at the Museum of the North, waiting for my flight, and watched a short film on the aurora. Ready to go, I find out that snow in, yes, Seattle had delayed my flight by many hours.

Plane over the Chena River

I would fly out the next day instead, after getting in a morning ski over the frozen Chena River. A small plane kept flying overhead, waving at us in a plane way, dipping its wings. The sharply angled sun hit the snow and ice. Right before going to the airport, we drove up a dome and looked out over the land. Snow and trees and mountains. My snot froze and I trudged through the snow and beheld the land as it held me. This is real, and I am seeing it.

Alaska ViewAlaska View 2

A Storm in the Desert

Posted on 22 February 2017

I had never been here before. The excitement of the new sprung out at me and I sprung back. And a rabbit sprung near me as I plunged down a hill, exclaiming at each new variety of cacti that I saw. The sun was strong and light and in the distance the cliffs of Sierra del Carmen rose above the border.

Sierra del Carmen from Big BendBig Bend Funny Cactus

The cacti distracted me from the greyness approaching, but then I felt a raindrop in the desert. And another. And I covered my camera with my arms as best I could and galloped back up the hill toward our vehicles as the drops became steady and hard. We huddled in one of our cars as the steely blue sky swirled above us, and the wind rocked us, and the rain pelted the windows – and me, when I jumped outside to snap more photos and document, and feel, the turmoil.

Clouds Gather Near Elephant TuskCactus and Distant RainBig Bend Storm

Change is gradual, but it is perceived at a threshold, and hits us suddenly. The sky had been darkening, but I only saw the storm when the drops came.

Not long after, the rain eased back, the swirl in the clouds dissipated, and the sun began to set, sparking the sky alight with a new color palate. The shock was still in the air but things were steady again as the night, gradually, fell.

Big Bend SunsetBig Bend Nightfall

Borderlands

Posted on 18 January 2017

Ink, after drawn, can blur, but a pen can tear through paper. Borders are a human invention. At times, they stand in the way of geography. But like many other abstract human creations, they have great and terrible consequences.

I’ve passed through many borders. Some hardly seem to exist: you’re riding down a road and, at some point, unnoticed, pass over an invisible line. One country to another, passport still tucked away. Other borders are chaotic: long walks over dirt roads, popping in one building after another, unsteadily securing visas, customs forms, stamps. There are other borders, torn down borders, whose remains I have stared at: a concrete wall which held a no man’s land, crosses line the grass today. Some borders kill slowly, some kill quickly, others just are – depending on your situation, of course.

Sierra del Carmen

I spent ten days gazing at Mexico. Much of the land I could see was Mexico. A striped cliff rose on the horizon: that was Mexico. And yet, I spent only a few hours in Mexico, just this despite spending a night within fifty feet of that winding border, an easily traversed river. People do illegally swim or wade across, bringing trinkets stateside, clinging to trust as their goods lay unattended by trails, next to a money jar. This money goes back to a village of about two hundred people, where half of the homes only recently acquired solar electricity thanks to the federal government of Mexico, where there are only a few telephones. This village is Boquillas.

In a way, Boquillas is one of the lucky ones in the global power game. Santa Elena and San Vicente also lie across the Rio Grande from Big Bend National Park. All three villages formerly had informal crossing spots. And then, thousands of miles away, two towers were felled and a curtain came down indiscriminately.

Boquillas from the States

These three villages are incredibly remote – even relative to each other, given the abundance of mountains and the dearth of roads. From Boquillas, one has to travel 150 miles on oft-unpaved roads within Mexico to get gas. Just across the border, in Rio Grande Village, there is a gas station and a small convenience store. Though no bridge spans the river to Boquillas, goods could – and would – be ferried across by boat. And there was tourism, national park visitors checking out the two restaurants in town, facing each other across the dirt road running through the center. Men from Boquillas even made up an international wildfire fighting squad, Los Diablos. For many decades, the border had been hazy. We drove the River Road, our guidebook pointing out the ruins where a Mexican goat herder had made a little house, where a Mexican family lived.

The border crossings to Boquillas, San Vicente, and Santa Elena all closed in 2002. Suddenly, not just convenience, but necessities, livelihoods, were severed. As I said, Boquillas was lucky in a way one should not have to be lucky. The village population halved, its income largely sustained by some daring and innovative souls, but in 2013 the crossing reopened. The village stuttered back. San Vicente and Santa Elena remain off-limits to those who would not violate the law and take a little swim.

Rio Grande in Big Bend

To cross to Boquillas, this is what you do. Wednesday through Sunday, from 9am to 6pm, you can enter the U.S. Port of Entry Building. A national park ranger explains what you cannot bring back to the states (alcohol, plant or animal parts) and then you exit the side of the building, to the river’s edge. There is a little rowboat, which is ferried back and forth under the sun by a Boquillas man, working against the current. After the one minute boat ride, you can ride a cute burro – or, to make faster time, walk – under a mile down the dirt road into town. And there you are. Souvenir stands are scattered about, where you can purchase wire figurines, hats, bracelets, and tortilla bags embroidered with the town’s name. At least one of the restaurants, and probably the other, serves a strong margarita if you don’t want to check out the one bar. It takes just a few minutes to walk the length of the village, its brightly painted buildings beckoning you further and further. Oh yeah, there’s a Mexican immigration point too, in the village, but sometimes it is closed. We almost missed it as we walked by.

Boquillas Crossing

To cross back into the States, you take the rowboat again, showing your ticket stub from the first ride you purchased. We spoke (or in my case, verbally stumbled) in Spanish with the man rowing us across, Ben explaining it had been well over a decade since he’d last visited, prior to the border closing. It was very hard, the ferryman sighed, it’s so good now that the crossing is open again! Feliz Año Nuevo, we wished as we parted, though internally my stomach coiled: new year, new president… new wall? Not so feliz, really. Scrambling up the riverbank, we queued up to re-enter our country. The park ranger searched through our bags, ascertaining my pill bottle was mine, comparing the label to my passport. Then we scanned our passports at a kiosk and spoke on the phone to a U.S. border agent located in El Paso (irony lies in the name) to be re-accepted into the United States.

Let me reiterate: I scanned a passport. About two thirds of Americans do not have passports, nor do many of the residents of Boquillas. The border is happily reopened but, unlike before, this specific form of ID, and this form only, is required to cross, leaving a smaller pool of tourists who can enter Boquillas, and a smaller group of Boquillas residents who can easily cross for something so simple as purchasing a can of gasoline.

Boquillas, MexicoBoquillas Dog

 

Boquillas is, for now, rebounding. It is known what a border closing can do, however, and the two villages further down the river are still bent under the impact. All this, when really it’s a short swim dividing us, nothing more. But again, for now. I will testify that a wall across the Rio Grande, cutting through canyons, would be a foul and unnatural thing indeed. Just as is drawing a line in the sand that dictates who shall receive, and who shall be barred.

I ate my bean tacos in Boquillas. My passport was in my purse. I could flit back and forth, scattering my money as I went. Really, I am the lucky one, for whom borders generally mean inconvenience rather than a question of survival in my home, procurement of goods, income, even life. I know I am one of the few. We make it so. Borders aren’t real until we make them so. And then they may be as real and hard as a wall with your face smashed up against it as you struggle to breathe.

A Year of Washington Hikes

Posted on 11 December 2016

A beautiful thing about living in Washington is the myriad hiking possibilities. One can head to enormous mountains, temperate rainforest, beach, or dry canyons – there are endless options. Living in Seattle means I can enjoy the cultural city life without giving up on outdoor activities. In fact, outdoor recreation is emphasized more here than in many more rural places I’ve lived. This year, I both cross-country skied and snow shoed for the first time, hiked quite a bit, camped several times, and collected mushrooms and berries. The following is a summary of the hikes I took this year – hopefully they’ll give you some ideas, whether you live nearby or are visiting.


Paradise, Mount Rainier

Hiked in February. Variable distance.

Driving to Paradise

This one requires tire chains to get up to Paradise, but it is worth the hassle. We rented snowshoes in Ashford and tramped around on the trails near Paradise for a few hours. The weather fluctuated between snowy and mostly sunny. Mount Rainer was reluctant to peek out of the clouds, but even so, we had amazing views. There were quite a few skiers enjoying the mountainside as well.

Snowy Riverbed near Rainier On the Way up Mount Rainier Mount Rainier Hiding

Pipestone Canyon, Winthrop

Hiked in April. Variable distance.

Balsamroots

I was totally enamored with Winthrop after first visiting it autumn of last year. We returned for a weekend, when the yellow balsamroots were rioting all over the hills. On our hike we saw magpies, lizards, and – eek! – a rattlesnake. We also traversed through areas that had been burned in wildfires the year before. The next morning, we went hot air ballooning, but that is another story.

Pipestone Canyon Rim In Pipestone Canyon Road in Winthrop New Trees

Cape Flattery, Olympic Peninsula

Hiked in May. 1.5 miles.

Cape Flattery

We took a weekend to camp by Lake Ozette on the Olympic Peninsula. On Saturday, we drove out to Cape Flattery, where we took a short hike to the point. Alas, we spotted no puffins. However, we had fun with the crabs galore on a nearby beach we stopped at.

Olympic Sunset Cape Flattery Lighthouse Olympic Seashore Olympic Crab

Snow Lake, Snoqualmie Region.

Hiked in July. 7.2 miles.

Snow Lake Forest

Snow Lake is relatively close to Seattle, and as such, it’s pretty crowded. My friends and I left in the early morning to beat the rush. Our views of the lake we obstructed that morning by dense fog, but that lent its own atmosphere. On the way up to the lake, we still saw some beautiful views of wisps of cloud stretching over the tree-lined ridges below.

Snow Lake Fog

Skyline Divide, North Cascades

Hiked in August. 9 miles.

Flowers Atop Skyline Divide

The Mount Baker area has some of the most incredible hikes – not to mention our go-to camping spot – and Skyline Divide is a gem. The ascent is more than worth the subsequent view, especially when the wildflowers are in bloom. Just be sure to bring plenty of water, since the only source at the top is snow, if present.

Hiking up Skyline DividePath on Skyline DivideFunny Flowers on Skyline DivideMore Skyline Divide FlowersWhite Flowers White Mountains, Skyline DivideSkyline Divide View

Lake Valhalla, Central Cascades

Hiked in September. 7 miles.

Flowers and Lake Valhalla

So many berries! Blueberries, huckleberries, raspberries galore; you might not even need to bring your own snacks. Here is a warning, however: at the split in the trail, turn left toward the lake rather than continue toward the right like we did, which added a few miles to our hike. No matter, because there were more berries down this less-trafficked path. After correcting our error, we made it to the gorgeous lake.

Lake Valhalla from Above Leah and Ben and Lake Valhalla Lake Valhalla

Ptarmigan Ridge, North Cascades

Hiked in September. 9 miles.

Ben and Donna on Ptarmigan Ridge

I thought Skyline Divide was my favorite hike until we did Ptarmigan Ridge. Wow. No matter where you are on the hike, the views are stunning. If you’re lucky, Mount Baker will make an appearance. The day we were there, the weather shifted from light snow to sun. There were still snowy patches along the hike – the accessible window for traversing this one is brief. The hike itself is a good distance: about nine miles, round trip. A lot of people turn around early, where the hike rounds Coleman Pinnacle, but I recommend going all the way to the plateau where the Portals (rock formations) can be seen. Beyond that, the trail becomes more difficult to follow and requires mountaineering skill, so we turned back. Happily, as we made our way out, Mount Baker briefly came into view. Bonus: there were tons of tasty huckleberries along the trail, and I collected and ate quite a few toward the end of the hike.

Funny Things on Ptarmigan Ridge Hiking Ptarmigan Ridge Weathered Tree, Ptarmigan Ridge Ptarmigan Ridge Pano Mount Baker from Ptarmigan Ridge Huckleberries on Ptarmigan Ridge

We already have hikes saved in our Washington Trails Association account for next year. It can be difficult to choose between an old favorite hike and a new adventure (or skipping the grand views and diving into thicker woods for mushroom hunting), but having the choice is a great thing. Happy trails.

Me and my Mushrooms

Glimpses of Slaughter and Silence

Posted on 20 November 2016

There was a wall before me. I ran my hands along it. I peered over it. I spent months perched on top, dangling my feet over the edge, observing. I scraped my elbows and palms, gathering glimpses at foreboding pasts and awful alternative presents, collecting calluses.

The wall is cracking beneath my palms.


Genocide seems far away. Even when standing on its grounds, an inexperienced mind, sans memories, isn’t elastic enough to fully accept this truth. When I was there, I tried, I really did. I looked at everyone my age and older: Which side were you on? What memories do you hold in your body? Around me, motortaxis zipped by.

Rwanda truly felt safe to me. Reconciling pleasant Kigali with what I knew happened less than two decades prior was an exercise in futility: they were two different cities in my mind, the real one where my body stood, and the imaginary one I read about. Those who passed by me on the sidewalks had stepped in both cities, but I couldn’t understand, only wonder.

Kigali Genocide Memorial

Please do not step on mass graves

Further south, in Burundi, the past felt more tangible. The poverty and desperation seeped through the streets and my presence there, holding more of value on my person than the average local makes in a year, seemed incongruous and wrong. Tension shimmered in the air, but from what of all things, I could not say.

Lake Tanganyika placidly stretched into the distance before the capital. Teenagers kicked a ball around, but for the most part, beachgoers were sparse. I looked at the water: How many bodies lie in this lake?

Lake Tanganyika

But still: my feet in the sand. Laughs and goofy dance moves exchanged in a nightclub between our mixed posse of travelers, expats, and locals. But, the streets, for the most part, were empty after dark.

“In order to go on with our lives, we are always capable of making the ominous into the merely strange.” – “Strength in What Remains” by Tracy Kidder

Back in Kigali, at the Genocide Museum, I diligently read through every single placard. The questions to ask are “why?” and “how?” There is a struggle to truly comprehend such horror; the mind does not want to encompass it. Westerners like me often brush such horrors. “Africa,” is a sad explanation, and a flawed one. In the Genocide Museum, there was an exhibit on other genocides, with pieces on the Balkans and on the Holocaust.

Stillness doesn’t mean forever. Stillness may just be an eye in the storm of what humans do.


Germany! Berlin! So hip, so European. Let me amend: European in the best and the worst ways. Our guide led us through Prenzlauer Berg, relaying stories from the East German years of his and his friends, their younger lives. In Alexanderplatz, a display had been set up marking the twenty-year anniversary of the fall of the wall, which was approaching. Our guide pointed out some of his friends in the photos of protestors.

Berliner Mauer

Germany. Berlin. Split in two countries, not so long ago. People are quick to bring up Hitler, the ultimate villain. And sure, although the scale of evil becomes a cliff, and in the abyss are far too many malevolent souls. After Hitler were the Stasi, for decades cowing millions into a subdued acquiescence. If Nazism isn’t recent enough to spark trepidation, this should be.

But my fear, at least, does extend back. I can look into the eyes of a friend and heartbreakingly know, Nazism is in his blood, though far from his heart. But is the divide so clear for all? Just today I read a comment by someone talking about their Nazi grandparents, the most mannered people one could know. Do I stare at reconciliation, or silence? Or both? And where does the line fall? Are modernity and social compacts as entrenched as they oft feel? Who has bought in and who is opting out? Who has forgotten, who looks away?

Potsdam Synagogue Memorial Plaque

On this site stood the synagogue of Potsdam’s Jewish Community. In the night from the 9th to 10th of November 1938 it was plundered and destroyed by the fascists.

Holocaust Memorial in Berlin

Holocaust Memorial, Berlin

The story of modern Europe is one with as many chapters on tyranny as freedom. Lest we forget.


Tyrannical pasts are not always condemned, populations do not always agree, “we’ll do better this time.” I lived with a woman whose father was sent to the Gulag, and outside of our apartment I walked by women of the same age holding up portraits of “Stalin, our hero.” I flipped through a guest book in the State Museum of Political History of Russia. There was no consensus, but rather a divide that will not be bridged. Half: “Stalin won the war for us.” Half: “Stalin murdered millions of us.”

Velikii Novgorod War Memorial

War memorial in Velikii Novgorod

Lubyanka

Lubyanka

If you don’t coldly look at the past, it more readily shapes the future. “I don’t bother with politics, ugh,” is a common pronouncement from both Russian and American friends. One can look away, which is often the same as compliance. In Russia, it’s a tactic held for survival, I know – but does it lead to that?

“Our entire tragedy lies in the fact that our victims and executioners are the same people.” – Quotation in Anna M.’s story in “Secondhand Time” by Svetlana Alexievich
Saint Petersburg House of Soviets

House of Soviets, Saint Petersburg

USSR State Library

State Library of the USSR in the Name of Lenin. Statue of Dostoevsky.

Ghosts are not dead. I lived with them and their pasts and in those months a howl formed within me. How? It happened and it happens and I want to spit back at the platitudes relentlessly panting about the goodness of people. If people are good, why did my hosts witness a city starve to death? If people are good, why was one’s father sent to his death, after escaping it at the front? If people are good, why do they walk on the streets ignoring this all? And, even though the past can be shaken off, how is it possible that we shake off the present?

Nazi Grafitti in Pskov
“What do I think of people? When it comes down to it, people aren’t good or bad, they’re just people, that’s all.” – Daughter of Ludmila Malikova in “Secondhand Time” by Svetlana Alexievich

Russia and the U.S., at their extremes, reach out to one another.

Lenin with a Hole in His Butt

My Russian friend, who is not in Russia because she is not safe in Russia, smiled bracingly at my tears. Yes, Trump is very bad, she told me. But, you see, at least you have a history of civil society, of democratic institutions. Do something, I always feel better when I am taking action, she urged. She would know. It will be an interesting time, she laughed pointedly. I take heart in the fact she is still able to laugh.

Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow

Fear is a fickle current. It, with hate, cannot be consistently guided. There is no guarantee as to who will or won’t be swept away. Closing your eyes only prevents you from seeing just when the wave will hit you. Brace yourself.

“I know what it looks like when freedom falls into inexperienced hands. Idle chatter always ends in blood. War is a wolf that can come to your door as well.” – Gafkhar Dzhurayeva in “Secondhand Time” by Svetlana Alexievich

I keep my eyes open. I no longer examine a past over the wall, but gaze at a version of a future before me. Rubble already lies at my feet.