The Edge We’re On

Posted on 22 November 2017

You can tell you’re on the east side of the mountains. It’s drier, more grey-orange, scrubby. The ground smolders around us as we drive up to the trailhead, remnants of the summer’s fires. It’s getting angrier. The earth, I mean. And I understand.

The mountains are a great place to highlight precariousness. It’s not just that I nearly froze up walking along in a spot where the trail narrowed and the rocky land to my left slid down, down, down. It’s that even these enormous mountains are fragile, in a way. If you pay attention, you can tell. Mountains are edges: things hold on until they can’t anymore. And then something’s falling.

Hike to Lake Ingalls Hike to Lake Ingalls

Don’t walk off the path. And I mean because of the vegetation. It’s holding on. Until the snowpack is altered and the warmth creeps along the edges to where it is, anyway. Or until you step on it.

Well, we’re tramping around up here to see some of the vegetation: the larches. You can see precariousness in where they stand on the mountain, at a certain elevation, on a certain side. Altitude is necessary, but up to a point. And there’s the need for a certain light, a certain soil. They’re all over where you’re in the middle of them, but zoom out on a map and they inhabit mere slivers of the land.

Hike to Lake Ingalls 3 Lake Ingalls Mountain Goats

Mountain goats half observe and half ignore our scrambling, utterly clumsy to them, I’m sure. We’re clumsy creatures with a lot of power. The mountainside can kill us, but you know, we’re killing the mountainside in that we’re killing much of what is living on it, just in a drawn out way that’s too slow to easily discern. Or is it? When we bother to mind, we know we’re causing a catastrophe, and we can name some of what we’ve already killed. Most times we don’t, even when we’re reveling in the wonder of what we’re destroying.

Hike to Lake Ingalls 4 Hike to Lake Ingalls 5 Lake Ingalls

I didn’t have all of these gloomy thoughts on the mountain, only some of them. But mostly, honestly, I felt great, happy to be outdoors, happy to see this beauty, happy in the higher, fresher air, happy in the clean-looking snow, happy.

Look, and then don’t look away.


If you care about humans, animals, plants, fungi, and/or the earth, consider:

Just Another Existential Hazard of Being a Woman

Posted on 17 October 2017

This was originally posted on 13 November 2012, when I was living and working in Cusco, Peru. Though this was five years ago, and I am now based in Seattle, things haven’t changed. I was last harassed just over a week ago, and then less than a week before that. It is endless. It is a bombardment. It makes me angry. It limits me. So, here goes again. I haven’t changed the wording of this post because, sadly, nothing has changed. Maybe there is a bit more awareness thanks to (mostly) womxn diligently speaking out, but we also have a harasser in chief here in the U.S. The #MeToo campaign has spurred conversation, so I am (re-)adding this story (one of many) and also demanding: men, we need you to step up if we’re going to truly tackle the scourge of sexual harassment and assault.


I was asked if I was actually going to publish this post because doing so might make people worry about me. But yes, I will publish this post because if people care about me and are concerned, they should be concerned for the welfare of women everywhere. Because what happens to me on almost a daily basis happens to millions of other women around the world; if you’re upset about it then do something. Harassment continues because consistently people–especially men–turn a blind eye, effectively rendering it socially acceptable.

So, last Thursday I was verbally threatened with rape.

The view from my place in Cusco. I was threatened just around the block from my home.

But let’s take a step backward: almost every single day, almost every time I leave the house, men harass me. Today walking to work I got the obnoxious “hello, hello, I love you!” On the way home I got whistling. This weekend I had two men and a moto taxi closely following me and my (female, which really goes without saying) friends. Almost every single day men bother me. To them I’m a blonde, sexual piece of meat walking down the street.

But let’s step back again: this problem isn’t limited to my existence in Peru, oh no. Last summer in Kenya was worse. It took courage to dare to walk alone and when I did of course a man would try to follow me. Of course I would get asked for my number. Of course I would get comments about my appearance. Of course I would get men masturbating (yes! I’m fairly certain!) on the bus behind me because I couldn’t keep my hair from blowing in the wind (I’m such a slut, no? Shouldn’t I have controlled my hair?).

Step back again: I’m not only harassed in foreign countries. I’m harassed at home, where I don’t stand out. I dread running alongside the road to the park because about half the time I get men calling at me from their trucks. I always power walked home from class (inevitably after dark) so as to give men as short of a glimpse of me as possible. I don’t look men in the eye when I walk around. Even at home. Because I get whistles, I get obscene comments, and who knows if someone is lurking in the dark, hence my pepper spray.

But step back again: this doesn’t just happen to me–of course not! It happens to my female friends. It happens to us when we’re taking an otherwise pleasant walk together. It happens to us when we’re waiting to be picked up by the other to hang out. It happens to us when we are going anywhere, doing anything. In fact, the Thursday incident happened to me and a Peruvian friend both.

How dare we have the audacity to walk while female from a café about five minutes away from my house and the office at the terribly late hour of 8:30pm? How dare we, especially when it wouldn’t be possible (or economical) to catch a cab for five blocks? We were walking to my homestay when across the street from us two men, sitting comfortably in their front lawn, apparently making a sport out of threatening female passersby, began yelling in heavily accented English, “fucking bitches! Fucking cunts! I’m going to rape you!”

And what do you do when this happens? Freeze a little inside, walk faster, and once I was slightly more safely some houses away I thrust my fist in the air, my keys laced between my fingers as threats, as they always are after dark. And then the disbelieving questions to each other: “did that actually just happen? were we actually just threatened with rape?” And then the anger which is, for me, quite omnipresent: I can’t go anywhere without being a target! It almost always happens! And why? Because men have the power? Because they think women are objects? Because they simply can? Because when they do it, no one ever tells them to stop being pitiful scum and just lay off?

I’ve been harassed countless times; and I’m sure my friends and plenty other females could tell you similar stories. And not once–not once!–out of the hundreds of times I’ve been harassed, has anyone, has any man, told the perpetrator to knock it off. Never.

And it’s not like I’m always in an empty street, just me and the scumbag. And it’s not like I don’t draw attention to it either. I used to try to ignore it and walk quickly past. But ignoring doesn’t make people go away and besides, I’m done being a passive woman. I’m not going to shut my mouth and let people bother me. It has worked when I’ve yelled back: this weekend when the two men and a moto taxi were following my friends despite the fact we clearly weren’t going to talk with them, I turned and shouted (in Spanish), “go away!” They stepped back a bit but when they continued to keep pace with us, stare at us, I yelled “pitiful!” And lo, they backed off and let us be, even saying “sorry, sorry.” This incident was in fact on a deserted street, apart from us. But a few days before, in the Plaza de Armas, people abound, a disgusting male hollered at me the old “hello, hello, I love you!” I turned, cursed at him, and continued on my way but from the multitudes of people around, right there: silence.

For me, these streets are dangerous. Me in Cusco, in my typical attire – not that it should fucking matter, and it didn’t, because I was harassed all the same.

I believe that this a significant reason why street harassment, which leads to even worse, continues and is so prevalent. Here, or in the United States, people, especially other men, never stand up to the scumbags and tell them: “stop it! That’s not ok! In fact, what you’re doing is pitiful and disgusting!” And especially men I say, because men shaming other men would have more of an effect (males want to be accepted by their peers after all), but also because many men seem to care very little about the problem.

An illustration, which fit my point so perfectly I was seething afterward. Friday morning I go to the office to go to our project. I tell everyone in the office what had happened the night before; I wanted to warn the ladies especially, since I knew a couple who don’t live far. There were three men (or boys) in the room and about five women. The women, and one of the men (Peruvian) responded appropriately: “where exactly? When? Oh gosh, that’s horrible! Are you okay?” Here is how the other two men responded:

First man: oh, they were just practicing their English!
A joke! A joke about a situation in which I was threatened with rape. To which I responded (or snapped), “no, they were making a sport out of threatening women!”

Second man: oh, maybe they were drunk!
To which I responded (or at this point, rather snarled), “oh yeah, because drunk men don’t rape! I don’t care, if you have any inkling within yourself of saying things like that ever, then you’re dirt.”

So you see, the responses of women and many (in this case the majority) of men are quite different. One group expresses concern, and then anger, and then (as my Spanish professor and I do) begins brainstorming various reactions. The other group blows it off, excuses it, makes a joke of it. And this street harassment and everyone should know what else continues.

So, family, friends, anonymous readers: are you concerned about me? Are you concerned about your sisters, mothers, daughters, girlfriends, female friends? Because you should be. It happens to us all. And once is too often; this happens far too often. If you’re concerned, then, confront those jackasses whistling at anonymous women. Those women are us. Tell them it’s not okay or ever okay. Shame them. We have been taught all too well by history that atrocities happen when entire populations turn a blind eye. And this is a daily atrocity, the degradation of women who dare simply to walk around.

On a closing note, wisdom from the Manic Street Preachers: “who’s responsible? You fucking are!” (from “Of Walking Abortion”).

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.