Saturday, November 17, 2012

Until I figure out internet access in the remote corner of New Zealand where I'll be moving to tomorrow, I'll be away from blogging. But I'll still be writing, so expect more to come!


support local music!

The singer-songwriter genre might seem over-saturated, with aspiring musicians playing the same chord progressions on street corners and coffee shops from Maine to Seattle. But very few of them get it right. Holding an audience's attention requires a delicate balance of lyrics, delivery and style; of somehow managing to stand out from the crowd without losing that mellow vibe that's as familiar as a pair of worn-in shoes.

It also helps if you're riding the coattails of an enormously popular band on its farewell tour, as Garrett Duffy is. The harmonica player-turned-songwriter for Barefoot Truth (which just played its final shows in Massachusetts), Duffy has just released his first solo album, Drift East. Growing up in a log cabin in Alaska with a father who was a commercial fisherman, the inspiration from the album comes from Duffy's past as well as his slow migration from the Pacific coasts of Alaska to the shores of the Atlantic in New England where he now makes his home.

As you might expect, the album is strong on harmonica and guitar, but also tosses some banjo, mandolin, dobro and vocal harmonizing contributed by friends and bandmates. Produced by the Grammy-nominated Jack Gauthier, the sound doesn't stray far from the tried-and-true equation of acoustic guitars, catchy melodies and idealistic lyrics that fans of Jack Johnson, Dispatch or Dave Matthews (and, of course, Barefoot Truth) can't get enough of. But the biggest part of Garrett Duffy's musical charm may simply be the fact that he is a good person who cares about this world, and his honesty and generous spirit come through his music. When he's onstage jamming with friends, his happiness is contagious. And when he's not playing, he goes out and connects with people – not to sell merch, not to market himself, but because he likes doing it.

Garrett's album is out on iTunes and doing great, and I'm glad to help support him in his new adventures. Check it out at


The sunlight calls my feet forward, drawing me up a new path. I have been coming here for many years, up the yellow trail to the summit and back down the red trail to my car with little variation. But today I follow the last rays of November sunlight onto a new path, hugging the south the side of a mountain until I reach an outcropping of crumbling basalt rock. Below, the broad valley of the Connecticut River spreads out like a quilt. Green and stubbly fields patch the alluvial plain of the river, dotted with long, narrow barns for drying tobacco. A ribbon of traffic slides silently along Interstate 91.
Spread on both sides of this ridge, the Pioneer Valley in western Massachusetts has been settled for centuries, first by agriculture, later by industry and still later by subdividers who build ever larger houses on the abandoned fields. The wooded ridge of the Mount Holyoke range is comprised of seven individual summits strung together like vertebrae on a backbone – an island of nature in this sea of human activity, rising over the valley like a sentinel. The people who live below come here for a dose of nature – hiking, running, biking or simply sitting on the mountaintops to breathe in the view and better understand the lay of the land they inhabit.

When I first got my drivers license and began to come here as a teenager, it seemed to me one of the most beautiful places in the world, a place where I could escape from pressures and asphalt and do exactly as I wanted. It seemed like pristine wilderness. Since then, I have spent time in wild places that make the Mount Holyoke range seem modest. I seek unfamiliarity. I find comfort in new places, in starting over. But lately I've found comfort in the familiar as well, and few places are as familiar as this.When I return home to western Massachusetts, this is where I come back, to walk, to reflect, and to feel the incomparable sense of home that often eludes me on my travels.

If there is a river that is home to me, it is the Connecticut, in whose valley I have lived the majority of my life. And if there is a forest or a mountain that I can call my own, it is here. I have taken dates here, lost myself in solitude, cried, dreamed, tripped on mushrooms, learned about the natural world and gained the confidence to explore it by myself. I have grown up here.

My favorite time to come is in November, when the deciduous northeastern woods rise above a carpet of sepia-toned leaves – oak, beech and maple, slippery underfoot and studded with rocks and stumps. The trees are spaced far apart, knobby and slender, bare arms reaching for the light. The people who came to see the blazing colors of autumn are gone, and the forest is quiet, waiting for winter. In November, the magic light of evening stretches ever earlier into the day until the entire afternoon is a pool of slanting golden light. Or on some days there is no light at all, just a diffuse grayness that settles over the trees and into your bones, echoing its silence through skeletal branches. I walk through these November afternoons lost in the rhythm of my steps, unhindered by the brambles of summer, free to wander.

unintentional poetry

Taken from a mispelled Facebook posting.

Finely finished with the wood
The boys said when they get there own houses they won't
burn wood we will see

central america journal, part two

Day 10: Panamanian pandemonium at the border. We left Puerto Viejo in the mellowness of the off-season, drove through drooping, stagnant banana towns – fincas owned by Chiquita Co. – and arrived smack in the onslaught of heat, hustlers and traffic that is the Costa Rica/Panama border over the Rio Sixiola. The border itself was out of another era: an old railroad bridge with rough-hewn boards nailed haphazardly over the trestles, workers carrying racks of bananas and old women with children shuffling across. But on the Panamanian side there was chaos, presided over by men intent on hustling groups of heat-dazed backpackers into their elaborate money-making schemes. Jesse and I find ourselves caught in the flow, swept into a room to “pay” for our luggage and squeezed into a packed van without A/C. We careen through a squalid city and over a mountain pass to a dock in the river town of Almirante, where we are transferred onto a boat and motored past stands of mangroves out to sea and, finally, to the islands of Bocas del Toro, where the in-your-face entrepreneurism doesn't stop but at least the beer and food are significantly cheaper than in Costa Rica.

Day 11: We escape to the outer islands of Bocas, and our days are spent reading, snorkeling, boogie boarding and exploring. Time slides by like skin on oiled skin, the hours melting into each other, a swirl of ocean and sun and one jaw-dropping view after another. And then we meet Polo.

To find Polo, fly first to Costa Rica, grow disillusioned, head south to the comparatively lawless Panama, cross the Rio Sixiola, take a boat to Bocas Town, and then find a water taxi to the beautiful, pristine stretch of sand called Red Frog Beach – where camping is allowed, and where the Palmar Tent Lodge will also give you a thatched-roof shower, solar power and delicious communal meals right on the beach. After a day or so of acting like a beach bum, go for a walk. Go past the bar where tourists from Bocas Town come and past a construction zone where million-dollar condos are springing up. Follow the shoreline, cutting into the jungle when it becomes too rocky. When you think you've walked far enough, walk farther. And then, when it seems like you've reached an absolutely empty stretch of white sand beach and turquoise water, you'll find Polo.

Polo is 68 years old and has been living mostly alone on this stretch of beach for 50 years. He speaks three languages – Guari-Guari, the indigenous dialect, Spanish and English – but none are fully intelligible and all are punctuated by a near-constant stream of expletives. “Fock,” he says, slapping you rather hard on the arm, “I've focking been here for 50 years. I'm the roughest focking guy! The roughest focking guy you ever meet!” He holds out his weathered palm as proof, squints into the sun.

Polo lives under a tall thatched roof riddled with gaping holes. His bed is a filthy mattress in the corner. There is a propane stove where he cooks the fish he catches with his spear gun and sells to whomever wanders by. Empty gas jugs and trash litter the sand.

Locals from Bocas come by boat and bring Polo coolers of beer, and take his homemade coconut oil back to town to sell, while Polo sits on a bucket, shouts expletives and tells stories, scaring some people away and entrancing others. While we are there, we meet an Israeli man who met Polo while traveling here 20 years prior and stayed for years, learning to spearfish and live off the land with no electricity, no entertainment and little contact with the outside world. The man returned to Israel, married and had a son, and has now brought his family back to this island to meet Polo. He cooks Jesse and I plates of breadfruit, red snapper fried in coconut oil and heaps of rice, and it is perhaps the best meal I eat in Central America. We pay $5 for all you can eat plus a beer. The food tastes exactly like what I ate when I lived in the Marshall Islands, and is made even better by the fact that I eat it with my hands, in my bikini, feet in the sand, and am told afterward to wash my own plate in the ocean and throw the bones under the palms for the crabs to eat.

Day 13: Sunday in Panama, feeling Hemingway-esque on the back deck/dock of the Hotel Brisas. Everything is draped with a veil of humidity and the slow, forgotten air of what Pico Ayer calls “tropical classical.” Bocas in the off-season is a town of potted palms and old-fashioned furniture and mahogany bars built with grandiose notions, a place where you feel there should be literary ex-pats smoking cigars and drinking rum. But they aren't here. Instead the d├ęcor has become faded, dusty; half-crumbling but clean nonetheless in hope of attracting backpackers and sailors on the prowl for cheap drinks and beds where you can hear the waves lapping at a dock. Here at the back of the Hotel Brisas, a girl in a floral dress sketches at a table, Jesse and I sit reading and writing on a bench piled with pillows and a white-haired man with a paunch and a ponytail sings King of the Road while strumming a guitar. Several sailboats are anchored in our view, with pelicans landing on their masts, and a man in a dugout canoe poles his boat between million-dollar yachts looking for fish.

Day 15: Crossed the border back into Costa Rica and drove to the town of Manzanillo, then hiked 8K through the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge to Punta Mona, where an 80-hectare experiment in low-impact, off-grid living and permaculture design welcomes guests to sleep under a thatched roof that brings ocean breeze, moonlight and the sounds of the jungle into your bed. It is one of our last nights here, and we are spending it the way we've come to like it: candlelight, mosquitos and the sound of water. 

Day 18: In the air en route to Atlanta, Jesse gets up to use the bathroom. Across the aisle sits a Swiss gentleman in a suit with a clean-shaven face and a wedding band and neatly clipped nails typing on a laptop. Then Jesse comes back to his seat, endearing in his one clean shirt, wrinkled khakis and hole-ridden Converse All-Stars, a month's beard sworling on his jawline, blue eyes bright in his tanned face, and I notice that at some point over the last month I have fallen in love with him.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

central america journal, part 1

Jesse and I fly over the turquoise and azure sweep of the Belize coast, heading south for Costa Rica – the “rich coast,” one of the most biodiverse places on earth. Bouncing through the sky, it seems that everyone carries an iPhone, laptop or tablet, and though I feel somewhat lost without the internet at my fingers, it is freeing to travel with no electronics besides my camera. I will be unreachable by phone or email. I will not be blogging or posting or tweeting or texting. I will get lost in the world. The customs form requires us to list the hotel or street address where we'll be staying, but we don't have one – nothing has been booked, no plans made. Just 18 days and some money in the bank and a guidebook in hand. 

We arrive in San Jose and bungle our way through a car rental, realizing that even in a country well-adapted to tourism, our limited Spanish is going to be a stumbling block. Realization number two: navigation skills are useless when roads aren't identified, and of course, being map junkies, we've decided to forego the GPS rental.

“There are two types of people on these roads who don't know what they're doing,” Jesse says, narrowly avoiding yet another accident. “Drunk people, and white people.”

When we finally get our bearings, Jesse drives through a torrential downpour and avoids hitting pedestrians while I marvel at the banana plantations, the clouds rising from thickly forested mountains, the men on the roadsides selling fruit. We stop at our first soda and order rice and beans with gallo pinto from a young woman who watches with wry patience as we figure out currency and menu translations. Then we turn off the highway and, around dusk, find ourselves passing through a town not named on our shoddy map, high in the cloudforest and curving around a single, sinuous road above a green valley. It's Monday evening, following a storm that cleared the day's heat, and everyone in the village seems to be out, gathering in groups on doorsteps and at the ends of driveways, mothers with babies on their hips, men clustered around the counter of the store drinking beers. There is a feeling that this mountainside village could exist nowhere but Central America. We've made it. 

As the sun sets, we pass out of the mountains and into the town of La Fortuna, newly emerging as a tourist gateway to Costa Rica's outdoorsy region, full of ads for rafting, ziplining and canopy tours. We ignore the signs, find a cheap room and fall asleep splayed across the threadbare mattress, a long way from home. Alaska feels like a different world, a different lifetime. 

Day 2. Wake up hot and sticky, with creaky fan overhead doing little. Skip breakfast and gun it out of La Fortuna, quickly turning onto a rocky backroad that we think will take us to an off-grid ranch we want to stay at. The hills are green and rolling, flecked with livestock and horses, and the red-dirt roads intersect broad fields and farms of wind turbines. It is lovely. But soon the roads get sketchier and I get tired of driving. We've been traveling for three days now and I just want to be somewhere. Grouchiness, lostness and incomprehensible conversations in Spanish ensue. Then Jesse spots a paved road in the distance, and finally, after three hours of serious four-wheel driving, we spot a sign for La Carolina lodge, 28k away. It might as well be a sign for heaven. 

Day 3. A different morning entirely. We wake up shrouded in mosquito netting, curled in a soft blanket after sleeping to the sound of rain beating against the metal roof. Breakfast is at 7:30, so I throw on a pair of shorts and wander barefoot to the open-air kitchen, where the cookstove, stone oven and huge wooden table are. I pause to study the surreal tropical botany exploding all around. Then – a tin mug of rich coffee with steamed milk, fried eggs, rice and beans, homemade bread and slabs of homemade cheese, some kind of tangerine-like fruit and a pitcher of fresh squeezed juice magically appear. Later, when Alejandro takes us on a horseback ride around the ranch, we learn that everything served is produced right on this land, from the coffee beans to the butter. 

Because it's the rainy season, we had our choice of cabinas, and chose one so high on a hill it's practically in the trees. From our wraparound porch, we see (and hear) howler monkeys, bats and hummingbirds. The river flows just below, and the sound of rushing water mixes with tree frogs and cicadas to create our evening serenade. At dusk, someone comes around and lights hundreds of slender white candles along the paths and by our bedsides. There is no electricity. It's part jungle lodge, part ranch, part monastery. And it's a short drive from Parque Nacionale Tenorio, home of the Rio Celeste. No words needed. See below. 

Day 5 starts off unpromising. Being travelers with more time than money, our explorations are hit or miss: some fantastic gems, like La Carolina, and some duds, like the Rancho Leona in the tiny town of La Virgen, famed among multiple guidebooks as a hotspot for whitewater kayakers. Waking up in our cockroach-infested room at Rancho Leona, we find it just as dreary and deserted in the daylight as it was when we arrived the night before. Vestiges of its past lie dusty and abandoned in the morning light: a 2009 NRS paddling catalogue, a cobwebbed stack of board games, the dried-out tiles of what was once a hot tub on the banks of one of the premier kayaking rivers in Central America. Driving here late the night before, Jesse and I expected a colonial river town in the middle of a jungle. I went so far as to envision a hybrid of Mark Twain's Mississippi and a remote Amazonian lodge, imagining we'd stumble out of the dark, push open heavy double doors and be greeted by a ragtag group of international kayakers throwing back shots of rum.

Instead – a long drive through what might count as suburban sprawl in this region, except seedier and more rundown – one town melting into the next, streetlights, small stucco houses, girls squeezed into mini skirts walking the roadsides toward a disco. Sodas with bright, fluorescent signs. Nothing quaint or charming about any of it – although, to be fair, it was probably more “authentic” than many of our more idealistic stops, typical of a Costa Rica transitioning from rural to urban. It was interesting to see but also left us wondering, as we pulled into the dark, empty parking lot of Rancho Leona, if we'd be able to find anywhere to sleep in this tourist-free area.

I stayed in the car while Jesse gave a tentative knock on the door. A light came on, and a bored-looking young man tore himself away from his TV and offered us a room for $12. Despite it being the rainy season – a time when the Rio Sarapiqui should have been running high – we were clearly the only visitors. We dropped our bags and went to the soda next door to eat frozen french fries and watch a Latin American game show on mute. Thankfully they had beer.

In the morning, the mighty Sarapiqui River behind the inn (“its prime riverside location allows for easy launches,” raves the latest Lonely Planet about the inn) turns out to be a muddy trickle guarded by a pitbull. The hearty breakfasts and onsite kayak rentals are non-existent.

Later, we meet up with Alex Martinez, a guide and environmental activist who tells us over glasses of freshly-squeezed soursop juice how the 2009 earthquake shifted the path of the Rio Sarapiqui, the owners of Rancho Leona split up and three upriver government-owned dams dealt the final blow to the burgeoning community of kayakers setting up shop in La Virgen. It became a recurring theme on our trip. Though Costa Rica is known as a nature-lovers paradise, its nature is becoming ever more regulated by a government dedicated to ecotourism, which means, ultimately, economic growth.

Thankfully, there are still people like Alex's son Kevin, a strikingly good-looking kid with green eyes and curly hair who is equally well-connected with the outdoor adventure crowd and environmental activist groups in Costa Rica. While he pours us more juice, juggles calls on his iPhone and points out obscure birds, he also makes plans to transport a boa constrictor captured by a farmer to a nearby wildlife refuge and, along the way, introduce us to a friend of his trying to set up a campground on family land.

Camping in most of Costa Rica is rarer than the endangered resplendent quetzal. Throughout our travels, Jesse and I met a number of DIY backpackers who'd come to Costa Rica with a tent, sleeping bag and hiking boots and, like us, planned to dirtbag around the country camping on beaches and in jungles. We didn't want facilities or running water or platforms, just an uninhabited place where we wouldn't get in trouble for pitching a tent. Costa Rica is known for its national parks and wildlife refuges, so surely, backcountry hiking and camping would abound. Right?

Ticos told us that camping was a bad idea due to poisonous snakes and bugs. Foreigners told us it was a bad idea due to crime and theft. Most national parks are so over-visited that they don't allow camping at all, and when they do, you need to hire a local guide to sleep anywhere beyond the ranger station. As we continued to explore by foot and car, we found virtually nowhere that catered to the kind of DIY backpacking we were used to. Even if we'd snuck into a national park with backpacking gear, rangers scoured the trails well before dusk to ensure that all tourists were returning to their vehicles. There were a few “deluxe camping experiences” for $80 a night, where linens and food were provided in a safari-style tent, but we quickly came to realize that the kind of nature lovers catered to in Costa Rica tend to be more take-a-week-off-of-work-and-sign-up-for-a-guided-tour types than sleep-on-the-side-of-the-road-and-eat-canned-beans-for-months types.

Which is why, on Day 5, we were so thrilled to learn that Kevin Martinez and his friends are trying to start a kayaking business, build a riverside campground and protest against government dam building on the last free-flowing rivers in the country. Jesse and I officially became the first guests to camp at an unnamed campsite on an unnamed branch of the Rio Sarapiqui, and the experience stands out as one of our best in the country. We followed Kevin down a dirt road, walked down a path behind his friend's mom's house (no one was home) and set up our tent and hammock in a sandy clearing on the banks of the river. And then, miraculously, we were left alone. No one was trying to sell us a guided nature walk. No one was making us sign a waiver to use the rope swing at our campsite. We had no company except a yellow dog and a little boy fishing from an inner tube. For the entire afternoon, we wandered up-river, through farms and pastureland, over braided cobbles and deep pools, along steep walls of rainforest vegetation. It was marvelous. 

In the evening, we realized how incredible the fledgling campground really was: while it seemed remote and pastoral, it was within a ten-minute drive of Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui, a seedy banana town on the Nicaraguan border. While our camping gear sat unmolested on the tranquil river, we walked the main drag in town with our mouths slightly agape at the colorful storefronts selling everything from chickens and piles of rambutans to washing machines and high-heels. Couples cleaned up for Saturday night came in from the fields on old motorbikes, families ate fried chicken and drank liters of Pepsi, teenagers giggled into cell phones, men hawked cheap plastic goods and the entire town seemed to pulse with colorful, sweaty, vibrant life. We walked up and down the street taking it in, while unbeknownst to us, our host at the campground had come home from work and was busy lighting the path to our tent with white votive candles. 

Day 6: A several hour drive to the coast takes us to the rough, corrugated metal and shipping barge town of Puerto Limon, hillsides crammed with shacks, drunk men yelling at our car as we pass. Further south, we stop at a sloth sanctuary, where two- and three-toed sloths hit by cars or shocked by power lines are rehabilitated to live in captivity or be released to the wild. There is a canoe ride through lazy sloughs, where we see wild sloths, howler monkeys, bats, lizards and birds. Despite being somewhat wary of tours, I have to admit that it was well worth it. Our guide spotted more wildlife than we ever would have on our own, and I learn a ton about sloths. Such as this: contrary to popular belief, sloths only sleep about eight hours a day. They come down from the treetops once a week to defecate and urinate; they are descendents of giant prehistoric sloths and they have nine cerebral vertebrae, allowing them to practically swivel their heads. Even giraffes only have seven.

Day 7: The Caribbean town of Cahuita is picture perfect, and after a dinner of fresh fish and cocktails with guaro, a local cane liquor, we wander into an open air bar where a group of a dozen or so people sit on chairs and couches watching a so-awful-it's-good 1960s B-movie on a projector. Soon it's evident that the guy who played the sleazy sidekick to the villain is sitting on the couch celebrating his birthday. Long gray hair, board shorts, rum cocktail in hand, he's a typical expat who tried his hand in Hollywood but found this remote surfing outpost more to his liking. Whenever his character makes advances on the female lead, the Tico men roar and cheer and slap his arm. The movie is about a violent motorcycle gang wreaking havoc on a poor bean picker's family in the Florida everglades, and Jesse and I sit and watch it with its co-star in slight disbelief that we've stumbled upon this. 

The next morning, we chase storms and howler monkeys down the trail in Cahuita National Park. The storms never materialize into more than distant lightning and a steady rain, and Jesse and I retreat into the warm, aquamarine water while raindrops pattern the sand. It's lovely, until a couple of rangers come to kick us out of the park because the weather is bad. I grumble again about the over-regulation of the outdoors here, wishing I could be left alone to float on the waves or camp on the beach or even, god forbid, snorkel without a local guide, which signs everywhere forbid. I understand that to maintain an environmentally-friendly economy based on ecotourism, local people need to find work in the industry, and that to keep the rainforest looking pristine, strict regulations are needed to prevent tourists from trashing and over-tramping it, but to be honest, it doesn't feel like there's a waterfall left in the entire country that you don't have to pay an admission to visit. Plus, I hate being told no. I am willing to accept limitations and act responsibly, but a week into this trip, I'm sick to death of the prohibitive signs. No swimming. No jumping. No walking off the path. No snorkeling without local guide. No camping. I'm reminded of an essay I read recently by David Sobel in which he laments the fact that for environmental education to conserve and protect while catering to ever-growing numbers of people, it has become decreasingly hands-on, turning the natural world into a look-don't-touch experience. I want to climb trees, dive under waterfalls, catch frogs. And increasingly, Jesse and I do. Just not when there's a ranger around.

Day 8: Breakfast at our small hotel, a spread of white china while classical violins and tropical birds play off each other in the background. The table is on a breezy veranda shaded by flowering bushes alongside a creek. The owner sits for hours looking at the ocean, smoking, and painting bowls of fruit and Afro-Caribbean women onto canvases that he later hangs on the walls. 

We leave Cahuita and continue south down the coast to the party town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, a backpackers paradise with more $3 breakfasts and two-for-one drinks and food specials than you could ever eat, more cheap funky hostels and huts than you could ever sleep in, and enough locals and unpaved roads to make it still feel a bit off the beaten path. For $9 a night, we rent one hammock strung in a row with about 50 others under a metal roof.

Now, I lie belly-down in the sand on the beach, entirely captivated by this place, entertaining notions of staying for a few months, working at a hostel, learning Spanish, surfing every day. By this point, we've realized that our ambitious plan to road trip the entire country is unrealistic, and we decide to focus the rest of our trip here on the Caribbean coast, eventually making our way down to Panama. Memories of the B-movie from two nights ago flavor my perception of this place, making it feel like one giant B-movie set: blurry around the edges, tinged with a nostalgic feeling that you've stumbled upon something that no longer really exists. You hope that dirtbag backpacking destinations like this, cliched though they might be, will hang on despite the ever-growing pressure of a sleek, copyrighted world intent on monetizing and regulating and growing with cancerous efficiency. You hope that there will always be places that rebel against all of that.

The hollow thump of the ocean pounds the sand, ghost crabs scuttle into their holes, and white foam from the waves slips backs to the sea like oil on a piece of glass. I close my eyes and dream.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

An environmentalist goes to a wedding...

My best friend from high school is getting married in two days, and I sit with her on the living room floor of her cousin's house, surrounded by stacks of seating cards, menus, candles, wedding favors and picture frames that have to be sorted into boxes and brought to the wedding venue. It's the first time we've spent much time together since graduating from nearby colleges six years ago. She moved to Houston to take a high-paying, high-stress job with Exxon-Mobile, and I spent a year volunteering in a developing country, then moved to rural Vermont. I still have a card that she gave me before I left. “Don't become a total hippie!” she jokingly wrote, (correctly) envisioning a life in which I would forego daily showers, enjoy the taste of granola and exchange ideas with liberal environmentalists.

In high school, she and I became friends because we looked so much alike that even our mothers couldn't always tell us apart in photographs. We adopted similar styles, dyed our hair blonde and listened to lots of Led Zeppelin. Our last hurrah after college was a road trip to a music festival in Tennessee, and even then, things had started to change. A week after the festival, I wrote in my journal: “A. left for Texas this morning and it feels like the end of an era. Other people have moved away and come back, including myself, and yet it still felt like the same time period – the years tick by and we get older, but time is seamless nonetheless. Now it feels like that seam, which had been stretching and stretching almost imperceptibly, has finally broken. I'm sad, I'm nostalgic, but it was time for this to end. We've changed too much.”

Other close friends from that time period have visited her in Texas, but I have not. Her life down there seemed so removed from the choices I was making. She'd gone from ripped jeans and paisley headbands to pearls and high heels, and I stuck largely with the torn jeans aesthetic. Was I immature, and she was simply growing up? I wasn't sure. While she was turning to anti-depressants, removing herself ever farther from the natural world and working for a company that values profit above all else, I was participating in conservation projects and working for idealistic non-profit organizations. Exxon-Mobile came to represent to me everything that was wrong with the world: reckless capitalism, corporate irresponsibility, political takeover, environmental rape and disregard for climate change, and I was appalled that my friend could work there. Yet at the same time as I distanced myself from her, I partially understood her decision. Her family didn't have much money, her father was ill and she had the opportunity to help. She had the opportunity to succeed. When you grow up in poverty, financial success is a powerful motivator.

Still, I was floored when she asked me to be in her wedding. But I accepted, thinking that maybe it would lead us to rekindle our friendship, or help me realize that the people who work for Big Oil are people too. After all, how often does an environmentalist get to sit down at a table with a bunch of Exxon-Mobile folks?

Now, two nights before the big event, we're drinking wine and looking at pictures and things are going remarkably well.

Then the other bridesmaids leave the room, and she leans toward me, conspiratorially.

“E. and I might be moving to Canada,” she says in a whisper. “I haven't told anyone yet.”

Canada! I think, envisioning rich forests and open spaces. “Where?”

“Alberta,” she says, and then I understand. Tar sands.

She sees my face. She can read my reaction. She assures me that tar sand mining is safer for the environment than off-shore drilling, and will move us closer toward North American energy independence. It's the future.

I try to be tactful – this is, after all, a celebration of love. I casually mention the pristine, carbon-absorbing, wildlife-rich boreal forest being ripped up for a few billion barrels of oil.

“Eh,” she says dismissively. “It's a wasteland up there. There's enough wilderness left in the world.”

I nearly bite my tongue off. Thankfully, the other bridesmaids come back, and the conversation reverts to safe topics like how to tie the bows on our dresses.

The next day I find myself sitting at the rehearsal dinner with a thoroughly Texan uncle of the groom and the bride's quirky uncle from Pennsylvania. Just when I think the conversation will revolve around skiing, grandkids and the weather, it swerves unexpectedly into fracking territory. The uncle from Pennsylvania is solidly against hydraulic fracturing for natural gas because of the risks to the environment and human health, and the lack of research and oversight. The uncle from Texas seems to consider it a marvel of modern science and something that big oil companies should be pursuing full steam ahead. There is a bit of polite debate and the conversation ends awkwardly.

The inescapable sheen of oil has coated our lives. Just because I consider myself an environmentalist, drive a fuel-efficient car and try to buy food that hasn't been shipped great distances doesn't mean I am not dependent on fossil fuels. More importantly, just because I too rely on fossil fuels doesn't mean that I'm hypocritical in believing that the only path to a sustainable future is one that lessens this dependence.

After the wedding ceremony and the dancing and eating and drinking, I washed the makeup off my face and went to bed without having reached any conclusions. I'd hoped that being part of a wedding funded by the oil industry would have led me to some sage little nuggets to write about: if we surround ourselves with like-minded people, we will only further alienate ourselves from dialogue and change, for example. Or, underneath our different political, social and environmental beliefs, we're all just imperfect human beings, trying to do what we think is best. Or, we ultimately realized that our friendship was more important than our differences.

But all of those are too trite and too neatly wrapped to be fully honest. The truth is that while communication is important, all the dialogue in the world is probably not enough to challenge someone's belief that we should mine the hell out of the tar sands because there's enough wilderness elsewhere in the world. The truth is that my friend and I will probably continue to drift further apart, and she will become further entrenched in her world and I in mine.

(Tar sands photo from Wisconsin Sierra Club)

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Thoughts on roads and the power of wilderness

What difference does a road make?

It's a question I found myself asking last weekend in Maine. I was staying with my mom at a backcountry lodge owned by Maine Huts & Trails, a relatively new non-profit organization working to create a 180-mile stretch of backcountry trail in western Maine with “huts” spread out every eight to 12 miles. The organization strongly promotes skiing between huts in the winter, modeled in part after the 10th Mountain Division ski-in huts in Colorado, except far less crowded and a bit classier.

The huts are no rustic backpackers' accommodations, but state-of-the-art, energy-efficient marvels that manage to be both ultra-modern and classic New England simultaneously. Each evening, after a family-style meal cooked with local, organic ingredients, the hut caretakers offer energy tours showcasing composting toilets, radiant heat powered by a high-tech wood boiler and massive solar panels. Afterward, if it's a clear, moonlit fall night as it was when I was there, you can take a canoe out on 20,500-acre Flagstaff Lake and hear nothing but loons and distant coyotes.

Despite the fact that we only had to hike two miles from our car to reach Flagstaff Lake Hut, it felt plenty wild. There were moose and loons and eagles, and a starry sky far from any light pollution. Yet we learned, after hiking in, that the ingredients for those delicious, locally-sourced meals (as well as the craft beers available for purchase) are brought to the lodge in a truck via a service road that connects smack with the “backcountry” hut.

Wilderness is a strange concept. For some people, it's a campground in a state park. For others, it's a trail-less, unmapped mountain range crawling with grizzlies. To the U.S. government, the 1964 Wilderness Act defines wilderness as an area devoid of roads or human habitation.

Without roads. Opponents of dams, wind turbines and logging oppose the creation of roads through pristine habitat as much as they oppose the operations themselves, and proponents of wilderness tend to be solidly anti-road-building. Though the argument can be made that roads make wild places more accessible –- and that in today's nature-deprived culture we need all the “wild” we can get –- I tend to be more in favor of Edward Abbey's curmudgeonly attitude that keeping the wild places from being overrun with people is more important than making them accessible to anyone with a set of keys in their pocket.

I am admittedly a bit of a wilderness purist. A snob, my mom would say. After spending considerable time in the rugged backcountry of Idaho and Alaska, I don't consider it wilderness unless it meets a few of my own criteria. One is that there's got to be something out there that can kill me. Two, there must be no cell phone service and few people. And three, you've got to work hard to get there. That's the reward: you drive a long ways down a terrible road, hike until you're sweaty and unhappy, and then and only then are you allowed to lay down your pack and earn the indescribable feeling that you are alone and inconsequential in the wind and the wilderness and vastness of the earth.

I might be getting off-topic. Clearly, this was a deluxe lodge experience in Maine, and I had no delusions of what I was signing up for. I was going with my 60-year-old mother, afterall. I was happy to be spending time with her, and happy to be in a quiet, beautiful place, regardless of how “wild” it might actually be.

But even in moments of utter bliss, I found myself thinking about the not-too-distant road. In New England, unlike in the west, the land was settled and the roads built long before anyone entertained any notion of preserving an area dedicated solely to wilderness. The protected, wild places that were later carved out were created around existing infrastructure. It's therefore difficult to get far away from a road here the same way it is out west. And what does it matter? Flagstaff Lake smells, looks and sounds like a wild place.

But still, I insist to myself, it feels different. I cannot get over this one hang-up.

Later, before we hike out, my mom and I walk down to a small peninsula covered almost solely by a stand of gnarled, pure-white birches. We walk in silence over moonlit leaves, dry and smelling of autumn. Through the thin branches, the lake gleams in shades of silver. We stop at the edge of the water.

There is nothing spectacular here, none of the dramatic cliffs or expansive geography or surreal geology that outdoor enthusiasts love about the west. But there is nonetheless an ordinary, unassuming beauty that is just as powerful. It was too quiet to speak, there, and my mom and I stood apart, silently, until I realized she was very quietly crying.

My mom and her mother cry easily, while my dad's family is stoic and at times emotionless. I am blessed and cursed with both. Sometimes I turn on the latter to escape the former. But on this night, when my mother looked out at the lake and tears welled in her eyes, I understood that road or no road, wild places still speak to our souls. I felt tears drawing to my eyes as well. Sometimes there are no words needed. 

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