Chicago

My wife and I take the train to Chicago every couple of years.  It’s a three hour trip from Grand Rapids that affords beautiful views of Lake Michigan.  Train travel is one of my favorite methods of getting from point A to point B.  I like it because train routes tend to bypass major highways and thoroughfares.  They more often wander through open wilderness.  They stop in towns in the midsection of the country that most road trips skip.  You can hop on a lumbering Amtrak train in a big city like New York or Boston, jump off in the middle of Glacier National Park in Montana, and after a few days of camping continue on to the Pacific Coast.  Trains cheer me up.

Chicago Birds

Chicago 2

Chicago 4

Chicago 3

Chicago 8

Chicago 9

I invite you to read about a train trip I took from Boston to Seattle and back a number of years ago:

Amtrak: Everyone’s Here (Boston to Seattle by Rail)

Boston to Seattle by Rail: Somewhere in North Dakota

Boston to Seattle by Rail: Minneapolis–City Within a City

The Day My Wife Went Blind (Not Really)

About five years ago my wife, Meghann, and I drove out to Grand Haven, located on the shore of Lake Michigan, about fifty miles west of Grand Rapids.  West Michiganders refer lovingly to this stretch of shoreline as the “Fresh Coast”.  So I’ve heard, anyway; I don’t know if I’ve lived here long enough to call myself a Michigander.

It was May, which in certain parts of the country may connote warm air and the kind of water that invites a refreshing swim.  Here in Michigan, however, such conditions may be as many as two months distant.  No matter—a different spectacle beckoned us to the windswept beach of Grand Haven, a beach punctuated by a beautiful pier that ends in one of the many stoic lighthouses strewn like pearls on a vast necklace along the shores of Michigan’s Great Lakes.

Grand Haven Pier

The Grand Haven Pier

We came for a partial solar eclipse.  Mind you, the moon was expected to obscure no more than ten percent of the sun.  Yet ten percent was just enough to darken the sky.  With a touch of imagination, one could believe for a moment that an alien spaceship was descending from the heavens and that we were trapped in its shadow.  The reality was more fantastic than that, though.  What could be more sublime than to stand in the darkness cast by something the size of the moon, just far enough from the earth to perfectly obscure the star that gives us life, yet near enough to lift the ocean’s tides?

The eclipse occurred at sunset, so that as the moon edged ever-so-slowly in front of the sun, the sky darkened all around except for a brilliant circle of yellow and orange light that radiated from the dancing celestial bodies.  The wind whipped all around us, yet somehow everything seemed quiet and still.

IMG_1558 2

The eclipse, which my camera was not capable of capturing.  Hence, the sun appears as a smudge.

On the drive home Meghann demonstrated once again that her sense of humor far exceeds my own, and that I’m hopelessly gullible.  “I see spots all around,” she said.  “Is that bad?”  I asked her if she had stared at the sun.  She said she had, for the full hour we spent on the beach.  I was convinced for most of the drive home that she had done permanent damage to her eyes.

To further illustrate my inferior sense of humor, the joke I would have made in the moment would have been to say something like, “Yes, you must not be seeing clearly because you’ve chosen to date me.”  Bada boom.  Thank goodness I married a funny one.

*I would like to take this opportunity to advertise a near-full solar eclipse that will be visible from Grand Rapids at 2:22pm Monday, August 21, 2017.  https://www.timeanddate.com/eclipse/in/usa/grand-rapids

Guatemala: Where the Free Market Reigns

Antigua, Guatemala, morning

Yesterday I left Panajachel for Chichicastenango, a small pueblo in the mountains of Guatemala where every Thursday and Sunday campesinos gather from the surrounding hills to sell their wares in what my guidebook calls the biggest such market in Guatemala.  And big it is, occupying the entire heart of the town, radiating out from the central plaza, so dense that it subsumes the plaza within a chaos of Guatemalans dressed in traditional attire offering garments, blankets and trinkets for sale.  Men wind their way through the assembled crowds and shout at regular intervals, “Matamoscas, llévese matamoscas para la piel,” imploring the throngs to protect themselves with mosquito repellant, purchasable for one Quetzal.  An ambulating newspaperman repeats calmly and robotically in Spanish, “Snake-woman, snake-woman.  She has the face of an old woman and the body of a snake.”  Tourists are oblivious but the locals flock toward him to purchase a newspaper for a Quetzal.

Image

Chichicastenango, Guatemala

There’s so much energy in this tumult of buyers and sellers, beggars, cripples, sad faces, smiling women, women of all ages carrying babies on their backs wrapped in colorful blankets, women balancing baskets on their heads filled with corn, fruits, and nuts.  “No, gracias,” the few Gringos say over and over with such regularity that you might set their words to a rap beat.  They fend off entrepreneurial vendors.  They pause every ten paces to admire a multi-colored weaving and commence negotiations to purchase it.  The market fascinates me, the way one can lose oneself in the sea of colors, the murmur of the throngs punctuated by the shouts of the man peddling newspapers.  The Guatemalan sun bathes the scene in its harsh light and throws shadows all around at impossible angles.  The market is fascinating but overwhelming.  It’s too big, too dense, too stimulating.  The mind can’t contain it all—the scene encompasses too much sadness, pain, boredom, joy, desperation, peace, anger, indifference, warmth, vigor, triumph, surrender.  There’s too much humanity here, there are too many interwoven realities and fates, too many contradictions.  The world can’t be this complicated, this raw, this awful and wonderful all that the same time, can it?

Image

Antigua, Guatemala, morning.

We rarely see all of these things in the same place in the U.S., where the poor live among the poor, the rich among the rich, the lucky and the unlucky each reside in their own separate kingdoms.  Usually, when these disparate tribes meet, it means that something has gone wrong, some natural law has been breached, order has been broken.  Yet even on those rare occasions when these different worlds share a common space for a moment—say, at a baseball game—they remain separate.  Each group sits with its own kind, in its own seats, its own skyboxes.  Not so here, in the Chichicasteango market, where a poor Maya woman living on a few dollars a day sells a blanket to a New Yorker ten thousand times richer.  The woman speaks several dialects of her indigenous language, plus Spanish; the New Yorker speaks English and a select set of useful Spanish phrases, some numbers, “por favor,” “gracias,” and clutches at a dictionary in his pocket.  Nearby stands an elderly man with a sun-cracked face, wearing clothes soaked through and stained yellow with sweat.  He may be forty or he may be eighty.  Who can know in this place that ages people so quickly?  He has no arms.  He stands there in the market beside the Maya woman and the New Yorker and he sells what he has: his disability, his incapacity to lay brick, to sow crops, to harvest corn, to labor in the fields.  He wears a cloth bag around his neck into which passersby may drop coins and bills.  He smiles, he chats with his fellow vendors, jokes, laughs, shakes hands with the nub of his arm which ends just above where his elbow should be.

Image

Lago Atitlán, Guatemala

At the old man’s knees a little boy darts through the crowded street, through the forest of legs.  In a squeaky voice he exhorts tourists to purchase a stuffed elephant, a bracelet, a handmade leather wallet.  He follows some of them, usually the solitary travelers, for entire blocks, trying out different prices, offering different bargains, persisting, persisting.  It’s incredible the tenacity of these street kids.  I sometimes think that if capitalism exists anywhere in total purity, it is in markets like this one, where the market literally dictates prices, wages, the allocation of labor, destinies, and lifestyles—where the state has little say over who can work, at what age, in what capacity, for what compensation.  In this market a trinket that in the States would sell for $20 goes for a mere quarter.  In this free market, where labor laws either don’t exist or aren’t enforced, the value of everything is relative and intrinsic worth is almost meaningless.  Here, where building codes are scant, houses stand half-finished, buildings are missing floors, rebar twists into the sky from unfinished concrete pillars awaiting new floors that will appear when needed or when time and money allow.  Pollution hangs in the air, obscuring mountains that are barely a mile distant.  The haze drifts across dozens of miles of mountains and valleys from Guatemala City and from forests being cleared for farmland.  It works its way into your lungs.  You can smell it with each inhalation, the mix of car exhaust, burning trees, industrial pollutants.  “Here it’s every man, woman, and child for himself,” an ambitious Guatemalan guide told me.

Image

Chichicastenango, Guatemala

In the absence of a web of social safeguards and laws that ensure the common good, it makes sense for a farmer to burn his forest for more cropland.  It makes sense for industry to dump its waste into rivers and lakes.  It makes sense for the elite to live in urban castles without giving a thought to the poor and the destitute in the countryside—because in such a world each person must fend for himself.  To do otherwise would be to repudiate life itself.  For the destitute, today and tomorrow matter.  The future beyond that does not exist and hardly bears thinking about.

I saw capitalism in its most frenetic form not in the United States, but rather in a tiny country in Central America.

Image

Image

Image

Image

Image

Crumbling Dreams: Rhyolite, Nevada: Ghost Town in the Mojave Desert

Rhyolite's school building

A few miles east of Death Valley National Park there stand the ruins of a mining town that at its peak numbered more than 3,000 people.  In a span of two years, beginning in 1905, the people of Rhyolite erected a three-story bank, a hospital, an eight-room school, a railroad station, an opera house, and an assortment of other buildings intended to accommodate a vibrant community of miners and their families who had come from far and wide in hopes of striking gold in the parched deserts of Nevada and California.  Within a mere five years the boom ended, Rhyolite’s residents began to flee, and the town began to die.  By 1920, time and the elements had set to work dismantling what thousands of people had so carefully built.

All that remains of Rhyolite are crumbling buildings and the detritus of the people who inhabited them. Old, rusted beer cans lie strewn about on the ground.   Gusts of wind blow them around like autumn leaves.  Defunct mineshafts watch the town from the surrounding hills.  Rattlesnakes seek shelter from the heat of summer and the chill of winter in the rubble of collapsed walls.  Jackrabbits bound through desert shrubs clinging to existence.  The only sounds are the howl of the wind and the scraping of beer cans against hard white sand.

The ruins of Rhyolite speak to a million deliberate decisions, vestiges of thoughts and intentions and hopes and dreams.  “Here we’ll erect a two-story school house so that our kids can grow up in this town.  There, across the wide main street, we’ll build a bank so that we may deposit our earnings and draw on them in the future.  We’ll pipe water into town, build an electrical grid, lay railroad tracks, and construct a train station so that people can come and go.”  Everything about Rhyolite assumes a future, a sustained presence, the persistence of a way of life that we know came to an end but that the town’s inhabitants saw as everlasting.

The Cook Bank of Rhyolite

The ruins of recent history are more haunting than those of the deep past.  Machu Picchu is sublime.  To lay eyes on its green terraces, its crumbling stone walls, and the towering Andes Mountains that protected it from the destructive hands of the conquering Spaniards is to experience transcendence.  Machu Picchu is a celebration of human achievement and audacity.  It doesn’t matter that in the end the civilization that built it fell and nature reclaimed it.  What matters is that people dared to build the city in the first place.

Machu Picchu doesn’t haunt me because I can’t imagine having lived there.  I have no relationship to the people who built it.  Their traditions and way of life are foreign to me.  Rhyolite is different.  I can imagine my great grandparents having worked in its gold mines, sought medical care in its hospital, deposited money in its bank.  I belong to the civilization that built Rhyolite.  It is part of my story.

About a hundred years ago a critical mass of people chose to establish an autonomous town here in the driest, most desolate desert in North America where everything on the surface—the howling wind, the dust, the cracked ground, the snakes, and the relentless sun—warned them away.  All for something shiny that lay buried in the surrounding hills.  I like to think that the works of my time will endure where those of the past crumbled to the ground.  Rhyolite dispels this notion.  Nature makes no exceptions.

A piece of art placed on the outskirts of town in the 1980s.

The Cook Bank

Inside an old train car.

The school.

In the Valley of Death: Death Valley National Park

When describing a desolate landscape, it’s always best to start with the names people have applied to it: Death Valley, Badwater, Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, Dante’s View, Hell’s Gate, the Devil’s Golf Course.  Pictures say something about the surface of the land.  Names tell its story and speak to relationships between the place and the people who have lived and died in its environs.

Nothing about Death Valley is hospitable, yet it is one of my favorite places on earth.  Scorching hot during the summer, cold and windy during winter, always dry, on a scale that shrinks one to nonexistence—Death Valley neither needs nor asks for an audience, yet people flock to it by the thousands every year.   Yosemite and Yellowstone seem vain by comparison.  Their waterfalls roar.  Their fertile green meadows beckon.  These parks speak the language of life.  Life courses through Death Valley, too, but the desert makes no show of it.  It doesn’t care to do so.  Death Valley neither invites nor rejects onlookers.  It is content with simply being.

At dawn the sun throws a sliver of orange light on sharp mountain ridges a hundred miles to the west.  A sea of black shadows recedes, revealing still more orange ridges, each one closer than the last, so that it’s as if a tsunami of light were rushing across the landscape, pulverizing the last remnants of darkest night until it spills into a valley more than one hundred miles long.  The new light settles on undulating sand dunes and blinding white salt pans that sink hundreds of feet below sea level.  It’s as if God were leafing through a photo album of creation and happened to turn to the page that includes you.

Dante's View. From here you can see mountains that are two hundred miles away.

From Aguereberry Point, almost 7,000 ft above the valley.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

From Augereberry Point

From near Aguereberry Point

Old gold mining operation.

That's my dad.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes: Family of three forming a nice triangle.

Photographer at work at Dante's View.

From Dante's View. You can see about one hundred miles down the valley from here. The most distant mountains are about two hundred miles away. The valley itself is over a mile below.

From Aguereberry Point.

From Aguereberry Point.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at dawn.

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes at dawn.

Photographers at Zabriskie Point.

Near Zabriskie Point.

Badwater, the lowest point in North America (282 ft. below sea level).

Photos: New York

Brooklyn Bridge

Manhattan from "Top of the Rock"

Brooklyn Bridge

Where Loners, Wanderers and Weirdos Sleep: Thoughts on Hostels

The Hosteling International Hostel in Austin sits on a hill that tapers down to the south shore of Lady Bird Lake, one of a series of narrow lakes that owe their existence to dams built up and down the Colorado River as it flows through Central Texas.  Unlike most hostels, which tend to be in the middle of a large downtown where the sounds of the city never quite fade, even at night, the hostel in Austin neighbors no buildings.  The whoosh of cars, the laughter of late night partiers, and the low hum common to all big cities at night do not disturb it.  Instead, live oak trees wind their limbs around it, waters lap up on the tree-lined shore beneath it, and, at night, crickets and other nocturnal creatures serenade it.   Downtown Austin, about a mile away, rises just a sliver above the tree line across the lake.  A narrow dock extends into the water and affords a solitary place to sit and think, and to squint at the smattering of stars that manage to overcome the glow of the city.  Inside, the hostel is more inviting than most I’ve slept in.  Large round tables fill the dining area.  An upright piano rests in the corner.  I imagine that on busy nights traveling musicians gladden the room with their songs.

Hostels fascinate me.  They come in all varieties and are run by some of the most eccentric characters.  The proprietor of an Anchorage hostel I stayed at in 2006 interrogated me about Austin. He wanted to know where a man goes to cool off on a hot summer’s day. Answer: Barton Springs. “Yes, that’s correct,” he said.  “And where does one go for live music?”  Answer: Sixth Street.  Correct again.  He quizzed me on politics, asked who I voted for in the 2004 presidential election, inveighed against war and big oil.  He ran his hostel out of his own house in the suburbs.

In Minneapolis I stayed in a hostel that felt like an abandoned mansion. I slept alone on one bed among thirty in a large, open room with a vaulted ceiling that rose twenty feet above me. Walls were missing, doors had holes in them, and the November wind whistled through cracks and little gaps in the exterior.  In most hostels strangers from all over the world talk in various heavy accents about where they’ve come from and where they’re going.  These rank among the dreamiest conversations I’ve heard.

Some hostels are musty and cramped. Their whole structure lists slightly and makes you wonder whether they might fall down. They smell of damp towels and bodies salted by the ocean. One in Mexico had a restroom so small that you couldn’t close the door to do your business. Some offer nice, simple breakfasts. In Argentina almost all hostels provide at no charge biscuits and mermelada, orange juice, milk and coffee.

The people who frequent hostels are sometimes weird, sometimes perfectly ordinary, occasionally crazy. A lot of them are lost. A lot of them are staying in a hostel because they don’t know where else to go, and they believe that maybe the simple act of moving will change their lives for the better.  A man at a hostel in Fairbanks told me that he had moved from New York to Alaska on a whim, with no promise of a job and no friends in his new home to help him if he needed it.  He said that he wanted to work for the oil industry, though he had lived in New York his entire life and had never seen a drilling rig.

Maybe I feel at home in hostels because I don’t know who I am and I’ve deluded myself into thinking that I can find what’s missing in me in the outside world, among people who are lost themselves and who, like me, have landed in the liminal reality hostels afford.  In a hostel, everyone is no one and, for a moment, the pressures of being someone lift.

Hostel in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Outside a hostel in Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo, Mexico

Hostel in Puerto Iguazú, Argentina.

Hostel in Menneapolis, Minnesota.

Exterior of hostel in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Hostels near beaches tend to have this look (Tulúm, Quintana Roo, Mexico).

Hostel in Viejo San Juan, Puerto Rico. Sometimes hostels have better locations than hotels.

Hostel in Austin, Texas.