Dirt like Blood

This story is excerpted from my book Back to the Bundu [ Paperback | Kindle | NOOK | iPad ].

There’s something so primal about red dirt. At least it’s always been that way to me.  Whenever I see red dirt, I experience a mysterious attraction.

In the red dirt.  Tuli Wilderness, Botswana, 02 March 2013.

In the red dirt. Tuli Wilderness, Botswana, 02 March 2013.

Soil appears red when it contains a high concentration of iron. Perhaps somewhere, deep in our DNA, our instincts tell us to go towards the blood red dirt because of the iron content. Humans need iron to survive. It’s literally in our blood.

Or perhaps it’s something else, something more cerebral. Perhaps it’s more of a calling; to go back, to a place we’ve never been, but to the place we came from.

Like the salmon born and raised in captivity, released to the wild, attracted like a magnet to one stream out of so many, a stream it has never been to before, yet it somehow knows: This is it. This is the one. This is home.

Like a magnet, Africa had pulled me back. It was an attraction that was strong, steady, and irresistible; it tugged a little at my brain, and at my heart, but mostly at my gut, rekindling a deep desire—a desire to return to a place I’d never been before, the Tuli Wilderness of Botswana; but to a place where I had always been, through my ancestors, through all of our ancestors, so long ago: Africa.

To finally see a place I’ve always seen.

To get to know a place I’ve always known.

To finally understand where I came from. Where we all came from.

The real “old country”. The original homeland.

Because we are all African. The rest is just a matter of timing.

—–

I remember once hearing a scientist say that by the time you smell something, microscopic particles of whatever you smell have already entered deep into your body. Although the context was toxic and potentially poisonous chemicals, the same goes for anything else—if you smell it, it has entered your body. By the time you’ve smelled it, it’s already inside of you; it’s become part of you.

“Tuli” is the Setswana word for dust, and the dust is everywhere in the Tuli region. It works its way in to everything. You can smell it in your nostrils. You can taste it on your tongue. You can feel the grittiness in your mouth.

It’s hard to put an experience like my time in the Tuli Wilderness into words, but I have attempted to do so to the best of my abilities here. It was an experience, or more of a magnificent portfolio of experiences, that will stick with me forever. The Tuli is inside of me. It’s become part of me. I can still taste it. It’s pumping through my veins.

—–

Two weeks, alone but not alone, in a place where man was meant to be—always meant to be. I set about this adventure thinking that it was just a deeply personal journey, maybe even a “midlife crisis,” a vacation of sorts meant to reconnect with nature and with the true meaning of humanity. But in the end, it was not about a vacation, but about a life.

It wasn’t an escape from technology, civilization, and people, but a blending of old and new experiences, of the past and the future. And though at times it was deeply personal and illuminating, in the end, it wasn’t at all about “me”; it was about something bigger.

Going back isn’t a destination. It’s a journey. A journey that never ends.

Back to the basics.

Back to the beginning.

Back to the bundu.

—–

“All I wanted to do now was get back to Africa. We had not left it yet, but when I would wake in the night, I would lie, listening, homesick for it already.”
—Ernest Hemmingway

The Rhodesian Bush War

This story is excerpted from my book Down to Africa [ Paperback | Kindle| iPad ].

02-001_ed

We came in much higher than you would expect for an airplane about to land, but at what seemed like beyond the last possible second, the sturdy old Viscount dove sharply towards the tank-lined runway at Victoria Falls, its propellers chopping sloppily at the air. Such evasive maneuvers were commonplace in a country racked by war. It was 1977, and a commercial passenger plane had never before been shot down by terrorists. But such aircraft were obviously very attractive, symbolic targets in a campaign to overthrow the Rhodesian government, so Air Rhodesia was not taking any chances.

Soon after we landed safely, we collected our luggage and boarded a bus. Several vehicles had recently been ambushed or blown up by land mines on the roadway from the airport to Victoria Falls, so anti-guerrilla tactics were commonplace. But before leaving the airport, I turned back and took a photograph of our aircraft, an ancient Vickers 748D Viscount, sitting on the runway. Our bus pulled away and slipped in to line in a convoy of other vehicles, with armored vehicles leading the way as well as bringing up the rear. It was a tense drive, but before long, we arrived at the A’Zambezi River Lodge safe and sound without incident.

02-014_ed

We were just a stone’s throw from the border with Zambia, on the front lines of the Rhodesian Bush War, a war that within two years would bring the then-ruling government of Rhodesia to its knees.

—–
Rhodesia may have never officially adopted the South African system of apartheid, but signs of racial separation were everywhere. Rhodesia and the surrounding region were colonized by white settlers in the late 1800s, and it’s no surprise that the black majority had taken issue with white minority rule from the very beginning. A number of minor, often token gestures were made over the years in an attempt to placate the black majority, but over time the civil disobedience practiced by the disenfranchised citizens of Rhodesia evolved in to an organized and often brutally violent campaign for independence and racial liberation.
02-003_ed

By the 1960s, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) and the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) were engaged in a bitter guerrilla war against Rhodesia’s white minority rulers. Guerrillas were training in other countries as well as getting significant material assistance from overseas. We visited Rhodesia in 1977, late in the second phase of the Bush War. The war had escalated and spread throughout the entire country. International pressure was increasing for an immediate transition from minority to majority rule, and this was accompanied by a significant surge in guerrilla activity. The Rhodesian government, which had seemed so resilient in the face of opposition for so many years, was backed in to a corner, in a difficult position from which escape seemed unlikely.

Armed conflict continued, but in 1978 and 1979 the country made some tentative moves away from white minority rule. When Robert Mugabe became Prime Minister of the newly-renamed Zimbabwe in 1980, things looked bright for the country. But over the next 30 years, Mugabe ruled with an iron fist and gradually drove the country into the ground. While creating an environment of corruption and repression, perhaps the most vivid image of the downfall of Zimbabwe is the economic chaos created by runaway hyper-inflation. There’s nothing like seeing photographs of someone standing in line to buy a loaf of bread, clutching a wad of $100 billion bills in their hand, wondering if they could afford to eat that day.

—–

War paints an intensely vibrant picture, but not all of my memories of Rhodesia have to do with the details of war. We went there, after all, to see the falls.

Victoria Falls has long been known by the indigenous name “Mosi-oa-Tunya”, which means “The Cloud that Thunders.” David Livingstone, of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” fame, was the first European to see the falls, naming this natural wonder in honor of Queen Victoria. With a width of more than a mile and a vertical drop of over 350 feet, it is recognized as the largest waterfall in the world.

02-013_ed

It’s hard to image a waterfall more sublimely spectacular than Victoria Falls. In the midst of a large, flat plateau, the ground under your feet suddenly breaks in two, and all of the water from one of the world’s mightiest rivers pours in a gigantic sheet over the precipice. A thunderous sound shakes the ground, and a heavy, rain-like mist soaks everything within a half mile. The mist rises in a gigantic cloud reaching more than a thousand feet into the sky. The face of the falls is so wide, and the mist so heavy, that at times it is difficult to fully perceive the awesome majesty of Victoria Falls.

Besides the falls themselves, there were so many other interesting things to see in this remote corner of Rhodesia. Native dancers performed for us around an open fire, their massive masks making them look both fierce and otherworldly. A young Rhodesian woman walked down to the river to collect water, her beautiful young baby strapped to her back with a carefully folded blanket. Vervet monkeys chattered in the trees above our heads, begging for handouts as we walked the path down towards the falls. And there are so many other wonderful things I remember from my short visit to this magnificent country. But in 1977 Rhodesia was a country firmly in the grips of war, and despite the carefree performance put on for tourists, you could see the evidence everywhere.

—–

Even though the two countries were technically at war, our tour guide pointed to the Victoria Falls Bridge spanning the Zambezi between Rhodesia and Zambia just below the falls and told us that under the darkness of night, trade was still taking place. The Rhodesians would quietly push a train car full of goods out to the middle of the bridge, and then unhook it. Shortly thereafter, the Zambians would stealthily come out and retrieve the train car. Later, the process would be repeated in reverse, as the Zambians filled the train car with different goods in Livingstone and returned it to the Rhodesians. Capitalism rules, even in the midst of a brutal war.

ZIPRA was the dominant guerrilla force in the vicinity of Victoria Falls, operating out of bases in nearby Botswana and Zambia. The Rhodesian Army countered the rebel assault with Operation Ranger, which covered the northwest corner of the country, including the area around Victoria Falls.

Sitting on the balcony of our hotel, we heard something coming through the trees. Could it be an elephant? Was it possibly a lion? Or maybe it was a Cape buffalo, or another of the large species of wildlife this part of Africa is known for? But it wasn’t a wild animal at all; it was two camouflaged Rhodesian Army soldiers on patrol.

We grabbed our cameras and followed them down to banks of the Zambezi River, where they were scanning the opposite shore for possible rebel incursions from Zambia. It felt very tense and awkward to be sneaking photos of these soldiers from behind a tree—they were armed and at war, and I was just some stupid teenage kid from America trying to get a cool photograph. Luckily they never turned around and saw me. Ironically, at least to me, was the fact that these two soldiers were black: in defending against the attacks on white minority rule, the majority of the Rhodesian Army consisted of black soldiers.

02-002_ed

When it was time to take the romantic sunset cruise along the Zambezi River, which was a standard part of the typical Victoria Falls tourist experience, the captain of the boat was very careful to not stray across the border, the imaginary line between Rhodesia and Zambia, that paradox of geography that can mean so much, even the difference between life and death, to so many people, yet which was utterly and completely irrelevant to the landscape. Geography doesn’t care much for man-made borders.

As tourists in a war zone, we made the best of our bizarre situation, somehow able to enjoy ourselves while remaining somewhat detached from the realities of the brutal Bush War going on around us. It was impossible to ignore things like the freakish-looking Leopard armored personnel carrier parked in front of the A’Zambezi River Lodge. But in a way it seemed almost surreal, an odd curiosity, like that vehicle had been conveniently placed out front of our hotel so that tourists could pose for pictures with it. And pose with it we did.

I heard later that the A’Zambezi River Lodge had burned to the ground, another casualty of the Rhodesian Bush War.

—–

The evasive tactics our airplane took while coming in to Victoria Falls Airport may have seemed like overkill at the time, but shortly after our trip to Victoria Falls, I heard that two such aircraft had been shot down by rebel fighters. This was huge news in southern Africa, and marked the crux of the Rhodesian Bush War, but the international community mostly seemed to pay little notice.

02-005_ed

The downing of the first aircraft was a particularly graphic example of the atrocities of war. On September 3rd, 1978 an Air Rhodesia Viscount was shot down near Kariba with a Strela 2 shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile manufactured in the Soviet Union. Struggling to maintain control of the crippled aircraft, the pilot attempted an emergency landing but lost control when the plane scraped the tops of some trees and then flipped over into a ditch and burst in to flames. Of the 52 passengers and 4 crew members on board the flight, 18 survived the impact. The ZIPRA rebels responsible for the attack followed the smoke to the wreckage of the downed aircraft and stabbed and shot 10 of the survivors to death. In the end, only eight people of the 56 on board survived the vicious ordeal.

Five months later, another Air Rhodesia Viscount aircraft was attacked by the ZIPRA rebels. The aircraft, known as the “Umniati” and registered as VP-YND, left Kariba on February 12th, 1979 on a flight to the capital city of Salisbury (today known as Harare). A Strela2 missile struck the aircraft shortly after takeoff and it crashed violently into a ravine near Kariba Dam. All 54 passengers and 5 crew members perished in this tragic attack.

Following these two incidents, Air Rhodesia instituted a number of countermeasures in an attempt to thwart future attacks. Aircraft were repainted to be non-reflective, and special exhaust pipes were installed on the engines to reduce heat signatures and prevent missiles from locking on to their targets.

The downing of the two Air Rhodesia Viscounts in late 1978 and early 1979 marked the first time that a militant group had successfully carried out a campaign of terror by downing commercial passenger planes. Many feel that the profound silence from the international community in the aftermath of these attacks encouraged other militant groups to mount similar attacks on civilian aircraft in other areas of conflict around the world.

Many more people died in the Rhodesian Bush War and the wider conflict than did in these two plane crashes. But the downing of the two planes was a hugely symbolic milestone in the Bush War, and marked the beginning of the end for the white minority government and the country known as “Rhodesia”.

—–

I looked back in my album at the photograph I took of our airplane sitting on the runway at Victoria Falls Airport in July 1977. The registration number on the tail of the plane was VP-YND. It was the same exact plane that had been shot down by ZIPRA rebels in February 1979, killing 59 people.

VP-YND.

VP-YND.

The Kite Moon: An Introduction

tkmIt was Thursday night, 01 May 2014, and I had to get up at 4 the next morning and drive 500 miles.  I slept surprisingly well until about 2 a.m. when I had the most bizarre, vivid, touching dream.  It was about childhood, about wonder, about exploration, about science, and about escaping.  And when I woke up, I immediately knew that this story would form the basis for my next novel. 

I ventured into into novel writing only once before and it took about 14 years to finish The Stone Apocalypse, my first (and supposedly last) novel.  But in a few minutes of intensely wonderful dreaming, that all changed. 

The new novel is tentatively titled The Kite Moon, which will all make perfect sense eventually.  But until then, here is my first rough draft of the introduction, which sets to mood for the journey. And for those of you interested in the process, this is the first book I’m writing entirely within OneNote.

Enjoy.

—–

A lone morning dove sings it’s foreboding melody just outside the open, unscreened window.

Flies buzz around the mouth of a near-empty wine bottle.

Mom is lying back in her chair, passed out drunk again, her mouth agape, her body prostrate, as I lie on the ragged, soiled carpet at her feet, crayon in hand, executing crudely imagined drawings of escapes far, far away from this island of despair.

And dad is nowhere to be seen.

I was probably about two and a half, maybe three years old.

This is my earliest memory of childhood.

—–

Dad showed up one blustery fall day.  It wasn’t the first time I saw my dad, but this time it was different.  I was about six years old.  And three things happened that day.

In our suburban purgatory, there were a lot of single parents.  Several of my friends had dads they had never met, or rarely saw.  I was seemingly firmly entrenched in that later camp, with a father who would show up occasionally, with a gruff greeting and an uncomfortable disposition, and leave again quickly.  But that day, he stayed the night, and I realized that my parents were not divorced after all; rather, my dad had a job that kept him away from home for long periods of time.

The second thing that happened that day was that dad brought me a present.

A kite.

It’s was a cheap kite consisting of three dowels and a black plastic cover, in the shape of a bat.  And it came with a small roll of thin string.

That afternoon, after a long and heated discussion with my mom that featured both of them consuming much wine, my dad stumbled outside and showed my how to fly my new kite.  There was a nice breeze, and we set about getting the flying machine airborne in the large weed-covered gap between our house and the neighbors, where one massive, ancient oak tree had watched over the neighborhood majestically until a wicked storm had blown in to town the previous winter and slapped it to the ground, barely missing our house.

He held the kite in his cigarette-free hand and walked backwards with his back against the wind while I let out string.  When he was about 15 feet away from me, he stopped.

“On the count of three, you run as fast as you can until the kite is up there,” he said, pointing to the blue sky.  “Got it?”

“Yep.”

“OK then.  One.  Two.  Three!  Run!”

With that, he launched the kite vertically and I started running away from him.  The kite ascended quickly, and soon he yelled “Stop!”  And then I just stood there, the line taught, the black plastic bat dancing far above my head, twisting and turning in the autumn breeze.

“What happens if the string breaks?” I asked the old man.

“You’re probably fucked,” he replied.

“You mean it will just fly away?”

“No, listen kid, that thing isn’t really flying, by itself, it’s just being held up there by the wind.  Jesus.  If the string breaks, you’ll probably lose the damn thing in a tree.”

“Oh.”

Dad puffed on his cigarette as my eyes and every sense of being remained fixated on the flying plastic.  After a few minutes of this joyous new escape from my earthly bounds, the wind shifted about 30 degrees and suddenly my kite was dancing playfully close to the face of the pale moon.

It was so close.

It fascinated me.

I let out some more string, hoping to eventually reach the moon with my kite, but no such luck.  Soon there was no string left, just an empty cardboard tube, with the tail end of the bat’s leash tied firmly around the center.

“Dad,” I asked, “how much more string would we need to reach the moon?”

“What?” he replied, flabbergasted at my question.  “No, no, no, listen you dumb little shit, you can’t fly a fucking kite to the moon!  It’s, like millions of miles away!  And there’s no fucking atmosphere!  You need atmosphere to have wind, otherwise you can’t fly your fucking kite, it won’t stay fucking airborne!  Jesus H. Christ, you sound like your fucking mother.  I’m surrounded by idiots.  I’ve got to get the fuck out of here.  See you around, kid.  Shit.”

And then he walked back towards the house.

“Oh, OK,” I said.

But in my heart, I knew he was wrong.  His profanity-laden diatribe had done nothing to wipe the smile from my face, nor could it drain the ocean of grand ideas racing through my tiny head.

And that’s the third thing that happened: it was the day that I realized I was a better person than my dad.

Shortly after that revelation, I died for the first time.

Flair

While writing my book Back to the Bundu [ Paperback | Kindle | NOOK | iPad ] last year, I wrote three chapters which ended up not being used in the book.  This week I’m sharing these three stories here on my blog.  Here is the third story, “Flair”.

—–

In the 1999 movie Office Space, Jennifer Anniston plays a waitress who gets lectured by her manager about the buttons that all employees are required to wear on their uniforms as a way of self-expression. Her manager refers to these buttons as “flair.” Ever since seeing that movie, I like to use the term “flair” to refer to any form of personal expression, or it could be the buttons you wear on your restaurant uniform. It could be the jewelry you wear, or the funny slogans you prefer on your t-shirts. Or it could be something completely different you do to express who you are. For example, where you go, and what you do while you’re there, is all about personal expression. What you do and where you go is actually who you are. It’s your flair.

—–

The first time I missed the birthday of one of my children was one of the saddest days of my life. On the afternoon of December 29th, 2006, I got a phone call from my sister that my dad had had a heart attack. Only a few days before, my parents had been over at our house for Christmas, and we had no indication that anything was wrong with my father. Yet now he was in the back of an ambulance on the way to the hospital, with no pulse, the paramedics having told my mom before they drove away “It doesn’t look good…”

I had just arrived home about an hour or two earlier, having gone on a quick vacation with my wife and kids up California’s central coast, some 300 miles away. The prospect of immediately getting back in the car and driving another 500 miles, by myself, through the night, in the emotional state one experiences after hearing terrible news about a loved one, did not sound like a wise thing to do. So I put enough clothing in a small bag to last me two days, and I waited.

An hour later, the phone rang again. It was my sister. The paramedics had miraculously managed to get my dad’s heart started again. He was, as you’d expect, still in very serious condition in intensive care, but the prognosis was looking up. So I drank a bottle of wine and went to bed early, getting a much better night’s sleep than expected, no doubt due to my heavy self-prescribed dosage of that miracle of all-natural holistic medicine: fermented red grape juice. At about 5 a.m. the next morning, I started the long drive up to Reno.

It was an interesting drive. The night before, in a slightly drunken, emotionally delirious stupor, I thought a lot about my dad. And I knew that on the 8+ hour drive up there by myself to see him, I would have plenty more time to think about him. Since I like to listen to music on those long drives, I decided that the official song of the trip would be Wall of Voodoo’s “Me and My Dad,” a personal classic from their 1981 album Dark Continent, written and sung by my friend Stan Ridgway. It’s a revealing song about the relationship between a father and a son, and the parts about fishing trips and working on cars really resonated with me:

Me and my dad
We’ve got a good thing going
Fishing trips, the hard way’s the best
Man-to-man talks, when the going gets tough
The tough get going
Follow me, son
I’ll guide you the right way
Fix my car when the engine falls apart
Show me where the piston goes
Can you get this thing to start?

But a funny thing happened on the drive up to Reno. I played “Me and My Dad” several times on the car stereo, and it was great and all…but it did little to capture the emotions I was feeling. It was proof that music is emotional, but trying to predict which songs a person may or may not have an emotional connection to at any given time is pure folly. Although science, logic, and critical thinking are of tremendous value, especially in my life, sometimes you just can’t predict feelings.

Frustrated that my careful musical planning was all for naught, I turned off the music for a while and was alone with my thoughts, the only soundtrack to my emotional journey being the hum of the engine and the tires on Highway 395 as I sped north towards Reno at 75 miles per hour. But the emotions were too great, too uncomfortable, so I turned the iPod back on for some distraction. The album of choice, an old standby, was Communiqué by Dire Straits—mellow richness I had heard a thousand times before. It might not be the perfect antidote for my melancholy, but it was a worthy distraction nonetheless.

As the first song, “Once Upon a Time in the West,” came on, I got to thinking once again about my dad, and about the west—two subjects that were intertwined and experienced much overlap.

My dad was born in California, as was I, and he introduced me to many places in the west that were now amongst my favorite places in the world—from the stark beauty of the desert, to the rich drama of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, through which I was driving on my way up north to see him. And about seven years prior to his heart attack, he had made an even greater commitment to the west, leaving cookie-cutter suburban southern California and moving to Reno, Nevada, buying a beautiful house on two and a half acres of pinion pine and sage brush in a rural part of town, further embracing the lifestyle and culture of the west. He had lived his dream, and then almost died. Fraught with emotion, I decided to back off a little and just try to enjoy the scenery along the drive and the music coming from my car stereo, when this lyric from “Once Upon a Time in the West” came over the speakers:

Even the hero gets a bullet in the chest.
Once upon a time in the west…

That lyric gave me goose bumps and sent shivers up my spine. And that song, which I had been listening to for nearly 30 years and enjoyed but had never before made an emotional connection with, instantly took on an entirely new meaning and became the premier track of my personal soundtrack of life—and death—in the west.

“But,” you ask, “I thought this story was supposed to be about the first time you missed the birthday of one of your children?” In fact, it is.

—–

My son was born on New Year’s Day. Leaving him on December 30th to drive up to see my dad in the hospital would mean that, even if I just stayed the planned two days, I would miss Andrew’s birthday. I apologized to him in advance. He was 13, about to turn 14. It was very emotional for me, but he seemed fine with it.

On the evening of December 31st, after a long day of ups and downs at the hospital, I set my alarm clock for a few minutes before midnight, and as December 31st, 2006 turned in to January 1st, 2007, as I watched the New Year’s fireworks display in downtown Reno out of the window in the spare bedroom of my parents’ house, I called Andrew and wished him a happy birthday, apologizing again. He was fine, having a party, opening presents, laughing with his friends, his sister, and his mom.

The phone call was over quickly, and I collapsed back into bed. Listening to the pounding of the firework show in downtown Reno echoing down the Washoe Valley, I tried unsuccessfully to drift back to sleep, thinking about sons and fathers, fathers and sons, and this poignant fairy tale of love and loss, of life and death, once upon a time in the west.

—–

The second time I missed the birthday of one of my children, it was totally my fault. But it was an accident.

My friend Geoff and his brother Greg had spent two decades hiking the John Muir Trail in pieces, and they had just two “sections” left to go. In the spring of 2008 they began making plans to hike one of the most spectacularly sublime—and by far the most heavily travelled—sections, the one between Tuolumne Meadows and Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park. And they asked me and my friend Mike if we wanted to join them.

We all looked at our calendars and decided on a time in July that worked best for us, and Geoff called the ranger station to reserve permits—not an easy thing to do for such a popular trail in peak season, but we had planned it so far in advance that there were still a few slots available. Excited to be backpacking such a classic section of such a classic trail, we pored over maps, organized equipment, read guidebooks, and talked about it for months. It was going to be quite the adventure.

About a month before we left, I looked at the calendar and my heart sunk. We had scheduled our trip so far in advance that I had not realized that it conflicted with my daughter’s 18th birthday. But at that point there was nothing I could do about it except apologize and hope she didn’t hate me for it.

On the second night of our hike along this section of the John Muir Trail, we made camp at a convenient flat spot sandwiched between the trail and a small stream—close enough to the stream to easily get water, and just far enough from the trail that we could neither see nor hear other hikers passing through. After agreeing on the spot, we each set up our tents and went about doing our own things before dinner. Mike almost immediately passed out in his tent. I got my gear organized and did some laundry. Geoff poured us some cocktails while Greg carefully engineered a roaring campfire. And in that golden time after a long, hard hike and before dinner and sleep, we sat around Greg’s masterful fire, sipped our cocktails, and talked about everything and nothing all at the same time.

Although we were not camping in an “official” campsite, people had obviously stayed at the site before. There were flat spots carefully groomed for the setting up of tents. A rock ring had been constructed to contain campfires. And rocks and logs had been placed strategically for use as seats around the fire.

As I sat on one of these makeshift lounge chairs, forgetting how uncomfortable it was just because it was so nice to get off of my weary feet after two days of lugging a heavy pack across Yosemite, I thought a lot about how beautiful the place was, and how lucky I was to be right there, right at that specific moment in time. But there was also a bit of sadness there, as I realized that it was my daughter’s 18th birthday that day, and she was for the first time in her life celebrating the passing of another year of her life without her father there to share it with her.

It was undoubtedly a much bigger deal for me than it was for her, and the circumstances were much different than when I had missed my son’s 14th birthday a year and a half earlier. And maybe those circumstances were exactly why I was feeling so guilty: missing a birthday because your dad had a heart attack and was in intensive care was entirely different from missing a birthday because you decided to go backpacking with your friends in one of the most pristine and beautiful places on the planet.

And then I looked down on the ground between my legs.

As I mentioned, even though we were in a remote spot in a beautiful wilderness, it was very obvious that this place had been heavily used by people before us. And when people camp, even the most strident environmentalists can leave behind small bits of waste. But what I saw on the ground beneath me really pissed me off. At least at first it did.

It was a piece of thin nylon cordage, black with tiny silver specks braided in it. It was about a foot, maybe closer to 18 inches long, and was covered with dirt and dust. The ends were cut roughly, and the thin pinkish core just barely showed through.

It was the kind of cordage that backpackers typically employ to strap items to the outside of their packs. Or it might possibly have been part of a bootlace that had broken. But whatever the source and original use, it upset me that such a large piece of trash had been either accidentally left or carelessly discarded by previous occupants of the campsite.

Then, in a flash of brilliance, I had an idea.

Of course I was going to take this piece of trash out with me. I couldn’t just leave it there, like someone else had. But to remember the wonderful trip and the beautiful location, and also to remind myself that it was my daughter’s 18th birthday, I fashioned a makeshift armband from the cordage and put it on my left wrist.

—–

My wife and I had many discussions about this custom piece of “flair” I created from a discarded piece of cordage found deep in the wilderness of Yosemite National Park. Over the years, it began to fray and assume odd shapes and contort, and, much like me, otherwise show its age. She encouraged me to spend just a tiny bit of money and buy a nicely designed, well-made, real armband. And I did just that on a trip we took together to Zion National Park in Utah in May of 2012. But that new leather armband from Zion didn’t replace the cheap nylon band on my left wrist; it instead went on my right wrist, a second piece of “flair” to further express myself. It was attached to my body for the same reason as the first piece: so that when I looked down at my wrists I would be reminded of special times, of special places, and of special people.

On February 14th, 2013, just two days before leaving for a three week adventure by myself in southern Africa, my wife gave me a Valentine’s Day present: a very stylish, nicely made leather armband with a metal clasp.

This became my “Botswana” armband, yet another piece of “flair” to remind me of special times, of special places, and of special people. It wasn’t from the place I was going; it wasn’t purchased from a local store, or made from a scrap I found lying on the ground. It was even placed on my wrist before leaving my home for my next adventure. But every time I look down at the Botswana “flair” on my wrist, it reminds not just of a place I’ve been, but of the places I can go, thanks to the love and support of a family that understands my desire to leave them, for a few days or a few weeks, to go a few hundred miles away or to the other side of the planet, to seek adventures in the wild; to express myself.

She didn’t say it at the time, but I knew that one of the reasons my wife gave me that nice armband before I left was so that I might finally feel compelled to get rid of my makeshift Yosemite armband that was getting uglier and more ragged with every passing day. And then, in a blinding flash of connectivity, it hit me. It was perfect. It all made sense.

I had created my first piece of “fair” while hiking on the John Muir Trail, a place that I had first heard about from my hiking companion John while trekking through Blyde River Canyon in South Africa. Now, 35 years later, I was returning to Africa, and I would be back in the bundu, just a few hundred miles from where it had all started. I decided to take my original piece of Yosemite “flair” with me down to Africa. I would be coming back home in a few weeks, but for the scrap of nylon cordage I had found in the dirt on my daughter’s 18th birthday, the trip to Africa would be just one way.

On March 2nd, 2013, while gathering stones to repair ruts in the dirt roads that crisscross the Tuli Wilderness in eastern Botswana, I found an old piece of metal with German writing on it that looked like it had come from some kind of radiator. It was a threaded cap, and attached to the center of that cap and bent at a 90 degree angle was a piece of copper tubing. I took this scrap of metal to an elevated section on the side of the road and shoved the tubing into the ground, the whole thing now sticking out of the red dirt like some sort of metallic German expressionist flower.

“Now every time we pass by this spot on the road,” Ash said, “we’ll think of you.”

Could there be a more perfect spot for me to leave my Yosemite “flair”?

As we were finishing up our road work in that area, I spotted a mopane tree on the edge of the road, cropped short by the ubiquitous elephants that inhabited the area. I stealthily moved over towards the tree, put my hands behind my back, and nonchalantly tried to remove my trusty old “flair.” But it wasn’t coming off easy. The sheathing of the nylon cordage had worn down and become rough, and it was sticking to itself. It had also twisted back upon itself, becoming almost knotted. Add to that the layers of sunscreen and insect repellant that had built up on the surface, and I could now see why my wife was persistent in her attempts to get me to abandon this small trinket of a memory. It was pretty nasty.

It finally came off, and just before jumping into the vehicle for the ride back to camp, I hung it on to a dead branch on the short mopane tree. And so it was that after a total of 1,706 days on my wrist, and a journey of more than ten thousand miles from the wilderness of Yosemite National Park in California all the way to the Tuli Wilderness of Botswana, this piece of “flair” and I finally parted ways.

Would this be the final resting place of this random piece of cordage? Or would someone else come along and adopt it like I had, and take it on new adventures? It hardly mattered, because I would never know.

And on the way back home, I bought two brand new custom pieces of “flair” in South Africa. It seems that as time goes on, I just need to express myself more and more…

The American Serengeti

While writing my book Back to the Bundu [ Paperback | Kindle | NOOK | iPad ] last year, I wrote three chapters which ended up not being used in the book.  This week I’m sharing these three stories here on my blog.  Here is the second story, “The American Serengeti”.

—–

When my daughter Amanda was young, I loved reading to her—especially at night, when she was lying in bed, exhausted after a long day of learning, playing, and exploring. There’s something so special about a small child, minutes away from sleep, listening intently to a fantastic story. I imagine that as the child slowly drifts off and starts to dream, that thin line between reality and imagination blurs, and all of the fantastic things happening in the story they just heard moments before become so real and seem so possible. It’s literally the stuff that dreams are made of.

While I eventually tired of reading many of those children’s stories and watching many of those children’s videos, there are a few good stories that still stand out. “Matilda,” by Roald Dahl, and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, for example, I never tire of. But the best story of them all was Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax,” a thinly veiled modern fable about the damage that unchecked corporate greed can inflict on the natural environment.

At first, “The Lorax” wasn’t Amanda’s favorite story. It was just one among many wonderful books we read together. But, perhaps because of my deep personal environmental ethos, I liked reading it more frequently than the others. So we read that book countless times. Then I bought her the animated version, and we watched it until we practically wore out the VHS tape. Over time, she came to not just love the story, but to truly understand it. It wasn’t just about a cute, furry, imaginary creature; it was about respecting and protecting the earth, our home.

The unintentional brainwashing was complete. Through the unrelenting repetition of a classic children’s story, I had accidentally transformed Amanda into a passionate, life-long environmentalist.

—–

When Amanda graduated from community college, she transferred to a university in northern California, almost 500 miles away from home, for an Environmental Studies degree with an emphasis in Wildlife Management. She wanted to do something big before moving up there, and for a time was excited about doing some volunteer conservation work down in Costa Rica. Then she changed her mind and wanted to do something else. Then it was back to Costa Rica. Then again, something else.

She was running out of time to commit to a big trip. She often talked about someday wanting to go to Wyoming, and see the animals in Yellowstone National Park. So one day I asked her, “Instead of going to Costa Rica or whatever, do you just want to drive up to Wyoming with me and visit Yellowstone for a couple of weeks?”

Her response was an enthusiastic “Yes!”

Perhaps there was a little bit of selfishness in my proposal. I longed to go back to Africa, to once again track the wild animals there and to just experience the place. But with a child in college, for financial and time management reasons, I could not yet afford a trip back down to Africa. So I would settle for the next best thing: a trip to Yellowstone, the American Serengeti. Together we could share the landscape and wildlife of one of America’s last few truly wild places. It would be a great adventure—for her, and for me.

Of course, as a parent, I didn’t plan for this to be just a simple sightseeing trip. I had other motives.

Amanda lived a very comfortable life. She was surrounded by her beloved family and dogs, in the house where she had lived and the bedroom where she had comfortably slept for the last 19 years. Soon she would be away from her family, her dogs, her house, her room, her bed, and everything else she knew so well, experiencing sadness and loneliness and confusion and all of those other things that a child first experiences when they move away. Our Yellowstone trip would get her away from home for a couple of weeks, and I saw it as a way to sort of ease her in to her new life away from home, in the college dorms.

But there was more to it than that.

I wanted to teach her something about the world; I wanted her to get out and see animals in the wild, to intimately touch nature before she moved away to pursue her degree in Environmental Studies.

But there was even more to it than that.

This trip wouldn’t just be about the environment. It wouldn’t just be about the animals. It would also be about our relationship. My little girl was growing up, and moving away to go to college. She would definitely come back to visit, but she might never come back to live. So this trip would also be about spending good, quality time with my growing daughter.

It might be my last real chance.

—–

Yellowstone was the first National Park in America—and in the world. Sort of.

Yosemite Valley in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains was inhabited by the Paiute, Sierra Miwok, and then the Ahwahneechee peoples before the arrival of the first white settlers in the early 1800s. The last of the Ahwahneechee were removed from Yosemite Valley as part of the Mariposa Wars in 1851.

Soon after the ethnic cleansing was completed, the valley was heavily promoted as a tourist destination. Worries over the impacts of tourism and commercialization on such a natural—and national—treasure resulted in the creation of the Yosemite grant, which was signed in 1864 by President Abraham Lincoln. Although protected at the national level, the land was immediately ceded to the State of California for administration as a state park.

Five hundred or so miles away from Yosemite, the Yellowstone area of northwest Wyoming is known for its abundance of both geothermal features and wildlife. The precedent set at Yosemite—the first instance of land being set aside to protect and conserve elements of the landscape and wildlife—led to the creation of Yellowstone National Park by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. But it was five years before even minimal resources were committed to the new park, and by 1886 unchecked poaching and other problems led to the stationing of the US Army in Yellowstone in order to defend the natural resources the park was originally established to protect.

Meanwhile, back in Yosemite, things weren’t going so well under state control. Sheep were allowed to graze in the meadows and were causing significant damage. And emblematic Giant Sequoia trees were being unscrupulously logged by commercial interests. Conservation denizen John Muir, who for a time worked in Yosemite Valley as a shepherd and even designed a sawmill there, became an outspoken advocate for conservation. Efforts by him and others resulted in the US Congress retaking federal control of the area and establishing Yosemite National Park in 1890. As had happened in Yellowstone, the US Army was called in to manage and protect the land in Yosemite. It was not until 1916 that the US government created the National Park Service, a new agency specifically mandated to manage Yosemite, Yellowstone, and other such lands that the government set aside for protection and for enjoyment by all.

Despite its wildness, Yellowstone is in fact an ecosystem heavily modified and impacted by human activities. Many buffalo carry the bacterial disease brucellosis, and all but a handful of the buffalo there are actually cross-breeds with domestic cattle—both of these problems introduced by the military which was sent to Yellowstone to protect the buffalo in the late 1800s. And by 1935, wolves had been completely eliminated from Yellowstone.

In 1990, the National Park Service took a bold step towards the re-wilding of Yellowstone with the reintroduction of wolves. The wolves have thrived in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, keeping the population of elk and other large ungulates in check and returning the flora and fauna of the area to a more natural balance.

—–

Not too long ago, the Great Plains of central North America were a vast, wild grassland ecosystem, home to some of the largest populations of megafauna on earth. Of course, all that has changed over the last 200 years. Modern man arrived, dividing and conquering the land, first with the railroad, then with property lines, fences, and roads. The landscape, which was once a single, cohesive, integrated system, became subdivided and compartmentalized. Most of the compartments had no use for wild animals, who were then unnaturally forced to live their lives isolated in small areas—geographic cages; open-air zoos, if you will—as a curiosity and as entertainment for humans, the dominant, overbearing species who had put them in these virtual cages. The imaginary lines man drew across the Great Plains destroyed much of the wildness and naturalness of one of the world’s great ecosystems. But if you can imagine what this area looked like in its glory days, before being dissected and reshaped at the hands of man, there is only one other place that comes close to being similar: the great savannahs of Africa, best exemplified by the Serengeti.

The Serengeti ecosystem in northern Tanzania and southwestern Kenya is home to the largest terrestrial mammal migration on earth. The Serengeti is well known as one of the natural wonders of the world, and more than 80 percent of the land is protected. Using the Serengeti as a model, a dedicated team of researchers, scientists, and conservationists have set out with the goal to recreate the natural ecosystem of the Great Plains on more than 3 million acres in northeast Montana.

The term “American Serengeti” represents hope.

—–

Before Amanda and I left on our adventure through Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, I looked back at a small diary I had kept from a family trip to Yellowstone National Park when I was nine or ten years old. I had carefully logged the wildlife I saw in Yellowstone, the American Serengeti:

5 Elk
13 Canadian Geese
3 Deer
2 Buffalo
I Dead Rat
2 Cranes, One Baby
1 Robin, Nest with Two Eggs
2 Chipmunks
Many Rabbits
4 Moose
1 Marmot
1 Dead Porcupine
Many Mallard Ducks
Many Gulls
Two Lizards
Just a few years later, half a world away in Kruger National Park in South Africa, I wrote the same sort of thing in my diary:

7 Giraffes
10 Warthogs
10 Hippopotami
2 Elephants
25 Baboons
5 Kudu
100’s of Impala
3 Cape Hunting Dogs
Clearly this was something in my blood, the tracking of animals in the wild. Then again, maybe it’s just part of the human condition?

—–

Amanda and I left southern California early one July morning, loaded down with kayaking, hiking, rock climbing, and other gear, and made it to Las Vegas in time for breakfast. A few hours later, we were at our first stop: Zion National Park in Utah.

Zion was hot. Really hot. The brilliant red sandstone cliffs seemed to be bleached pinkish from the blazing sun. So it was a cool respite to walk under the mist of nature’s swamp cooler, Weeping Rock. We lingered for a while at the small creek below, Amanda cooling her feet in the pool below a small waterfall while we spotted small fish swimming by. Later we walked down to the Virgin River, which flowed lazily through the canyon, its mightiness tempered by the midsummer heat. Of course Amanda had to wade out into it, which was to become a tradition on our trip almost every time we reached an appropriate body of water. We then drove through much of the rest of the park, visiting most of the common tourist sites, before settling in to our hotel in the town of Springdale, just outside the park gates. Between the drive, the scenery, and the heat, it had been a long, exhausting day. After dinner, Amanda quickly nodded off to sleep, while I sat on the balcony, reading a book, watching the sunset cast brilliant colors across the red sandstone cliffs, and drinking a little bit more than one glass of red wine.

The next day consisted of a lot of driving, through Utah and up in to Idaho where we would spend the night and be ready for our big adventure in Yellowstone to begin the next day. On the drive up, in those long, talkless spaces where the only sound you hear is the interplay between the car and the road, I thought a lot about the trip and how memorable I hoped it would be for Amanda. At one point, I started to think about “The Lorax.” It was probably the first time I fully realized the critically important role that little story had played on the development of this fantastic young woman sitting in the passenger seat next to me.

“Amanda,” I asked, “do you remember how you used to love to read and watch ‘The Lorax’?”

“No…oh wait…maybe…yes,” she said, the memories of something she had not thought about for a long time slowly coming back.

“Do you think that maybe you became interested in Environmental Studies because of that story?”

“Oh wow,” she said. “Maybe…”

—–

The morning of the third day, we drove for a couple hours up through Idaho and then into Montana before we entered the gates of Yellowstone National Park.

Our first stop was along the beautiful Madison River. We had just stopped to admire the magnificent landscape and take our fist photographs inside the park, when we noticed a small herd of elk feeding in the grass on the other side of the river. We were surprised to see wildlife so quickly, but it was to be the norm on this trip.

As we drove through vast landscapes charred by fire, we saw people stopped on the side of the road and stopped ourselves, just in time to see two frightened little bear cubs clamber up a tree, the mother quickly running across the road to protect them. These were the first of many bears we saw on the trip.

And then the buffalo started to appear: a lone buffalo here, two buffalo there; and then large herds of dozens and hundreds appearing on the wide open Wyoming plains. I’ll never forget the sight of a bison early in the morning, standing in a field, a heavy cloud of steam rising from its body. Or bison taking turns rolling in dusty patches of earth, taking “dirt baths”. Or a baby bison near Nez Perce Creek suckling from its mother. Or bison crossing the Lamar River.

One morning next to the Yellowstone River, the surface of the river covered in a low fog, my memory flashed back to fishing with my dad when we had visited Yellowstone so many years earlier. It was also a day where the Yellowstone River was shrouded in fog, and as my dad waded out into the river with his waders on, several elk crossed the river in front of him. I could almost see my dad out there, up to his waist in the cold water, casting his line out through the fog, waiting patiently for a hit as the elk splashed by.

Amanda and I saw countless wild animals on our trip. We were even lucky enough to see a wolf.

Driving along the main road, we noticed a large group of people parked at a pullout, all looking through spotting scopes in the same direction. We turned around and joined them, looking in the same direction, but we couldn’t see anything with the naked eye. A nice woman approached us and asked, “Would you like to look?”   We took turns looking through her spotting scope, and were delighted to see a grayish wolf, probably a mile or two away, trotting across the plain. We considered ourselves incredibly lucky to see a wolf in the wild, less than 20 years after their reintroduction in the Yellowstone ecosystem.

After only a couple of days in Yellowstone, I found myself driving with one eye on the road and the other eye constantly scanning the landscape for animals. Amanda was amazed at how easily I could spot wildlife. It all just came back to me. It was almost like being back in Africa.

American Serengeti, indeed.

—–

As much as our trip to Yellowstone was about animals, it was also about water. After all, I didn’t drive more than 1,000 miles with two bulky kayaks strapped to the roof of my car just to make an eco-hippy fashion statement.

Our first paddle was at Yellowstone Lake—a massive body of water. We unloaded the kayaks and walked down to the shoreline, and Amanda immediately noticed grizzly bear tracks on the beach right where we dropped the kayaks. She grabbed her bear spray from the car, and when I landed on a secluded beach a mile or two away she insisted on staying in the kayak on the water, fearful of being attacked and eaten by a grizzly. She eventually landed on the beach beside me, but still refused to leave the kayak.

We visited some of the volcanic and geothermal features, but Amanda didn’t seem too impressed. I got to once again see the Old Faithful Geyser erupt after a gap of 35 to 40 years. I was excited to share it with Amanda, but after we had waited for 45 minutes and we finally saw the geyser erupt, she exclaimed “That was IT?” She wasn’t going to be a geologist, obviously; animals were her thing. And in a way, I had to agree with her. There were much more spectacular things to see in Yellowstone than hot water shooting up out of a hole in the ground.

As we left Yellowstone, we made one last stop: to kayak on Lewis Lake. We paddled to the other side, landing right at the outlet of the lake, and found ourselves right in the middle of a geothermal feature. While not quite as spectacular as some of the larger geothermal areas that were well-developed tourist traps, this one was special because we had it all to ourselves.

—–

I remember visiting Yellowstone as a child and loving it. But I also remember that on the way out, we passed through Grand Teton National Park, almost as an afterthought, and I thought it was the most spectacular thing I had ever seen. What makes Grand Teton so stunning is the orientation of the mountains. Unlike typical mountains, the Tetons basically have no foothills—they just suddenly and dramatically jut straight up from the wide open plain. How grand.

As we drove in to the park, out in the distance we saw our first pronghorn antelope on the plains. Near the visitor center, we saw a single car pulled over to the side of the road, with a woman and her daughter standing next to it, peering off into the woods. We stopped to look ourselves and in the brush under a tree saw two moose—a mother and a baby.

On the long drive up the small road to go kayaking at Two Ocean Lake, expecting to see a lot of wildlife, we only saw a few deer. But once we put our kayaks in the water, we saw a man staring through his binoculars into the sky along the shore. We followed his gaze, and were rewarded with the sight of a majestic bald eagle.

We kayaked at Oxbow Bend on the Snake River, a sublimely beautiful scene, and easily one of the most recognizable spots in America. There we saw more bald eagles, several ospreys, and a family of river otters playing along the river bank. We also kayaked just a foot or two over the tops of the largest cutthroat trout I had ever seen. We moved in and out of many marshy twists and turns in the backwaters of the Snake River, looking for the moose that were supposed to live there. We watched a mother duck and her seven little chicks for quite some time, and were ready to give up on our quest for moose. Just then, we saw a flash of brown moving off behind a bush. “Bear!” one of us said, and we quickly kayaked closer to get a better look. As we approached, we realized it wasn’t a bear at all, but it was the moose we had come looking for.   Moments later, we realized it wasn’t just one moose, but two of them—a mother and baby, behind the bushes, eating leaves. We watched them from the safety of our floating platforms for more than half an hour before they moved on to greener pastures.

Another morning, as we walked around near the visitor’s center looking for a hidden clump of rocks hidden in the trees where we could climb, it started to rain. Just then we saw a helicopter fly overhead, evacuating an injured climber from a technical route high in the Tetons. We decided to skip the climbing that day and do some more kayaking instead. We kayaked at Jenny Lake, Jackson Lake, String Lake, and every place we could in the park, thus experiencing many beautiful places that people chained to their cars could never see.

—–

We saw many unexpected things on our adventure. But the biggest surprise of the trip didn’t happen in Zion, Yellowstone, or Grand Teton National Parks. It happened in town.

Amanda had to register for university classes while we were away, and our accommodations had no internet connection. So we spent half a day exploring the town of Jackson Hole and looking for a restaurant that had wifi, so that we could return the next morning and she could register for classes while we ate breakfast.

While driving in to Jackson Hole that morning, we had noticed an amazing stone building built into the side of the mountain. It was the National Museum of Wildlife Art.

We had no intention of stopping there. We had come to Wyoming to see real animals, not paintings of animals on the wall of a museum. But while wandering around town, we saw a number of signs advertising a special exhibit at the museum.

“Look!” Amanda said, pointing excitedly at one of the signs. “It’s the Lorax!”

The National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, had a special exhibit of Dr. Seuss’s original artwork for “The Lorax.”

What an incredible coincidence. Maybe we would have to drop by this museum after all…

—–

I had brought some wine with me on the trip, but also wanted to get a taste of what the local community had to offer. Wyoming not being known as a big viticulture area, I put away the wine for a few days and opted instead for beer. At a grocery store in Yellowstone, I purchased some fine microbrewed beers from Wyoming and Montana.

We all know what happens when kids move away to college. They explore their newfound freedoms. And for many college students, freedom and alcohol are synonymous.   A few days later, in our cabin in Grand Teton National Park, I decided it was time.

Amanda was lying on her bed in the cabin, reading. I opened a beer and without saying a word I handed it to her.

“What’s this????”

“It’s for you,” I said. “Drink it.”

“WHAT?!?!?!” she exclaimed, trying to hide her excitement.

“Listen,” I said, “you’re going off to college in a couple weeks. And I know what’s going to happen there…”

In my mind, I’d preferred that she had her first beer under my supervision.

She took a sip and made a face, nearly gagging.

“Does all beer taste like this?” she asked in disbelief.

“Well, this is a real nice beer, it’s very hoppy,” I explained. “You can get beer that’s not as hoppy, but it’s not very good.”

She continued to take small sips, and make faces. I read my book, pretending not to pay too much attention. Then I heard big gulping sounds as she quickly downed the entire beer.

“Did you just chug that whole thing?” I asked.

“Yeah. It tasted gross.”

About five minutes later, she stood up and tried to walk to the bathroom nonchalantly. She didn’t look drunk, but she looked…awkward. There was something very forced about her body language.

A few seconds later, I heard the sounds of her vomiting in the bathroom.

She stayed in there long enough that she never saw the huge grin on my face.

—–

On this trip with my teenage daughter through the America Serengeti, I was overcome by a flood of emotions and memories. Driving through one of the world’s last wild places and keeping a vigilant eye out for animals reminded me of my own teenage years, some thirty years prior, down in Africa, watching for animals while on safari in Kruger National Park.

As a teenager in Africa, I had the experience of a lifetime, but I always couldn’t wait to get back “home” to the United States. And although Amanda had had the experience of a lifetime on our trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, she also couldn’t wait to get back home. She had had an amazing two weeks, but it was time to see to rest of the family, including our two dogs. And it was time to get prepared for her big move up north. In a matter of days, she would be leaving us to start the next chapter of her life.

For me, I had hoped to instill in her a better appreciation for nature, and prepare her for her exciting new journey in life, away from the comforts of home, of mom and dad. The trip also rekindled my thirst for being out in the wild, tracking animals, breathing in the fresh air, touching the dirt, and bonding with nature. It wasn’t Africa, but it was the closest thing to it that I was going to find in the coterminous United States.

As we were about to turn onto our street, a few hundred feet from home after a journey of more than 3,000 miles over a period of two weeks, she said “I can’t wait to see the dogs!”

And then, “I just realized something…this is the longest I’ve ever been away from home!”

I tried not to smile.

The Great Escape

While writing my book Back to the Bundu [ Paperback | Kindle | NOOK | iPad ] last year, I wrote three chapters which ended up not being used in the book.  Over the next few days I’ll be sharing these three stories here on my blog.  Here is the first story, “The Great Escape”.

—–

Where does the time go? When we get caught up in the days, the hours, and the minutes, the years just seem to fly by. The seemingly endless cycle of school, work, and responsibilities—life—make us slaves to the grind. Each year seems to pass more quickly than the previous one. And then one day you wake up and many years have passed by in a blur.

That day for me wasn’t an actual day. A series of small events in various segments of my life merged and coagulated, bubbling to the surface to eventually form a big realization. And while my experience with a simple two-drawer metal filing cabinet could hardly be called “the last straw”, it was one of the many little experiences that collectively lifted me up off the couch and pulled me back to a life outside.

—–

In 1991, my boss and I were sharing a two-drawer filing cabinet. She used the top drawer for semi-important papers; I used the bottom drawer to store junk. It had a lock on it, but we never locked it. Nothing we kept in the cabinet was confidential or even really that important.

In 1992, we moved to a different building. In the process of moving the filing cabinet to our new location, it somehow became locked. And neither of us had the key. So I contacted our facilities department. After filling out the correct form and getting several signatures on it, including that of the vice president, it was put in to the work queue. And after a wait of several months, someone from facilities came over and looked at it.

“I can’t do anything with this,” the facilities employee said after examining our filing cabinet for a few minutes. “We need to call in a locksmith.”

Because a locksmith is not an employee, but a contractor, this required another form, and a whole new set of approval signatures, all the way up to—you guessed it—the vice president.

After a few months, the locksmith came. There was lots of jiggling of keys, and lots of banging around. After more than an hour of trying to open the lock, the locksmith gave up. Later that day, I was notified by our facilities department that nothing more could be done. The filing cabinet seemed to be destined to remain locked forever.

In 1995, we moved offices again, and I decided to give it another go. By this time the files hidden inside were useless garbage, but I just wanted to get this large anchor out of the hallway. Three years after the cabinet had been accidentally locked, you would think that someone would be motivated to get it open. However, my renewed attempts to resolve this ridiculous situation unfolded like watching a re-run of a bad sitcom. I filled out forms. I waited months for approval. Someone from facilities eventually came over. He couldn’t open it. He needed to call locksmith. The locksmith came. He couldn’t open it. And eventually, everyone gave up.

From 1996 until 2004, the cabinet packed with files became the thing in the hallway that the laser printer sat on. Countless staff came and went, never knowing the hidden secrets the “printer stand” held. Occasionally I’d play the part of the wise old manager, grabbing young workers in the hallway and telling them tall tales of vast secrets locked away forever in the impenetrable steel filing cabinet of doom, the cabinet that could not be opened by the facilities department or a locksmith or even the combined forces of all branches of the United States military. Few believed me; all thought I was crazy.

By 2005, the filing cabinet was still sitting in the hallway, and it had been well over a decade since human eyes had seen the files inside. By this time the contents had transformed from useless garbage to “I might be able to get some money for some of these antiques on eBay!”

Around this time, I hired a new administrative assistant. She could solve any problem thrown her way, so I decided to give her the ultimate challenge: open the filing cabinet.

She contacted the facilities department. It seemed that we had streamlined our processes significantly over the course of 10 years, I was told! But streamlining processes still meant filling out the same form, and getting the requisite signatures, all the way up to, yes, the vice president.

So after waiting a few months, the facilities guy came over again to look at the cabinet. And guess what? He couldn’t open it. He needed to call a locksmith.

The locksmith eventually came, and guess what? He couldn’t open it. But—baby steps of progress—the locksmith had successfully knocked the lock out of the cabinet! Still, the verdict was that the whole cabinet, files and all, needed to be transported over to the facilities department, as they needed to saw open the cabinet.

Transporting the cabinet over to the facilities department turned out to be an exciting new adventure in itself. It required a new form, and a new set of approvals, all the way up to the vice president; waiting for a month; and then being told that they could only transport empty filing cabinets, not cabinets loaded down with 100 pounds of files.

Yes.

That’s right.

They would be more than happy to move the cabinet over to their building and saw it open after I removed all of the files.

And that was when I finally lost it.

On, Friday, September 16th, 2005, more than 13 years after the cabinet became accidentally locked, I took matters in to my own hands. I took a 99-cent screwdriver out of my desk drawer, walked over to the disabled metal cabinet, and brutally and mercilessly attacked.

In less than thirty seconds, both drawers were easily pried open and I was taking a cruise down memory lane. 5 1/4 inch floppy disks! Magnetic backup tapes! Drafts of things I was writing back in in 1992! What a trip. It was almost enough to make me forget that in half a minute with a 99-cent screwdriver I had accomplished what a team of facilities management professionals could not accomplish in more than 13 years.

As I said, the infamous filing cabinet incident itself was not what made me snap. It’s more of a symptom of the underlying disease; it’s just one great example of the hundreds of little things that together made me reevaluate my priorities. Stressors like this accumulate and take a toll on one’s mental and physical health. So I began to make some much-needed changes in my life.

—–

Modern society presents a paradox: thanks in large part to advances in technology, we are more connected than ever before, but at the same time we are less connected than ever before. When most people discuss losing this “connection,” they are talking about the connection between people. But there is something equally important, yet far less frequently discussed: losing the connection between people and nature.

Looking back at my childhood, I loved to dig holes. Any excuse would do, but an excuse wasn’t even necessary.

I remember setting a grand plan for myself one summer vacation in third or fourth grade: I would dig a hole to China. My imagination ran wild with visions of breaking through on the other side of the world, and being greeted enthusiastically by people wearing funny hats and holding chopsticks.

Of course, I never made it to China. I gave up after the hole was about four feet deep. And if I had in fact managed to do the impossible and break through the other side of the earth, ironically I would not have found myself standing next to the Great Wall of China; my exit point would in fact have been much closer to southern Africa, where my family moved just a few years later.

When my son Andrew was about the same age as I was when I mounted my failed subterranean expedition to China, he asked me if he could dig some holes in the back yard of the house. But there was a problem: I quickly realized that in the entire front and back yard we had so carefully planned and designed, there was no place left to dig a simple hole. All surfaces were covered with concrete, bricks, grass, and various plants. Sadly, my quest for the perfect yard had denied my son one of the basic joys of childhood: placing a shovel against bare dirt. There was no place left to just be a kid.

Eventually, winter came, and my tomato garden went fallow for the season, providing Andrew with a small patch of raw earth where he could be a kid and play in the dirt. He was happy, and I was relieved that I could let him dig like a kid without compromising my precious landscaped garden.

—–

The world around us is a complex place, and one way we manage that complexity is through a process of abstraction. In its purest sense, abstraction is a reduction of detail down to the bare essentials we still need in order to understand. Abstraction helps us to simplify things, letting us focus on the information that’s most important for the task at hand without sacrificing—and often even improving—comprehension. Removing extraneous elements helps us to cope with complexity. Think of a short story told to teach an important lesson; a simple diagram drawn to explain a complex system; or an elegant map created to demystify confusing geography.

Of course, the down side of abstraction is that the more levels of abstraction you place on top of something, the more you are removed from the actual thing. Think of it in terms of an airplane flying over a landscape. The closer you are to the ground—the closer you are to reality—the more detail you can see. As the airplane gradually moves higher, you get very different views of the landscape. You see different things when you can see the “big picture,” but as your altitude increases you lose more and more detail. It’s the paradox of abstraction.

My long fascination with the natural environment reached somewhat of a pinnacle back in the mid to late 1980s in the East Mojave Desert while doing field research for my masters’ degree in environmental studies. My thesis topic was studying the impacts on desert vegetation from human intrusion in the form of linear corridors (such as dirt and paved roadways, underground pipelines, and electric transmission lines). Unfortunately, graduating on my somewhat unrealistic self-imposed timeline required that my field work be done mostly in the summer. Through the generous help of my friends Mike and Marc, my cousin Jeff, and of course my wife Ruth, I was able to complete all of the field work in time to finish my thesis and graduate on time, and all it cost me was money for gas, more money for Gatorade, and a few meals of greasy burgers at the famous Bun Boy in the nearby town of Baker.

After our daily tedium of setting up transects in various locations and measuring and counting creosote, saltbush, and other plants, we traveled widely within the boundaries of what was then called the East Mojave National Scenic Area, trying to make our time out in the blast furnace of the Mojave in the middle of summer more interesting. We examined ancient Native American petroglyphs etched in the boulders thousands of years ago, explored washes and canyons and the nearby Granite Mountains, walked through a huge Joshua tree forest more densely vegetated than anything that Joshua Tree National Park had to offer, and imagined an earlier California at the old Kelso railway depot. But no matter what we were doing—scientific field work or wandering around like tourists—it was just good to be out there, in the desert dirt, touching nature.

Then life got complicated.

Successful completion of my masters’ degree quickly led to a full-time job as an environmental scientist. At first, there was some field work involved, which I enjoyed greatly. Over time, as my skills at project management and report writing evolved, the opportunities for hands-on work in the field evaporated like a puddle of water in the intense Mojave heat. It was interesting, important work, but it was a level of abstraction away from actually touching—and knowing—the world.

There were many highlights to the job: traveling around the country assessing the environmental impact of operating large incinerators that would be built to destroy the chemical weapons stockpiles left over from the World War II and the Cold War; using cutting-edge computer models to calculate the noise and air pollution impacts from new highway projects across the US and new airport projects across the globe; leading my first projects for NASA/JPL’s Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex, where I got to land and take off in a NASA plane on the runway at Edwards Air Force Base where the Space Shuttle used to land—the closest I ever got to fly on the Space Shuttle; and figuring out a way to do a complete, accurate environmental analysis of a top secret, experimental government nuclear test facility without the benefit of a top secret clearance.

My life took on another level of abstraction or two when I left that job and went to work for a software company, helping to market the tools people use to manage and conserve the environment. I rationalized this move up the ladder of abstraction by asking—and answering—the following question:

Is it better to have 100% hand in managing and conserving the environment at an incredibly small and local scale, or a 1% hand in managing and conserving the environment at a massive, possibly global scale?

It’s a philosophical question. One is not necessarily better than the other. We need both local action and global action, and everything in between. I opted to try the 1% hand in global problem solving.

As my career advanced over the ensuing 20 years, I climbed both the corporate ladder, and the ladder of abstraction. I became a bit player in helping people understand and solve problems on the global stage, which is certainly something to be proud of. But I had lost touch with the dirt I had been so intimate with during my thesis research in the Mojave Desert, the dirt I had trampled beneath my feet over countless hikes son three different continents, and the dirt I had shoveled so intently while trying to dig that hole to China. How had everything gone so wrong?

I was making a comfortable living and providing for my family, but had completely lost touch with the down and dirty details of the natural world I was trying so hard to protect.

It was time to unclog my mental arteries. I needed to cut through all the layers of abstraction and bullshit that had built up over the years and return to an experience that was as direct as possible.

It was time to get my life back. It was time to get back outside.