We Are the Road Crew

“This is dedicated to a fine body of man.  It’s called ‘We Are the Road Crew’.”

—Lemmy Kilminster

Roads are the backbone of the Tuli Wilderness in Botswana.  But what exactly is a road?  No matter how you define it, the majority of earth’s human population would probably scoff at using the term “road” to describe some of the things we drove on in the Tuli Wilderness.

The early European settlers of the greater Tuli area found that the only viable modern use of the land was for raising livestock, and even then it proved to be tough going.  After years of struggling, most ranchers in the Tuli turned their holdings into game farms, finding that the business of wildlife tourism was much easier and more lucrative than raising livestock.

The majority of the roads in the Tuli Wilderness were probably first established by the ranchers for accessing their livestock.  And many of those roads were probably established on or near game trails; those “highways” used by animals that followed the path of least resistance and were burned into the landscape over the millennia were the obvious place for the humans to later place their own roads.


Once established, a road for humans also becomes an important artery for animal travel as well.  This was an important aspect of the Botswana Conservation and Research Project, as we drove the roads each morning and scanned the thousands of fresh animal impressions left in the soft, dusty sand before they were obliterated by the passing of our vehicle.


In some places, the roads we traveled were deeply eroded and barely passable, almost like small, rocky canyons.  In others, they were two faint lines in the dirt, hardly visible in the daylight and completely invisible to all but the trained eye at night.

In some places, the roads were nothing more than faint depressions in the tall grass, identified with great difficulty only by carefully scanning the landscape and looking for near indiscernible changes in the height of the vegetation.  And sometimes, even though the expert behind the wheel would swear otherwise on his mother’s grave, you were certain that there was no road there at all, and that he was just making it up as he drove along.


Some of the roads were little more than a faint path up a rocky outcrop, while others were hard packed red dirt that turned in to long stretches of deep mud after a rain.  In some places a road traveled along an area of soft pink sand a foot or two deep, making it look more like you were driving along a dry river bed than a road…because you actually were driving in a dry river bed.

These were the roads of the Tuli Wilderness.


The primary purpose of the Botswana Conservation and Research Project in the Tuli Wilderness is data collection.  It’s all about the data.  And you can’t collect data on an area without passable roads; if an area is inaccessible, you collect no data.  So out of necessity, a big part of the project was road repair work.

The name of the road we traveled most frequently, Mohave Highway, has to be a pun created by someone with a wicked sense of humor.  While it is the major artery running roughly north/south through much of the Tuli Wilderness, it’s hardly a highway.  Practically the only thing it shares in common with a major highway is that it’s mostly straight.  Because of its importance in nearly all travel across the Tuli Wilderness, most of our road repair work was concentrated along the Mohave Highway.


We collected rocks—some so close by that they could be carried just a few feet from their resting places; others up to a mile away that we had to haul in to the work area by truck—to fill the ruts and the holes and the divots, and then we backfilled them with shovel full after shovel full of dirt and sand to fill the gaps between the carefully placed stones.  It was backbreaking work.

Road maintenance may not be nearly as romantic a task as chasing elephants and lions across the African plain in an open Land Rover, but it’s very necessary and highly rewarding.  And unlike data collection, the results of your work are instantaneously visible.


A couple of days after a long, hard session of rebuilding Mohave Highway, we headed out in the vehicle with Andrew driving and Johannes in the passenger seat.  Johannes had not been out with us for a few days, so he had not seen the result of all our hard work.

As we passed by one and then another area where we had moved so much rock and dirt to fill a few deep ruts, Johannes looked carefully at the road.  When we passed by a third area that had benefited from our handiwork, he turned to Andrew and said something in Setswana.

Andrew turned back to the road crew and said, “Johannes says ‘good job’.”


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

What do you want to do when you grow up? The answer may be irrelevant.

Many years ago, I worked at a company that hired a lot of summer interns. But these weren’t your typical upper division college students or recent college graduates: they were all recent high school graduates, working for us over the summer until they started college. They all had plans, and they were spending a few months over the summer with us to get a better idea of what the business world was really like (and to make a few bucks along the way).

At the end of the summer, we held a going away party for the interns in the big conference room. Five interns and about 40 staff stood around and shared small talk and cake. Conspicuously absent was Phil, our company president, who was stuck on a conference call.

As the party was starting to wind down, Phil walked in, apologized for being late, and gave a brief speech thanking the interns for the contributions they had made to the organization over the summer. Then he asked the interns, who were all huddled together on one side of the conference room:

“So what are your plans now?”

One by one the interns shared where they were going to college, what they would be majoring in, and the jobs they were going to get after graduation. It was all very well thought out, and very impressive.

“It’s nice that you all know exactly what you want to do,” Phil said. Then he turned around to his staff and asked:

“How many of you are doing today exactly what you thought you’d be doing when you graduated from high school?”

Of the approximately 40 staff in the room, just one woman raised her hand. And that was Phil’s personal secretary, who was in her mid to late 60s and just a couple months away from retirement.

I’m not sure who was more shocked–the interns, or the long-time staffers–but a lot of jaws dropped in that conference room.

And then Phil trotted off to his next conference call.


For every person who wanted to be a doctor since they were six years old and then went out and actually did it, there are hundreds of people who wanted to be doctors and ended up in other places. Those people are not failures. In fact, most of them are very successful.

It’s good to have a plan. But it’s also good to be flexible, or “agile” in the parlance of our times. Don’t be a slave to your plan. Because you never know what life might throw at you…

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 ].


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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.



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.



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?”


“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.”


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.


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…