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Paul McHugh

The ‘Glades of My Youth

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To summon a memory of the music of the wild that whirled from our woods each night of my childhood, is, for me, a way to recall all of Florida’s vast botanic and biologic grandeur. I don’t mean Florida as it is now. I mean the way it was back in the Fifties, when I was raised in a rural zone close to the Everglades that early settlers had dubbed the Redlands – due to wide stripes and patches of russet clay that streaked over the limestone bedrock.

Roughly speaking, this region is south of Miami, west of the ‘Glades, and north of Key Largo.

On eves of full moons during summer, frogs would ratchet with abandon, insects whirr and click, night birds sing, breezes sigh. Our entire biome seethed with a mingled panoply of “critter” sounds that soared close to the symphonic in its delectable, sensual complexity.

At times, prompted by some secret conductor’s baton, a portion of that native orchestra fell silent. And thus signaled, all other segments soon quit as well, and a heavy stillness unfurled across the landscape like a vast and humid caul. That pregnant silence commonly lasted for a number of my pulsebeats. Then finally, faintly, way off in the distance, some big boss frog would emit a bass rurp! And the whirligig calliope of swamp noises erupted once more, flooding in through the glass slats of an open jalousie window. This revived river of sound flowed in with such vigor and vibrancy, it felt like it could float me right up off my bed…

My family dwelt in a live oak hammock, a sort of grove or islet of higher terrain mainly peopled by moss-draped hardwoods. It was surrounded by pine forests, themselves bracketed by a few long, marshy arms of swamp. To say that we were just three or four miles away from the town of Homestead might render the level of wildness I describe seem ludicrous now, perhaps utterly unbelievable.

But I’d point out to skeptics that back then Homestead was a pioneer village of just a few thousand souls. By far, dominant inhabitants of the region were creatures of air and grove, of slough and bay. An automobile drive up to Miami was its own adventure, a run on a narrow stretch of asphalt that wove its way through some thirty miles of forest and brush.

This fertile swampland generated an abundance of bird life, with its overall character tailored to each season. In autumn, I recall a chorus of whippoorwills echoing through our woods. And in winter, we enjoyed the coo of doves by day, and the sonorous hoots of great horned owls by night. In early spring, migratory northern songbirds awakened with the dawn, then serenaded us also into wakefulness. Summer brought dense clouds of dragonflies, whereupon nighthawks made their roaring dives down through the sky to grab ‘em with their beaks and gobble ‘em up.

A major boyhood goal for me was “conquering” all major oaks in our woods by seeking to scramble up to their highest branches – a pursuit to which I applied all the grit and drive of a climber intent on winning a rep in the Himalayas. That habit led to one of my most rewarding discoveries. If I made these ascents just after sunrise or just before sunset, I could perch on thin branches that jutted above the forest canopy and quietly observe the vast flocks of birds flying into and out of the Everglades. The most spectacular moments came when they flew straight toward me.

I could see them arriving as a dark feathered sheet, undulating just above the treetops. A seam ripped open in the flock’s fabric as the birds whizzed past my head, slightly altering flight paths by mere inches, no more than they would were I a rooted orchid. They didn’t expect to see a human being way up there, consequently did not treat me as though I might even be one. Exhilarating!

More remarkable swamp denizens visited us on the forest floor; some of these visitors a bit more welcome than others. I recall my father shotgunning a rattlesnake out in the tall grass in front of the house when I was four, and when I was six, I went into the bathroom to find a water moccasin coiled around the base of our toilet. We dispatched that intruder with a fireplace poker. When I was ten, I and my brothers opened the front door, and a highly venomous coral snake dropped down from its top jamb. A swiftly delivered boot heel provided his exit visa. Those deaths weren’t casual or wanton, they were meant to ensure our family’s safety. Yet somehow I still regret them…

Far more benign were our giant blacksnakes. These reptile gods seemed supremely regal, yet astoundingly gentle. They writhed through the woods with utter authority and grace. Whenever I spotted them, it always seemed they were journeying – intent on some far destination. We kids would caper around these immense serpents in a kind of dazed awe. They never truly bothered us, nor we them. Instead, they’d briefly halt in their travels to fix us with an obsidian eye.

For me, that glossy black bead staring back at me formed an aperture to an alien world, one through which I detected not only a presence but also an intellect, one that seemed spiced by a glint of amusement. Whenever I try to report to modern biologists how giant these blacksnakes actually were, they scoff. “Blacksnakes just don’t get that big!” they say. Vividly, though, I can recall one such snake who stretched all the way across a two-lane road, both ends of it disappearing into the scrub on each side. And that was before it was run over by a big truck, okay? Not after…

It was one more rude death that I’m now sad to have witnessed.

Any portrait of wildlife in Florida “back in the day” (as they say) could never be complete without a paean to our bugs. To reveal how persistently and avidly we were bugged by them for most months of any year, here’s my best image. If you saw a person strolling down a rural pathway in any season but mid-winter, he’d pretty much always resemble an exclamation point or question mark.

The little dot? That was the person. All the rest of the symbol would be the cloud of bugs swarming around and above him.

We were instantly and intimately joined on most of our outdoor forays by a horde of gnats, sandflies, ants, spiders, ticks, wasps, native bees, flies, chiggers, scorpions, a near-infinite supply of mosquitoes, and still more fellow-travelers equally eager to bite, yet far too numerous to cite. Back then, I tended to leak dribbles of blood and lymph as if my lumped hide was as holed as a fleshly colander, both from the original bug nips, as well as my fevered attempts to apply first aid with the sole medical tools I had readily available – my fingernails.

Now, perhaps, I should also try to extrude some gratitude to those countless crawly companions, about whom I so often complained. Throughout my youth, I was bitten, stung, scratched, soiled and muddied so extravagantly by my environment that today I seem to enjoy a rather robust immune system. (I hear kids today, interacting mainly with their smartphones while doing diddly-squat in the outdoors, fail to enjoy a similar advantage – hence their soaring rate of allergies.)

But, by far, the most potent legacy from my halcyon years in Florida’s then-lush biome was my lasting veneration of nature’s beauty and her potency. The sheer force of that reverence has inspired and guided me throughout my personal and professional lives.

And due to that durable reverence, I’ve long fought – in the mightiest yet most peaceful manner I could devise – those who poison, raze, exploit and pollute or otherwise proceed to heedlessly trash our precious natural home. A couple of times I did that in direct action campaigns. Mostly I did so by wielding a pen, reporting for decades on ecological and resource issues in both print and video media. (But so as to avoid becoming a total scold, I also sought to celebrate vigorous sport activity and adventuring in what’s left of our natural realm.)

Did my efforts make any difference? Hell, who knows! Perhaps a small, yet a measurable one. But no matter the results, I feel quite good about the decades I spent honoring those early and most profound sentiments – acquired at such an early age amongst our live oaks.

And in the years that have passed, I’ve watched humanity race on madly to its rendezvous with an evolutionary bottleneck. And seen us drag countless other species along toward our approaching collision with consequences. It will be a time of inevitable accounting, of severe and bottomless calamity, and it’s now far too close for comfort. And all the changes that lead up to it have come so fast! The fabulous wildlife zone I felt privileged to live within? Youth of today cannot be coaxed or educated into even imagining it. Since they cannot bask in anything like the multi-level, biologic
richness itself, it’s simply beyond their ken.

I seldom return to our home hammock (my dad, in a rare fit of poetic grace, named it Acrux, after a star in the Southern Cross). When I do, each sojourn offers a sobering reminder of how many natural wonders have been subtracted from our world. But if a nostalgic visit gives me a slight hint of what once was, it also awards me a rich vision of what may come again.

Back at Acrux on an autumn night a decade ago, I stood outdoors at our rickety old house, and considered the fact that far too many years had passed since I’d heard a whippoorwill’s song. And as I pondered that, amazingly, one did call. (Most likely I’d heard and recognized it first subliminally, while indoors, which is why I’d gone outside to meditate upon that very topic.)

The night bird’s trill was like a cry of a ghost. It came from so far away, it sounded so isolated. No other whippoorwills answered, where dozens might have in the past. But I, I did not hesitate to respond. I set out upon the faint trace of a forest path that I remembered from my youth, swam out from the inky night shadows of our home hammock, walked past a delicate black lacework cast by scrub pines and palmettos, came out onto a roadway, crossed a canal bridge. I covered more than a mile in the dark as the repeated phrase that is a whippoorwill’s short aria grew steadily louder and more distinct.

Finally, I homed in on the bird herself. But as she sensed my nearness, she grew wary and she ceased her call. That was quite all right with me, though, because I had a plan, I’d done this sort of thing before. I wished for her to grow calm, to cease to see me as a threat.

I picked out a scrub pine, sat on its thick mat of fallen needles and leaned back against its rough and scaly bark. Minutes ticked past, can’t rightly guess how many. Yet I felt no worries. At that moment, like the poet William Blake, it seemed as though I could cradle infinity in the palm of my hand and glimpse eternity in an hour.

She began to sing – her pure desire to call had ultimately overwhelmed any concern about my presence. Her cry sounded so clear, so beautiful and so near that shivers rippled along my spine. I absorbed it with the avid thirst of a wanderer who arrives at an oasis on a sweltering day and rushes to gulp from a pond full of astonishingly cool water.

Truth be told, this last, lost solo did afflict me with some sadness, for I mourned the bird’s loneliness. Yet even so its solitary presence also bestowed an unusual sort of hope. For I perceived in that moment an insight which I continue to ponder nowadays – that the wild world is far more durable and resilient than any set of its living forms. Including us people. In other words, if all of humanity were to vanish into a jumbled heap of ash and mendacity and greed and radioactive bone fragments, our earth might brood for a bit. Then she will collect herself and begin again to emit many fresh living beings, all in lovely and new and amazing shapes.

So – no matter what happens to us – on some day in a far future, new tracks like unto those of a panther may be found in the rain-softened marl of a swampland path. Or of an evening, galaxies of something like fireflies may drift once more under dense beards of something like Spanish moss. And once more, nightbirds much like whippoorwills can call out to each other, over and over, across a darkened landscape. When that occurs, I hope some species which can do a far better job than we did of handling the miracle of consciousness shall also be present… to hear, and to see,
and to deeply value it all.

Musings on Storycraft

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Book Review of  “The Drop (A Harry Bosch Novel)”  by Michael Connelly

I just finished my new favorite work by Michael Connelly: “The Drop,” a Harry Bosch mystery from 2011. (It displaces “Void Moon,” from 1999.) I realize the dude’s scribbled four or five more volumes since Drop. What can I say? Connelly seems to turn ‘em out more quickly than Famous Amos bakes cookies. It’s tough for mere mortals to keep up! Plus, he’s not the only writer any self-respecting mystery/thriller buff must read to stay au courant.

A path into “The Drop” was provided to me by Connelly himself in a recent New York Times book review section (Feb. 2015), wherein he assessed the debut of “The Whites,” by a colleague (and presumptive  competitor) in the genre, Richard Price. Connelly leads into that piece with a generous anecdote, recounting how impressed he was by a Price quote he once plucked from a magazine interview.

To wit: “When you circle around a murder long enough, you get to know a city.”

Connelly cut that line out and stuck it above his computer screen, where it served as a lodestone for his own writing for a few years. I’d like to think that it was still up there as he wrote “The Drop,” because that’s precisely what this deceptively simple – at first! – procedural mystery achieves. It doesn’t only add a fresh stratum to the legend of his enduring detective cum knight errant, Harry Bosch. This book also limns the smog-wreathed skyline of LA and the city’s beleaguered PD… as well as the shadow realm that lurks below the spires and towers of this afflicted metropolis.

This author seems to be at a charmed point in his career. Not just because he’s made the best-seller lists only slightly less often than God, but also, because he now knows he doesn’t need to open a story with a garish and gory splash. His fan base will stick, so he can launch readers into The Drop with a stark and simple scene of detectives shoving files around on desks in their dingy office. And these are not even contemporary files, they’re musty records (“murder books”) of the Open-Unsolved Unit, kicking around cases from decades past.

So Connelly shows us basic cop procedure, rendered in language basic and un-flamboyant. That style happen to remind you of anything? Readers of a certain age may recall the clear and clipped cadences of the old “Dragnet” TV show of the 50s and 60s, which featured the laconic Jack Webb as Detective Sgt. Joe Friday. Cue the musical theme, “dum-da-dum-dum.” And then, after an image of the phallic county courthouse and his badge, number 714, hear Webb intone, “This is the city, Los Angeles, California. I work here. I’m a cop.”

Well, laconic at first, maybe. In some episodes Webb grew way too loquacious and pontifical. But my point is, in the opening tone of “The Drop,” Connelly invokes Joe Friday. Just as in the character development of Harry Bosch, he invokes the long-suffering persistence and battered honor of Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe, and other guardians of the presumed innocent in a neon-washed L.A.

Another beauty of “The Drop” is the way a single clue – a faint blood smear on the neck of a 19 year-old coed that did not come from her, nor even from her killer – is unfolded, origami-like, by Bosch, to eventually lead him to a serial murderer who’s outsmarted everyone for decades. This mystery is interwoven with another, as he digs into the truth behind the apparent suicide of the son of a city councilman. These two threads combine to weave a tapestry of deception in which the only reliable constant is Bosch’s dogged persistence.

A third charm, highly unusual in this genre, is that there’s almost no violence. Oh, there are crimes aplenty, some with gruesome evidence, vividly described. But the sole physical action occurs when Bosch engineers a take-down and cuffing of the serial killer, and next prevents his death at the hands of a former victim. The beauty of this is that it allows the reader to focus on the detective work and the character of the detective. Bosch at this point is a gruff, no-nonsense, greying eminence on the force. He needs the job – nailing miscreants is his raison d’etre. But he certainly doesn’t need to take any shit from anyone, including his bosses, and he won’t. That gives his every interaction a stolid, curmudgeonly charm.

To put it simply, in The Drop, Connelly concentrates on making simplicity a virtue. And he ends up with a stark, clear work that portrays victims, assailants and cops churning through a complex dance where death and danger call the tune, and success at completing a number only means winning the chance to do it all over again. This novel offers a map to the homes of the stars, and the retreats of scumbags, and the locations of those caught in between – plus a few unusual people who carry well the awful burden of badges – in a town that Joni Mitchell sang of as, “L.A., city of the fallen angels.”

To Be Conscious of a Cult


Film review of “Martha Marcy May Marlene

What makes a scary movie? And please, don’t say the Wayans brothers.

To induce fear successfully, a film must drill into our deep subconscious, slurp the murky liquor of willful unknowing up into daylight, then squirt it straight into the eyes of viewers – making them absorb realizations they don’t particularly care to acquire on their own. The hallmark of such a film is not that it makes you look, but that it absolutely refuses to let you look away.

That description fits the 2011 psychological drama, “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” to a T… though for the sake of brevity, I’m going to call this movie 4Ms.

The odd title of the flick is only a hint of the creativity involved in making this guided trek into the trauma-ridden mind of a youthful follower of a cult, located on a dilapidated farmstead in upstate New York. The eponymous Martha – played by Elizabeth Olsen – is a lovely girl seeking to cross over the metaphorical bridge into womanhood. But she gets stuck about midway. Confused, defensive, vulnerable and unformed, she’s seized upon by a master manipulator named Patrick – played by a supremely conniving and always convincing John Hawkes.

At first, Martha’s induction into the “family” makes her focus on new relationships, music, learning her way around a garden and a kitchen, then assuming some care of the collective’s infants. However the tide of her conversion inexorably begins to flow toward much darker matters: drugs and group sex, then robbery, violence and mayhem.

Though the film’s running-time is 141 minutes, it does feel a great deal longer. That’s a fabulous thing. Too much cinematic story-telling these days obsesses over hitting each highly-prioritized mark in a fast-paced three-act structure. In so doing, a movie can grow as boring and predictable as a pop tune.

However, 4Ms glories in a more jazz-like approach as it switches back and forth between Martha’s time with the commune – gradually turning from idyll to nightmare – and the period spent with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Lucy’s husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) once they’ve rescued her and brought her to live with them in a vacation cottage. Lucy and Ted only gradually come to see the flaming wreckage inside this apparently frail creature they’ve clasped to their bosom.

The jazz-like development of the story-line is underscored by a major emphasis on the sound edit. Over the film’s course, the hammer-blows and ax-strikes of a rural commune struggling to build itself gradually become the thump of rocks flung onto a roof to distract a home-owner before a hit-squad from the commune invades his house for a robbery. The ring of a phone gradually inflicts terror, after use of phones becomes a means for the communards to track down Martha. And the crunch of a vehicle moving over gravel pursues Martha all the way to the film’s last, unsettling scene.

All of these changes and challenges are chronicled in Martha’s face, sweet but guarded, baffled and yearning, then – increasingly – shocked, numbed, and terrorized. Elizabeth Olsen won nine acting awards for this role, while achieving fifteen nominations for other prizes. I’d say she deserved all of them, and more.

Yet as far as I’m concerned, the palm for supreme achievement here must go to Sean Durkin, 4Ms’ writer and director. Fortunately, the Sundance Film Festival thought that, too. He’s the one who assembled all the parts in this chilling and profound work of story-telling. It’s my belief that story-tellers working in any medium, including prose fiction, can learn a incredible amount from the way Durkin approached his subject and managed to accomplish his goal. In an interview for the book, “The Best Film You’ve Never Seen,” he told author Robert K. Elder, “When I make a film, I think about things that scare me. My exploration of those things is to try and wrap my head around them and confront them.”

Which is also a formula for the way human society can encounter and absorb some of its most necessary stories. Now, more than four decades since Charles Manson and his band of marauders left their famously bloody handprints smeared across the American Southwest, we may finally be ready to see and hear what it actually means to fall under the sway of a masterful and determined, yet thoroughly demented manipulator. And finally understand how this damage, once accomplished, is extremely difficult to undo.

So. Why might this be such a scary message for us? It’s because, my dears, there’s far more than one type of cult.

Let’s give a listen to the lines that Patrick whispers to Martha, as he attempts to convince her that the murder she’s just watched being committed by her fellow communards during a home invasion should not bother her.

“You know that death is the most beautiful part of life, right?… It brings you to now, makes you truly present. That’s nirvana. That’s pure love. So, death is pure love.”

If you’re able to watch that scene and audit that line without a shudder, I’ve got a job for you. I hear Dexter may be looking for an assistant.

In Murder – Does Neatness Count?


Review of “Bones Are ForeverBones are Forever.” by Kathy Reichs

There’s a compulsion inherent to mysteries and thrillers – no matter how messy the crime scenes get. And that’s an impulse to clean things up. Baddies enter the story to upend the social order, tie the blond to the railroad track, chew on the scenery and summon all the demons of chaos. But! Then along comes Marshal Jones, in his (or her!) guise as the lonesome stalwart blessed with the inner (and outer!) strength to dish out just desserts, then make the baddies eat ‘em.

That’s the reassurance, the medication – hell, let’s face it – the opiate that most of this genre serves up. The exceptions only prove (or at least serve to underline) the rule. Then, there’s works like “Bones Are Forever,” by Kathy Reichs, a mystery that dances so closely to the line of “too clean” that a reader can practically hear the sentences squeak. Not to mention the wooden gears of the plot.

There’s no question that Reichs has been a huge success with this approach. Her first book won an Ellis and rocketed to the NY Times best-seller list, as have subsequent works. So, you argue against it at your peril. Clearly there’s an audience out there that’s avid for it. My main concern is that a) such overall tidiness does not mirror the world, and b) that it telegraphs most of the punches – which leaches tension out of the narrative.

“Bones” is a novel that features her recurring heroine, Temperance Brennan. Like Reichs herself,  Brennan is a professional forensic anthropologist. The story opens as she examines the corpse of a baby that appears to have been slain by its mother, and in rapid succession, other children who’ve met a similarly tragic fate. Brennan is soon on the killer’s trail, in the company of homicide detective Andrew Ryan and a Canadian Mountie named Oliver (“Ollie”) Hasty. Brennan has a history with both men, so a romantic triangle descends to complicate the investigation. Unfortunately, it’s a triangle that clanks more than it rings, a formulaic element that feels imposed simply so the guys can snarl at each other while they flirt with Brennan.

The simplest way to indict the repartee that thumps into the story to provide you with a sample. Q: “Why are you looking for her?” A: “I’m a dentist, and I’m worried she’s not flossing her teeth.”

Apparently, this is what passes for tough cop chatter north of the U.S. border.

The trail leads them to aboriginal – Dene – settlements in the northern territories. They find the killer, a simpleton with barely enough brain-power to invent aliases for herself, a witless woman who has worked as a prostitute and deploys infanticide as birth control. But another dimension of the woman’s sad plight is that her family has been targeted by white, pseudo-environmentalists who scheme to deprive the native people of land rights and steal the potential diamond mine that lies underground.

Reichs is a scientist, and her forays into the history of diamond mining, like her scenes of forensic analysis, are all informative and illuminating. She’s a clever enough story-teller to show Brennan making a few mistakes and getting into a bad jam or two. She’s particularly good at rendering some Native American minor characters. But since cleanliness is the overwhelming and dominant virtue of the narrative, there’s never any doubt that her feuding cop partners will cooperate on rescuing Brennan, and all problems will be solved with the smooth efficiency of a softly ticking Swiss watch. As, in the due course of time, they thoroughly are.

Reichs is a master at her own tidy modality, and her readers apparently love the dickens out of her for laying it on them. But me, I’d infinitely prefer to see a truly rogue element – or three, or four – ride in to kick over her far-too-orderly apple-cart, and infuse the literary proceedings with a few bolts of genuine demonic chaos. In this novel, the only true agent of chaos that ever shows up is the hapless infant-killer/prostitute. She’s hardly a worthy antagonist. She’s almost another victim.

Aboard the Good Ship “Thriller”


Review of Dublin DeadDublin Dead. by Gerard O’Donovan

In one of her lapidary poems, Emily Dickenson incisively summoned for all time our image of a book as an argosy, a ship that can transport a reader to foreign climes and cultures. And indeed, readers can readily expect time spent with a thriller or a mystery to transport them into deeper dimensions of crime and social dysfunction, the horrors of violence, and the harrowing challenges willingly taken up by the champions of justice.

A good mystery or thriller can accomplish this, and more besides. It can also illustrate Dickenson’s literal point by bearing a reader as nearly as far into a distant nation as an actual physical trip might. Such an achievement is scored by Dublin Dead.

In this complex tale of crime in modern Ireland, O’Donovan brings back a pair of main characters from a highly successful debut novel, “The Priest.” One of them is Siobhan Fallon, a pretty and feisty investigative female reporter for The Sunday Herald who was literally crucified and almost slain by the demented killer Rinn in O’Donovan’s  earlier work. Mike Mulcahy is a dedicated and dour, implacable detective inspector who heads up the National Drug Unit for the Gardai – the Irish national police.

O’Donovan grasps well that the most potent part of human sexuality is yearning. Siobhan and Mike clearly have got the steamy hots for one another.

Unfortunately they, like many native Irish, carry a mental infection brought on by generations of Manichean Catholicism. For them, strong desire is reason enough to develop resistance to the very thought of getting together. Instead, both members of this potential couple stand frozen before the gleaming apple of temptation. To them the prospect of romance seems simultaneously forbidden and alluring, powerful yet poisonous. Besides that, Siobhan is traumatized by her experiences with Rinn, and Mike is rattled by the blend of his own flight impulse, coupled with excessive concern for her frailty. So all they can seem to offer each other is a bumbling camaraderie that switches back-and-forth between angry confrontation and awkward affection.

In short their situation is so bloody Irish, it fairly sweats Guinness and reeks of peat smoke.

Frustrated passion doesn’t prevent Siobhan and Mike from rushing fiercely into danger over and over again to save each other’s lives. Rather, it actively forces them to do that very thing. Because, you see, it’s a mighty form of sublimation, a substitute for that other consummation which they struggle with all their strength to avoid.

The shamrock is flamboyantly branded on some other story elements that are more atmospheric. These include: a Church whose once-omnipotent presence has faded to a dim, decaying backdrop; a turbulent history whose modern harvest is a glowering belligerence readily accessible to most of the characters; and the faltering spasms of a “Celtic Tiger” economy everywhere reduced to mewling-kitten status.

One more major element helps “Dublin Dead” bear readers away on a voyage to a tarnished Emerald Isle: the well-rendered, rich vernacular language, robust and profane, which is scattered throughout the book’s scenes with a prodigal hand. Here follows a few of my favorite phrases.

Rain is a, “feckin’ downpour”; a criminal is a, “yellow gobshite”; a suspect is, “some eejit”; and the deity is either, “Jaysus” or “Christ on a bike.” For complete sentences, I savored, “All the molly-coddling, it’s complete bollocks”; and, “How do you fancy that pint I owe you?”

As to plot, it primarily deals with the fallout from the seizure of ninety bales of Columbian cocaine, taken from an ocean-going yacht off the Irish coast; this find is Mulcahy’s main focus. Another mystery is presented by the suicide of a promising young Irish real estate developer, who takes a flyer off a high bridge in England; this is the focus of an investigation by Fallon. As the troubled duo of detectives flail through a welter of confusing clues and false leads, they belatedly come to understand they’ve been laboring to unravel opposite ends of the same sprawling conspiracy.

I loved many parts of this novel, except for its climactic finale, which held too many head-snapping reversals-of-fortune for my taste.

However, overall, the part of it I far-and-away loved best was a chance to fly straight into Ireland and linger there for a good while, without any need to purchase or endure a six-hour plane ride.

“There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!” – Emily Dickinson

Crime Without Villains


Review of Truth Like the Sun by Jim Lynch

My older brother likes to spout a theory that the hippies were correct about everything. I don’t particularly subscribe. However, I will admit that long-haired, herb-smoking mob did create incredibly nifty slogans. Such as: “What if they gave a war, and no one came?”

After you’ve mulled that idea for a bit, try this one on for size. What if someone wrote a crime novel that had few if any crimes? Or presented a mystery that had all its major truths laid out in plain sight?

Such a conundrum is provided to readers by the wonderfully crafted Truth Like the Sun

A major clue that author Lynch is up to some creative play with ordinary story formulas is that he offers us two protagonists, yet no clear villain.

The first major character is Roger Morgan, a charmed and charming Seattle socialite who draws an idea for the city’s iconic Space Needle on a napkin, and then manages to get the thing built just in time for it to serve as the centerpiece for the Century 21 Exposition, aka the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair.

Morgan, then young, is described as jug-eared, loose-limbed, bushy-haired, and is hailed as a “silver-tongued p.r. Hercules” for accomplishing this task. Ever afterward he’s known by the sobriquet, “Mr. Seattle.” In fact, he serves so well and so long as the unofficial social leader of the city that, as the 40th anniversary of the fair approaches, he decides to run for the actual position of mayor, and in this way invoke some of the can-do optimism that prevailed during his heyday.

Enter a muck-raking reporter on the prowl, one Helen Gulanos, an East Coast scrivener who has been lured West by promises of a loose leash and big play for her stories in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Gulanos, a single mom with a hapless love life, is damaged goods. She struggles to raise her pre-schooler son, tries to justify her existence by writing hard-hitting stories, and takes only occasional refuge from stress by sawing away on a violin.

Asked to write “enterprising” stories about the anniversary of the fair, Gulanos first observes Roger Morgan at the party where he announces his candidacy. She suspects Morgan can’t possibly be as clean or as idealistic as he presents himself, decides to probe into his past and Seattle’s, and soon – as Sherlock Holmes might say – the game is afoot.

Lynch cleverly designs “Truth” with two timelines. In the first timeline, set in 1962, the young Roger Morgan is shown afloat on the flood of the energy and enthusiasm that creates the fair – made all the more poignant by the fact that the era was also haunted by the Cold War and a looming specter of nuclear holocaust. Still, the 1962 Morgan enjoys intriguing encounters with actual fair guests like a neckless Ed Sullivan, sardonic John Glenn, hip Count Basie, witty Prince Philip and profane LBJ. His best meet-up by far is with a surprisingly thoughtful and sweet-tempered Elvis.

This timeline also dips into Morgan’s shadow side, as he explores the dark dimensions of his hometown, its illicit gambling halls and dens of vice, its corrupt cops and old-boy network – the elements of any city, really, that must evolve rapidly from a raucous frontier character to a more civilized and modern one. But Morgan himself never seems guilty of anything other than strong curiosity about how things actually work.

In the modern timeline, set in 2001, the reporter Gulanos chases after tiny crumbs of information, bits of historic record, and the grumblings of Morgan’s enemies (any public figure will have them) as she tries to figure out the extent to which he participated in the city’s corrupt practices. Ultimately, she’s only able to brew a weak tea – but her editors insist on distilling it into a far stronger indictment, albeit one based on innuendo rather than verifiable fact.

The character of Gulanos’ face-to-face confrontations with Morgan and his shrewd aide, Teddy Severson, I will leave to the reader to discover – as these are some of the best scenes in the book. For a teaser, though, here is Morgan summarizing Gulanos to her face: “She gets a visceral thrill from unleashing somewhat true stories about him without once imagining what it would feel like to be stalked by herself.”

By the book’s end, a reader is left with plenty to think about. Not just images of the rain-swept Pike Place Market or the soaring Space Needle, or a remarkably well-informed tour of the city and its past… but also an insight into the difference between an almost mythic era and a modern time of greatly lowered hopes. Compared to the grand vision that inspired the building of the Needle and the Expo, Gulanos’ grubby effort to mount a threadbare expose’ stands revealed as a tawdry game of smallball.

And a dearth of dreams soon leads to the death of the dreamer.

The Bliss of a Deeper Dive


Review of “Patient Number 7,” by Kurt Palka

It is rare when a mystery or thriller attempts to do more than entertain. But when a book does shift away from the genre’s shallow end and charges into the deeps, most often it will do so by analyzing an issue, dissecting a threat, or diving into unexplored history. These are all worthy efforts. Best of all is a book that finds its depth in its characters, that through their story reveals something about what it means to be human.

“Patient Number 7,” set in Austria and Germany during the dismaying rise and precipitant fall of the Nazis, accomplishes this in spades. It might bear a goofy title (the meaning of which only becomes clear in the last pages) but is an excellent book because of the depth of its interest in what constitutes a genuine person.
Patient Number 7

There are twin timelines, occupied by two main characters: Clara Eugenie Herzog, a budding university student in Vienna; and Albert Leonhardt, a captain in the Austrian cavalry. Over the objections of her family, their romance ignites while Albert squires Clara around the countryside on his Norton motorcycle.

However, the dark dawn of the Third Reich already looms over their idyll – as indeed it does over the entire Western Hemisphere. In short order, Austria is absorbed by Hitler via the Anschluss in 1938, then  British prime minister Neville Chamberlain secures his everlasting post in infamy by appeasing the Reich and handing over part of Czechoslovakia through the Munich Agreement.

These events first entangle, then ensnare our characters. Albert is dragooned into the German army and becomes a tank commander under Guderian and Rommel. Meanwhile Clara and her family are swept up in the rising Nazi dominance of society at large, and are ceaselessly badgered to join in it. Amid such fraught and parlous times, how can the lovers endure? After they marry and have children, how can they help them survive?

Their salvation is not just that Clara is a strong-minded woman. It is that she’s a woman who knows how to maintain a strong mind, no matter what challenges her. Since the early Thirties, she has taken advantage of a liberal wave in European education to study philosophy, not as a heap of abstract theorems, but as a way to foster inner strength, peace and poise. She studies with Wittgenstein and Freud, and the book presents amusing and intriguing scenes of her with them and other deep thinkers – she even spots Martin Heidigger musing on a park bench, and convincingly imagines what he might be brooding about.

Clara comes to realize you can make philosophy a house that you live in, and regard the world and all its tumult through the windows. You can live in that world, yet still refuse to be of that world.  This poise, coupled with Albert’s innate sense of honor, duty, fair play and dignity, are what see the pair through – even when the story’s great villain, SS Obersturmfuhrer Bonninghaus corners her in a farmhouse to attack her while Albert is gone. The couple have already prepared each other to survive and win.

You know, plenty of stock characters wind up getting deployed over and over again in this genre. One of the hardest-working guys in the thriller bizz, for example, is a former Special Ops military man, cynical but brave, skilled with weapons and adept in martial arts, who wanders about the world’s mean streets to ceaselessly deal out his own special brand of justice, while cracking wise every step of the way. I know you’ve seen this cool bastard in action, since he turns up almost everywhere! He’s Jack, Frank, Clete, Magnum, etc. etc.

And at this point, the guy bores me to tears.

That’s why it’s so compelling to spend quality reading time with a fresh and strong, smart and unique, well-drawn and intriguing heroine like Clara Eugenie Herzog.

Birth of the Metaphysical Thriller


Review of Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

Everything old is new again. If you spot an exciting, fresh-seeming book called a “metaphysical thriller,” it’s easy to proclaim it as signaling the birth of a genre or sub-genre. But I’m afraid we’ll have to term this only a re-birth. I mean, think about it.

Much of the Bible could be described as a metaphysical thriller, with the entire world’s damnation or salvation as the ultimate high stakes. Prior to the Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad and the Odyssey similarly fit the bill. Afterward, the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost did so too, quite ably. In modern times many of the books of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams add religious, spiritual or philosophic dimension to the rollicking ride of their plots.

Now, there’s “Alif – The Unseen,” by G. Willow Wilson, a work so compelling and original that it seems to invent a new category of thriller writing, although it Alif the Unseen only re-imaginines one.

As the story opens, the eponymous Alif, a young hacker in a nameless emirate on the Persian Gulf, is breaking up with his high-class girlfriend. In order to block her messages, he constructs a new tool, a computer algorithm that’s capable of identifying any keyboard user – no matter how well shielded – by the pattern of their typing and their style of message entry.

The down side: this unique program is a golden grail for the world’s spy agencies. Alif soon finds that he’s drawn the murderous attention of the local government’s digital watchdog, a vicious and spiteful entity known only as “The Hand.”

Complications, as we like to say, ensue. Even Alif’s adept hacker-pals at their undercover HQ, the Radio Sheik (one of many deft jokes that leaven the story), are unable to do much but wring their hands. However, his young Egyptian friend, Dina can help – she’s a hijab-wearing teenager who grew up near Alif, who believes both in “the man he will become” and devoutly in Islam. Both these elements will grow crucial as the plot thickens. Other boosts come from an American woman known only as “the convert,” an aged mullah of the emirate’s principal mosque, and a wily, ancient djinn (genie) called Vikram the Vampire.

Once Vikram enters the tale, it departs the quotidian earth of normal human affairs and enters a scary realm where the physical and spiritual form a combustible mix. The tinder is a manuscript called the Alf Yeom or “The 1001 Days” (a shadow version of the classic, “The 1001 Nights”) that has been narrated by the djinn. A masterpiece of indirect logic and story-telling, the Alf Yeom seems to hold the key to a paradigm shift in computing, one that will move users from rapid-binary to quantum calculations. With this discovery comes immense power, and possibly the ability to unwind creation.

“Alif the Unseen” is a layered work. Besides achieving success as a metaphysical thriller, it is also: a coming-of age novel; a crime story (covering, without seeming to really stretch, crimes by both individuals and governments); a Mideast fantasy-parable; and a digital-sleuth yarn that picks up where cyberpunk classics like William Gibson’s “Neuromancer’ left off. Perhaps most impressively, it’s an East-meets-West story. It introducers a Western reader to the power of Islam’s basic beliefs, and the magic lore of Arab countries. Meanwhile, it also shows Eastern readers how aspects of their culture might appear to Westerners. The net result is a hemisphere-spanning piece of informative entertainment.

Generally I’m not a big fan of metaphysical or fantasy elements in mysteries or thrillers. A little of that goes a long way, and a bunch of it tends to go way too far. And I say that even though the next two novel manuscripts I’m ready to unload on an unsuspecting public include: 1) a philosophic thriller, and 2) a metaphysical thriller. What I truly object to is an unbalanced use of these elements, which I’ll explain like this. Once an author begins to conjure, he or she can only maintain tension by staying internally consistent (within the realm of the story) and externally consistent (within the elements of culture). Too much rule-breaking results in a world where everything is possible, and consequently nothing is important.

Author G. Willow Wilson, herself a convert to Islam, has side-stepped this chasm. I rarely quote from blurbs (I’d rather be quoted in them), but in this case, I can’t resist. On the cover, Steven Hall calls Wilson’s book, “A Golden Compass for the Arab Spring.” And I believe that’s exactly it is. This book can foster communication between wildly different geopolitical worlds. Way off the charts for the achievements of a thriller, and no mean accomplishment for a book of any stripe.

Pushing the Throttle in Thrillers


Review of “Start Shooting” by Charlie Newton

Any work of art can be judged in two ways. You can assess it according a larger set of values – applying an exterior frame of reference, as it were. Or the work can be evaluated on the merits – does it fulfill its own premise?

When we look at thrillers – especially noir-cop-thrillers like Charlie Newton’s “Start Shooting” – the second method has to sit on the judge’s bench.

Start Shooting [ START SHOOTING BY Newton, Charlie ( Author ) Jan-10-2012

That’s due to the fact that the dynamic of a thriller is essentially internal. A thriller may have some things to say about the world as it is, but it mainly has things to say about itself. That’s how a writer keeps his reader aboard the equivalent of Mister Toad’s Wild Ride.

A thriller requires a writer to keep raising the stakes, to keep shoving the accelerator down on the engine of narrative. The author does not do his (or her) job well unless the tachometers stay red-lined, then get pushed ever higher, until it sounds like narrative progress cannot possibly be maintained, since all the pistons are about to blow out through the hood.

The story’s protagonist always must face a growing threat. So the level of dangerous elements, bad characters, murderous impulses, deadly surprises, stinging betrayals, shocking revelations, astonishing plot twists and the ilk constantly must be heightened. And the more exciting a story grows, the less like quotidian life it becomes. Thus, maintaining consistency within the story becomes paramount. An intrigued reader will allow the narrative to part him from the recognizable earth and bear him off like a hot air balloon, but only if the design and operation of the vehicle that carries him are self-reinforcing.

In other words, if the author sets it up that the balloon burners (or narrative engines) are running on fermented rat piss, then the supply of rat piss has to be a consideration. If the pilot is a hair-fetishist ax-murderer with mommy issues, then the lady passenger who’s got her locks tucked under a hat needs to have a slight advantage over the lady passenger who doesn’t. The interior dynamics of the book will determine whether the suspension of belief can be sustained; not the reader’s evaluation of whether or not the events described could ever happen in the “real” world.

Which brings us to “Start Shooting.” The genius of this thriller is how well it succeeds – or even exceeds – at its task. It opens with a prologue, in which one first-person narrator (there are two) says, “Nineteen years I’ve been a ghetto cop and thought I’d worked every heartbreaking, horror combination possible. But I hadn’t.” The speaker is Bobby Vargas, a Latino lover of his tough Four Points neighborhood in Chicago, whose refuge from the stress of police work is strumming blues guitar in dive bars. His older brother Ruben is a homicide detective with a dangerously slick skill-set and a sociopathic sang-froid.

Bobby might be a lover, but the love of his life is apparently a dead girl, Colleen Brennan, an Irish kid with whom this “Rican” had a forbidden teen romance. But she was raped and killed. And the first threat to the adult Bobby comes when a muck-raking Chicago Herald reporter launches a series which looks to indict Ruben and Bobby himself for the crime. The second hit follows rapidly on the first: a supposed ex-FBI, ex-DEA agent, a short, blond stick-of-dynamite named Tania Hahn, parachutes onto the force to facilitate drug busts of the main Four Points gang, the Latin Kings.

Instead, she precipitates untoward violence, and ropes Bobby into a series of frame-ups – including a child-molestation charge – in order to coerce him into assisting with her real agenda: investigating a looming bio-weapon terror attack that will use a plague agent developed by the Japanese in WWII. Tania can get away with all manner of illicit manipulation, see, because she’s an off-the-books contract player hired by the CIA.

If your head has begun to spin like a Tibetan prayer wheel, good, get ready, because as you read on those cranial rpm’s will only increase.

Colleen Brennan’s twin sister Arleen has just come back home to Chicago. She’s a gorgeous waitress-actress with more than one dark secret, who’s returned to grasp at the straw of a possible role as Blanche Du Bois playing opposite Jude Law in a “Streetcar” to be staged at the Chicago-Shubert Theater. Big problem with her plan is that Ruben has Arleen in his grip, and uses her as a pawn and go-fer in arranging a way to profit from the terror attack. Got it? Then add another complication: Arleen is the book’s other first-person narrator; and it just may be possible, as a teen, that she was playing twin-games with Bobby’s head, and she herself was his real first true love.

I tell you all this to reveal what a crafty and complex set of throttle pushes Newton provides on the threat levels in his thriller. Can’t reveal much more without turning my teasers into spoilers, which I don’t want to do, because I wish for you to read the book and enjoy its roller-coaster ride as much as I did. As wild as it gets, the story never quite leaves the rails, because a) it’s internally consistent, i.e. it adheres to its own premises and b) because the prose is so saturated, knowing and gorgeous that it provides a narrative propellant of its own.

There are thrillers more hyperbolic than this one, but they tend to shake you out of the cart before you reach the destination. In “Start Shooting,” the hand on the controls stays masterful.

A Starring Role for Meals in Mystery


Review of “Outerborough Blues” by Andrew Cotto

Great food is sensuous, alluring, and… reassuring. That means well-written eating scenes can serve plenty of entertaining and useful functions in thrillers and mysteries. Such scenes can offer readers a break in tension while serving as a bridge between much higher-octane situations; they can both  promote and illustrate bonding between characters; and they can also reveal that our hero chef (or villain) has a nurturing side, and a few skills other than delivering karate kicks and impressive feats of marksmanship.

An excellent case in point is Andrew Cotto’s “Outerborough Blues.”

outerborough blues by andrew cotto

This concise, fast-paced novel is illuminated by a half-dozen well-crafted food scenarios. They actually are an integral part of the story, since cooking is the singular skill that allows the hero – a young, half-Sicilian drifter named Caesar Stiles – to roam around the U.S. and make a living wherever he happens to land. During the six days of this tale, he’s hanging his hat in a black neighborhood of Brooklyn, and working a bar, restaurant and juke joint called The Notch.

Among the many creative and unusual charms of the book is that it takes quite a while, nearly half its length, to present its true villain, Caesar’s ex-con brother, Sallie. En route, it artfully establishes a gritty urban setting, invigorated by music, wreathed in smoke, and inhabited by a highly believable ethnic cast of characters. It also establishes a plot somewhat grander than the typical noir conceit (a hero must traverse a noisome pit of crime and sleaze, somehow defeat or evade the baddies, and emerge amazingly intact on the other side). In this case, an extra dimension is conferred by a home-coming theme: wanderer Caesar must fulfill his mom’s dying wish that he root himself back in his family’s old place, and learn to inhabit his true identity and his life.

To achieve this, Caesar must unravel twin conspiracies to capitalize on the coming gentrification of Brooklyn, choose a winner, defeat hoodlums bent on his destruction, and help a cute French girl save her artist-brother from drugs and decadence. There’s a lot going on, but Cotto lets the reader rest by periodically providing a feast like this: “With the bones I’d taken out of the ducks, I made a stock; from that stock, I made a reduction. From the reduction I made a glaze. With that glaze I shellacked the roasting ducks to a deep mahogany, then stuffed each duck’s hollowed cavity with jambalaya, a thick rice dish with heavy seasoning and crumbled Cajun sausage. For the final step, I surgically cut each duck into eight slices, held the body together, re-glazed one last time, and put them all back in the oven to seal.”

If that scene doesn’t make your mouth water, go buy yourself a baggage tag, write down your name, age and address, tie it to your big toe, then lie back and wait for the morgue boys to come pick you up.

This is a fine banquet of a book, yet not without its flaws. Numero uno problemo is that Caesar’s pal, Don from Trinidad, is a good-hearted bad-ass who j-u-s-t happens to show up big-time whenever Caesar gets in a tight spot. The creaky sound of a deus ex machina being lowered into a plot is never a good thing. And the other problem is a number of copy-editing mistakes so lousy that they jolt a reader right out of the story. Here are a few: “viles” for “vials”; “women” when it should be “woman”; “sown” for “sewn”.

Memo to “ig Publishing” (which brought out the book) – a computer spell-check does not suffice! Hire a good copy editor! With the shrinkage of newspapers, there’s plenty of experienced people out there, many of whom are eager to find work.

End of sermon. Now, I’m hungry. Wonder if I can find a restaurant that serves jambalaya-stuffed roast duck.

Writing Risk


I believe that realistic action is one of the toughest elements to create for a reader, in any form or forum of writing. I’ve turned the problem over in my mind since I posted my first Kindle Single at the end of October. Titled, “Big Wave Virgin,” I built this story to bring a reader deep into the fast-moving tumult of a surf ride on one of the world’s most powerful waves, the break at Maverick’s in Northern California.

Big Wave Virgin

The first key to a good action sequence is accuracy. There’s nothing more jarring to a reader than plunging into the excitement of a pivotal scene, only to be brought up short by a dumb mistake on the part of the author. For example, several times I’ve seen heroes in thrillers or mysteries get ready to take a shot at the bad guy, only to have the gun “jam.” This is major bullshit.

First, the only way a revolver or wheelgun gets jammed is if it’s a double-action weapon that’s been crushed with a dumptruck or pounded with a sledgehammer. Second, if it’s a semi-automatic pistol, the hero needs to have a round in the pipe and the safety on as he approaches the confrontation. If he’s qualified to use the weapon, he’s not going to wait to chamber that round until he’s deep in the jam. So he’ll own the chance to shoot one bullet. Now, when the slide tries to cycle the next cartridge into the chamber, then it could jam. But not before! The only way(s) to keep the first round from going off is if the firing pin breaks or if the primer on the cartridge is defective and fails to ignite. Or your hero is too stupid or gripped to flick off the safety before squeezing the trigger.

People, please. If you’re going to write about guns, let’s spend a reasonable amount of time shooting first, all right?

In the case of that surf piece, I had spent thirty years surfing myself, in conditions ranging from crapulous to sublime. This is not to brag, only to point out the value of relevant experience. Also, in my purview as a professional outdoor sports journalist, I had interviewed and written about big wave surfers up to and including multiple world champ Kelly Slater.

My aim was to describe the high-risk action involved in confronting a wave with a 50 foot-high face, a dynamic, moving structure that releases the mass and energy of a collapsing building as it breaks. And then, to take the reader on a second-by-second voyage through that adrenalized experience. Note that I had two major streams of info available to help me build a realistic scenario: personal experience (my own time in the water) and acquired experience (the interviews).

Not every author can come to crime writing after years with a police department (or a life as a “made man,” eh?) but every author trying to pull off a realistic description can certainly talk to cops, hang out with them, go on ride-alongs. Not every author trying to concoct a fight scene is going to have a black belt in a martial art, but he or she can certainly spend a month learning the basics of an art and talk to practitioners, masters and fighters.

The point is that a story is a virtual world, and one needs to deepen it using best-possible materials. Then the reader has a scene he can dive into without banging his forehead on the shallows.

Other key values to bear in mind? Economy, for one. I give you the top message from Strunk & White: “Vigorous writing is concise.” And another: consequentiality. Try to make a large result depend on the outcome of your action scenes.


The Blind Pool

By | Reviews

The Blind Pool

Paul McHugh

No price is too great for the scalp of the enemy king.

Alexander Koblentz, chessmaster

Chapter 1

Florida’s Overseas Highway is a gray band linking isles of the Keys via bridges that arch over channels of turquoise water. On this day, as Highway 1 leaps across a channel to connect Boca Chica with Key West, it bears glittering rows of stalled automobiles. A few cars display geysers spurting up from radiators while drivers jig around their front bumpers, ineffectually waving rags.

“Just ‘nother day in paradise,” drawls Dan Cowell. He drapes an arm out the window of his own car – a vintage red Miata – and flicks open a button on his rayon shirt with his other hand.

“We not movin’, okay, not a centimeter, even!” his companion, Linda Parker, marvels. “And so-o long.”

“We’re near peak of tourist season,” Dan says. “Add a holiday. Stir in a traffic accident. There’s your recipe for happiness, beyb.”

Dan says the word “babe” using a long and strong vowel, in the Caribbean Creole argot. Saying it this way is part of their code of intimacy.

She peers out from her side of the car at the blue waters that ripple beneath the highway bridge. Tiny wavelets fling back sparks of sunlight.

“We are not so high up,” she says. “Let us jump into water, make a swim ‘round to our place. Serious!”

Dan smiles. Linda is a young, strong Moskita Indian woman, raised on an island off the coast of Honduras. She’s fully able to act on her suggestion.

“Might’s well. Our highway seems ‘bout done being a street.” He gives a languid shrug. “Guess we’re in a park-and-lock lot now…”

Bass vibrations telegraph an approach of powerful machinery. Dan checks his mirrors and sees two lines of big motorcycles bearing down on them from the east. One line seeks to thread the gap between the lanes of stopped cars, the other rumbles along the bridge’s narrow shoulder.

“Shit. Crank up your window.” Dan gestures with his thumb. “We’re about to get hammered by noise.”

Large bikes leading the pack are fattened by saddlebags and chromium crash bars. A massive Honda Gold Wing FGB touring machine roars by on the right, while a purple Harley CVO Road King thumps past on their left. Dan sees that the rider on the Harley is as bulky as his bike. Thick shoulders thrust out through armholes of a black leather vest to strain the long sleeves of a white T-shirt. Curve of his belly and chest bulge over the motorcycle’s gas tank. His neck seems wider than the Nazi-style helmet on his head.

“Ah-ha,” Linda says. “Here now is American motorcycle gang, jus’ like your movies, right?”

“No!” Dan speaks loudly to be heard. “Only wannabes! Don’t have on cuts, patches, or colors. Plus, real gangbangers straddle Harleys. Wouldn’t be caught dead on anything else. I only see one. They’re wusses.”

A few cars beyond the Miata, the motorcycles try to squeeze by a broad Cadillac sedan. The Honda rider can’t make it on the right, so he stops and insistently beeps his horn. The Caddy driver tries to swing a yard to his left, almost hits the Harley. That rider lifts a foot and boots off the car’s side mirror. The sedan backs up and makes a panicked lurch to the right, just in time to smack into a sleeker machine trying to follow the Honda – knocking the bike and its rider into the guardrail with a boom and a screech of metal.

Motorcycles dip over their front wheels as they brake to a halt. Riders swing legs off over the seats, lean their motorcycles on kickstands. The engines keep running. The Harley rider loosens his helmet and strides back to the motorcycle behind his – a BMW GTL with so many antennas sprouting from a case bolted onto its rear luggage rack, it looks like a highway patrol vehicle.

Dan now sees the big rider wears over his nose and mouth a bandanna printed with the naked cheekbones and jaw of a skull. He points at the BMW rider, who hits switches mounted on his handlebars. The Harley guy nods, stomps over to the Caddy. He yanks his helmet off a shaven head. He punches it into the driver’s side window, bashing the glass into a spray of green crumbs. Through a succession of other windshields in front of him, Dan sees a dim pair of white-haired people who cower on the Caddy’s front seat.

“Oh fuck,” he says. “Now that just ain’t right.”

He plucks a cell phone from the pocket of his shirt and passes it to Linda. “Dial up 911, beyb? Tell ‘em what’s goin’ on out there.”

He yanks open the door and exits his car. He walks toward the Caddy through a haze of percussion that beats from the tailpipes of idling motorcycles. He sees the big Harley guy lean into the sedan’s busted window and start yelling. Dan walks faster. Other riders smirk as they slouch out of his path.

“Hey, check it! This lame-o wants to bump chests with Tank!” one exclaims.

“That’s a show,” another says. “Guar-ran-teed.”

Dan hesitates for a moment. Maybe he’s chomping off more than he can chew? Then he sees that the old couple in the Caddy have slid all the way over to the passenger door where they cringe and stare, bug-eyed with fear, at the man haranguing them.

“Hey,” Dan says, closing in. “Quit that!”

The big man pulls back from the window. The skull-print cloth that had covered his mouth has fallen around this neck. Dan sees stubbly jowls, a broad nose, and intense, close-set eyes with irises so pale they seem nearly white. He never sees the arm swinging a fist up into his stomach. That mighty punch drives air from his lungs and sends him flying across the pavement to thump against the side of a minivan one lane over. He flops into a heap, and all his attention focuses on where his next breath might come from.

He hears a hoarse, faraway voice grind out, “Dammit, you ol’ farts just crunched a prime ride. Worth a hundred K! To make us whole, you’ll do what? Sell this joke of a car?”

Dan finds himself able to gasp in a pint of breath, another. He levers himself on an elbow, grips the door latch of the van, and pulls himself onto his feet. He sees the big man plus two other riders hoist the damaged motorcycle up into the air, then tumble it over the bridge’s railing. He only vaguely comprehends what he sees, since it makes no sense, and barely registers the sound of a distant splash.

The riders come around the Caddy, kicking at it, smashing the taillights and booting dents into its fenders. The big one has his Nazi Stahlhelm back atop his boulder of a head, and the skull-print bandana tugged again up over his nose. He sees Dan, and waves a hand.

“Hey bros, look!” he says. “Our citizen shook off his chin-check.”

He strides to Dan. He’s at least six-foot-eight, has to weigh more than 300 pounds. Pale eyes study Dan. He tilts his head. “Aw-w-w,” he croons. “Did I hurt lil’ punk’s feelings? Let’s hug it out.” Thick arms encompass Dan’s chest and upper back. He’s instantly crushed into the broad stiff plates of the giant’s vest – he realizes it actually is body armor – and into a miasma of leather and rancid sweat. His ribs creak from the remorseless force. He feels the man’s crotch gyrate obscenely against him.

“Feelin’ any better now? I am!” he says. “Wanna be my lil’ bitch? After I turn you out, we’ll pass you all ‘round.”

It sets off a bout of raucous laughter.

Dan squirms to escape, which makes the big rider shove him firmly back into the van and dry-hump his body. The others howl with glee. Dan twists hard and kicks the man in the lower leg with all his strength. His assailant merely grunts, and the white eyes narrow. He swings open his arms, cuffs Dan across the face as he falls, then snatches him with one hand by the nape of the neck and hoists him up so his feet barely drag on the pavement.

“Like it savage? Hey, me too! You won’t sit for a week.”

And suddenly, Linda is there.

“You! Let ‘im go! Now, I say!”

As she rushes in, the other riders try to haul her back. She swats their hands aside then leaps like a wildcat, going for the leader’s eyes with her fingernails. They grab her and yank her away. But the leader beckons.

“No. Lemme have her,” He says.

They propel her forward. The big man catches her by the back of her neck with his free hand. Dan and Linda gape at each other, beat with their fists at the hideous power of his grip, try to twist and kick themselves free.

“Hey,” he growls. “Your squeeze? Mud-bitch and her race betrayer! Hot for each other, huh? So… let’s see some licks.”

He brings them closer together. “Go kissy-kissy,” he says.

Linda jerks up her chin and spits a gob of saliva just past his face.

He scowls. Dan sees knuckles on the huge hand whiten, also notices a strange detail, the end of one middle finger is emblazoned with dark lines, a tattoo of a letter “Y,” that wavers like a rune. He feels his own body sway helplessly as the big man spreads his arms and pulls them apart… and then accelerates their faces directly at each other. Dan tries to duck, to turn or thrust out an elbow, to do anything that might soften the coming collision.

None of it reduces the impact. He smashes the heads of Dan and Linda together with a vicious crack, lets their limp bodies drop. As he steps over them, he wipes his sweaty palms on his vest. His crew laughs, applauds. His gaze wanders across windows of cars nearby. Occupants shrink away from windows in those vehicles, avert their eyes, desperate to avoid drawing his attention to themselves.

He gives a brief, amused snort.

“Let’s be smart,” the leader says. “Sanitize the crime scene.”

“Wha’chu like, Big T?” another rider asks.

“One-eight-seven these fish.” He gestures toward the bridge railing. “Put ‘em over.”

Through a dim red haze of lapsing consciousness, Dan feels his wrists and ankles seized by rough hands. A moment of weightlessness follows, next a hard smack of water against his upper back and shoulders. The tiny spot of awareness left to him takes in a progression of colors that swirl before his eyes – blue, green, indigo and back to blue again. He realizes that he’s underwater, and spinning.

Linda, Linda… he thinks, as he struggles to clear his mind, to make his limbs move. They must have thrown her in too! Got to… revive. Find her.

The big rider looks down at the channel. A double trail of bubbles rises from the dark, azure shapes of the sinking bodies.

“Yah, bros,” he says. “Done ‘bout the best we can, I reckon. Deek? Let ol’ Cranker warm your back, till we snatch another ride. High time for us to roll, ‘case John Law gets his ass in gear and tries to crash our party. Right?”

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Hike Like a Deer Hunter

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Or How to Skulk In the Woods

Our first lesson is stillness.

Not easy, perhaps, to generate or even locate deep quietude in frenetic modern times. But nature doesn’t tend to do frenzy for long – that realm prefers to remain tranquil, rational, and chary of waste. Sink into nature completely, and her reason and peace may come to you.

Pull your body and mind out of the kingdoms of concrete and electricity, of jittery phones and social demands. As you do, you’ll find that a portion of your natural birthright stands there waiting. Pay close attention to instinct, and it can help you follow a trail of cues on the proper way to immerse yourself in the wild.

To begin, just believe it’s possible.

That swarm of crapola loosely summarized as “civilization” has only been hung around our necks for 10,000 years or so. Origin of us homo saps as a species wends through the millennia way further, ten or twenty times as far, reaching back into a now-dim yet then-vivid era in which we were simply other animals. Cognitively sharper than most critters, maybe, but not living so distant from our furry, scaly or feathered compatriots in terms of habitat or lifestyle.

Be invisible in the wild –

I’ve trodden a fortunate path. Not only did I wander around forests and swamps nearly every day as a child, I’ve spent much of my adult life continuing to roam the outdoors, acquiring and reviving capacities that help me relish moments like this one…

Thick mist shrouds oaks, bays and buckeyes clumped in a thicket filling an ephemeral creek channel. A forked branch a hundred yards up this gulch tilts, gleams, and turns. Seeing it as a tip of a big deer’s antler rack, I glide to a halt. Ceasing my movement is easy; I’ve only taken a single pace forward every three seconds or so.

Horns appear once again. The buck hasn’t detected me, and he continues to walk my way. I slow my pulse, deepen my breathing. Let stillness flow through my body in the same way that cool morning fog threads along this creekbed. The big buck reaches the edge of the trees, looks right past me, rotates his head away, then steps out onto this trail where I stand.

He’s five feet away.

I can nearly count the hairs on his muzzle, almost see the fleas crawling on his butt. I definitely can smell his odor, since he’s positioned slightly upwind – he broadcasts an earthy and acrid tang of warm venison.

His tongue flicks out, making that black nose shine. He sniffs the air. Big ears rotate like fuzzy satellite dishes, seeking to net a signal. His environs apparently feel good and safe to him overall. Yet, some detail seems to nag. It’s as though the visual cortex of his brain taps his situational awareness on the shoulder, and says, “Hey bud, wasn’t there something weird about that stubby tree-trunk you saw before you stepped onto the trail?”

His head swivels back to me, and the pupils of his eyes dilate into dark saucers.

Emotions are forms of primitive cognition that both animals and humans share, biologists say, and I agree. I’ve watched animals reveal a menu of feelings that include embarrassment, even mortification. As with this buck, right now. In anthropomorphic terms, it’s as if he thinks, “Can’t even imagine how I ever let myself get caught so near to a freakin’ human!”

He launches a swift riposte. All four hooves come a yard up off the ground, he pulls a mid-air end-for-end swap like a Cirque du Soleil acrobat, then bounds away from the creek to the closest ridge, using a Columbia blacktail deer’s escape gait (termed a “stot”) that makes him hop so high and long he looks like he’s riding a quartet of atom-powered pogo sticks. Just before vanishing, he takes a final look back over his shoulder.

I don’t even raise my rifle. For one thing, on this day, I’m out after feral hogs. But mainly, some wildlife interactions strike me as so grand and wondrous that taking a shot just doesn’t occur to me. This is one of those times.

Getting near wildlife is a win —

Achieving such moments of contact, for me, is like the Plains Indian practice of counting coup. Getting near enough to touch your quarry is far more artistic and worthy than attacking it. Fulfillment of your skill comes in scoring a marvelous opportunity. What you choose to do with it next ends up as a secondary matter.

Since bloodshed isn’t hunting’s most satisfying aspect for me, I find that techniques of a hunter can also be easily and profitably deployed in a more peaceable fashion. My aim on a given day might not be to fill the cookpot, but simply to score a great sighting or take a photo. The primary goal is learning how to share life in the wild with its animals so that you can blend in adroitly, and not bother them unduly. A day well-spent in the woods can be its own sublime reward.

How do you accomplish this? By developing patience, by honing perception, then investing both of these in all aspects of your sylvan behavior and appearance.
By investing in appearance, I don’t mean draping yourself in camouflage till you look like a SEAL Team Six wanna-be. True camo is what I wish to talk about. That miraculous stuff isn’t woven of cloth, but assembled from choices in movement and from skillful use of light and shadow.

It’s achieved via deft navigation past landforms, through exploitation of textures on the earth, and by synchronizing yourself with the very pulses of air – waves one can observe bending a hillside’s grass fields as though they were receiving steady strokes from a vast, invisible hand.
Immerse yourself in understanding and use of these techniques, and you wrap yourself in a cloak of invisibility. Step slowly through a forest while using them, and you make yourself a far more successful hunter than you would by zipping on any garment decked in colored blobs that you can ever hope to purchase.

This might arrive as dismaying news to the folks who like to roar around on dirt roads sitting in large, jolting, 4WD crew-cab pickups. You might’ve seen them, macho guys all camo’d up from their snakeproof boots to their military field hats – some even daubed with streaks of facepaint – who leap from their vehicles infrequently, to blast away at such unwary game as they manage to spook out from cover and into the open. (To dub such men “slob-hunters” is to insult your true slob, a harmless, stubble-chinned guy who likes to lounge on couches and view televised sports while he drinks beer and munches on cold pizza.)

Tarted-up teams of pseudo-commandos just plain miss the point. Both main points of being outdoors, actually. They don’t strive to pursue game quite so much as to overwhelm it. Plus, the grand style and the blunt tools of their overwhelming are such, they barely notice they’re out in the woods. They’re like ham-fisted gardeners trying to till window-boxes with a roto-tiller.
Whatever one wishes to label that style of operation, right now I’d like to discuss its opposite.

Move to stillness, slowness, silence –

Stillness has a cousin named slowness.

In wildlife viewing, speed kills! I realize that’s a slogan cited to combat meth addiction. Associating it with another kind of overwrought behavior is intentional. At what point did we begin to celebrate outdoor activities done at a rabid pace?

The Appalachian Trail is just under 2,200 miles of rolling hills, chuckling streams and sumptuous forest, and Karl Meltzer ran it all in 2016 in 45 days, 22 hours, and 38 minutes. The Pacific Crest Trail is almost 2,700 miles of epic alpine vistas, and Joe McConaughty ran the whole thing in 2014 in 53 days, 6 hours, and 37 minutes. Both men averaged 50 miles, performing some two trail marathons each day. Anyone like to convince me these gents fully appreciated the splendor into which they’d thrust themselves? Instead of having to concentrate on mainly avoiding sprains and twisted ankles?

To me, manic activity like this reduces our great outdoors to another consumer product. It shows as much respect for nature as hot-dog-eating contests do for nutrition. Instead of winning renown, participants should be awarded a dose of Ipecac and a bucket. There’s no appreciable difference between running double-marathons through the woods in a day, or charging along on an ATV or snowmobile. Waves of visual and sonic disruption spread wide, and the critters you’ll see are mainly those you shocked out of their naps.
The basic goal of a hunter should be to explore a landscape thoroughly, not rapidly. The overarching aim is to put quality above quantity.

A thoughtful footfall –

Even strolling at a regular pace through a forest is inimical to good wildlife viewing. The crunch-crunch-crunch-crunch of a typical human stride is a dead giveaway – a presumed master of the food-chain is touring the woody ‘hood. For a clue on an alternative, examine how wild creatures move, even the eentsy wren hopping about in your backyard. The bird will hop-hop, pause, check around, hop.

Save your driving rhythm for a dance floor. In the woods, pitch change-ups. Animals move, pause, scout, in a sequence that is seemingly random and highly variable – due to instant responses to fresh inputs. If you hope to blend in, do the same.

Smoothly glide from stillness to slow movement, then back into stillness.

If you think humans are among the planet’s noisiest creatures, you’re right. Yet every being produces some noise while moving, whether it’s a bobcat or a newt. The trick is producing less, plus making the unavoidable amount sound more like it’s been produced by a wild animal.

We’ve already talked frequency, so let’s mention amplitude or volume. Of two places to put down your foot, one will always be better. Study the earth till you know which is which. Are those dry, fallen leaves from an oak or a manzanita? Did those blown away from beneath the tree’s branches happen to get soaked by morning dew? If you step on that patch of gravel, will it grind? What generates more noise, stepping on squishy moss or slimy mud?

Your style of foot placement is also of great consequence. Most people hike by landing their boots with heel strikes. On steep or slippery ground, this is a terrible gait, since if your heel slips out, you’ve got nothing left. Heel-striking also deprives one of the ability to truly sense the resilience of the material underfoot. However, if you slow your pace, and deliberately lower your toes and the balls of your feet to the earth, you can rock back onto a heel and use it to brake should you happen to slip, while you are also able to carefully manage your overall delivery of pressure to the ground.

To put it in simple terms, instead of making a twig snap! you can make it go s-m-u-s-h. From a long and disciplined series of tactical footfalls can emerge a considerable measure of stealth.

Native strategy in the woods –

Early American writers made a big deal of the ways of forest Indians and of their stealthy movements. James Fenimore Cooper who penned his five “leatherstocking” novels in the early 19th Century, praised that “noiseless step” of indigenous warriors. Much of Indian ability should be ascribed to their well-practiced technique, but a certain portion must be credited to their equipment. I can’t conceive of better footgear for feeling the earth and accommodating your step to all it might lands upon than using soft leather moccasins. Hard-soled boots constitute a poor substitute. But should we step carefully, we can render our boots much quieter.

A beau ideal would be imitating the footfall of lynxes and cougars, whose paws mold themselves like beanbags to the ground as they touch it. Even maintaining a conscious intent to have your footfalls land that way can make them more quiet.

Cooper also mentions that Indians heading out on a raid tended to put one supremely talented warrior in the lead. All those who coursed along behind him would carefully place their own feet in the prints of that first man. Thus, each brave traveled more silently than his predecessor, and the war party as a whole made much less noise than it might’ve otherwise.

Delight in finding game trails –

Which brings us to game trails. Pristine, undisturbed nature is a myth. All woods and meadows are wreathed with a network of pathways, some a trough of faint scuffs where a few animals have passed, some worn bare and smooth by many sharp hooves and sets of padding paws.
How do you locate and tread these paths more traveled?

Remember at the beginning, when I said nature tends to be rational? The ancient Greeks perceived that reason isn’t a whimsical blessing or curse that the gods bestowed solely on humans. The Stoics maintain that reason flourishes at the heart of all reality. It’s something inevitable, ineluctable, ordinary, and shared.

Animals seek food, water and cover. As you study a landscape, visualize yourself searching for these, as well. Pursue them in the most logical, efficient manner. Odds are you’ll discover a game trail – at the smartest place to cross a stream, the easiest way over a ridge, the most secure spot to drowse into a nap, and along routes that let you stay hidden under a line of foliage for the longest period of travel.

Walk a game trail that’s already had its sound-generating potential tamped down, and you’ll harvest a large degree of silence. Wild animals grasp this principle well. Even a novice human hiker should be able to pick up on it.

Use of shade and sunlight –

Forms that make up landscapes may be emphasized or muted by sunshine and shade. A wise hunter finds advantage in their interplay. Pop chanteuse Joni Mitchell sang on a live album, “Every picture has its shadows, and it has some source of light…” The genius inherent in Joni’s line is that it acknowledges a multiplicity of shadows can be cast by various shapes, while (outdoors, at least) light generally streams from a single point. On the “downstream” side of hillsides, trees and rocks lurk banks and blobs of shadow. You can connect these dots like beads on a necklace to create a concealing line of travel for yourself.

I know I dissed camo-clothing earlier, but that was mainly to make a point that wearing camouflage is no substitute for smart use of natural features. Out in the woods, I do tend to wear drab clothing, with the shirt a light color and the trousers dark, or vice-versa. That way, whether I’m illuminated or shaded, as long as I’m not moving, I’ll appear to animals to be half my size. If I move through a bank of shadow, I stop before emerging into the light, and take a moment to study what’s out there before proceeding. Animals do this, too.

Exploit all false horizons –

The many horizons our earth affords can be used in this fashion, as well. On undulating terrain, every single hill, slope or ridge provides its own horizon line, as does each thicket or line of brush. While out hiking, as soon as your head rises up past any of these crests, you should pause – because at that moment, you hold a clear advantage.

You can see everything on the other side, but animals on the other side can only see your head, which means, at that point, they won’t necessarily be able to ID you as a human. You could be just a small, head-sized critter, say, a porcupine with an odd pelt. If you don’t reveal the rest of your body, if you traverse instead of continuing up over the hill, if you don’t act predatory and instead mimic animal movements, you may well avoid spooking them.

Of course, once they notice you at all, they will use all of their senses to try to figure out what you are, and whether or not you pose a threat. Animal senses of smell do tend to be better than our own, so if you appear upwind of them, it’s usually game-over. If you stay downwind, however, you’ve got a fighting chance to keep them uncertain of your identity. Even when air seems still, there are often subtle currents. To discover which way a mass of air might be moving, pinch some dust or duff (leaf litter), raise it up, let it go, and watch it drift. But even if you find out the direction of the main current, air flows in boils and eddies, just as water in a creek bounces over and re-circulates around rocks. So don’t be surprised if the critters score a whiff even while you imagine you’re still downwind.

Waltz with nature’s rhythm –

Moving air demonstrates another characteristic that can be further discovered and exploited. Wind commonly arrives in pulses which can be observed in the waving of grasses, the bobbing of branches, and the vibration of brush. Such movement is multiplied by the corresponding dance of shadows around and beneath this vegetation. The pulsation inherent in wind does not adhere to the firm beat of human music, yet it does own a loose rhythm, all the same. By perceiving it and incorporating it into your movement, you’ll instantly turn less noticeable. It’s a giant step toward truly blending in.

I used to call the way I moved out in the woods, “stalking,” but now I’d term it, “drifting.” It’s a better term for the way I seek to blend into terrain, as well as the forces that flow constantly over and through it. As side benefits for maintaining a slow, sensitive, rational pace, you’ll find yourself becoming less thirsty, less tired, less sweaty, and releasing less scent. You will also learn a hunk of geography more thoroughly. An enduring map of it can then dwell in your awareness.

Camo-up your consciousness –

Okay, we’ve talked some about how to achieve true camouflage by fitting yourself into the woods the same way that animals do it. Now let’s take up the topic of superficial camouflage – in other words, the camo that one can buy in a store. Besides my mix of light and dark main garments, I like to add drab fingerless gloves, to keep light from glaring off my white-boy hands, as well as a soft and foldable camo hat with a brim that shades my eyes. That last aspect is of great importance.

Most wild animals become nervous if they feel they’re being studied too keenly – since this may well signal predatory intent. If your eyes are under a band of shadow, they can’t tell that you’re looking at them. Similarly, when using binoculars, sweep with them rather than holding them steadily on a given set of critters. If you freeze while holding field glasses, from an animal’s point of view, it’s being stared at by a giant black pair of eyes.

Our eyes actually work amazingly well without aids. Humans don’t give ourselves sufficient credit. Some biologists say, in terms of overall capability, we possess the animal kingdom’s second-best eyes, only exceeded by predatory birds, such as hawks, owls and eagles. Compare your talents to those of other animals, then figure out how to exploit the differences.

What stops us? We’re a bit too used to thinking of ourselves as underdogs, in terms of the raw power of our senses. For example, real dogs have 50 times the number of scent receptors that we do, and 40 times the number of brain neurons for analysis of same, so their olfactory ability is about 10,000 times as potent. Dogs can locate truffles, sniff out cases of prostate cancer, and detect victims buried under avalanches. Cool work, if you’re able to pull it off. But if any human could, his mental model of existence would be astonishingly different from a visual model that presently dominates our awareness. In contrast, the theme song of a Disneyland for dogs would have to be, “It’s a Smell, Smell World.”

Classic American woodland pattern.

When it comes to eye-power, a dog only rates 20/75 vision, compared to that sharp 20/20 benchmark that humans often achieve. Pooches might be able to follow a bouncing tennis ball, but they do it nowhere near as well as we can. (Serena has nothing to fear from a border collie.) Since we humans possess binocular vision (eyes placed in the same plane at the front of our skulls), we can range-find – that is, estimate distances. We have decent resolution and depth perception, as well as superior color recognition. We are “trichromates,” meaning we have three types of cones or color receptors in our retinas, for red, blue and green, as well as any of their mingled shades. During our evolution, this helped us select ripe fruit and veggies, and shun boldly-colored poisonous critters – like coral snakes, venomous frogs and lion fish. Nowadays, it helps us parse meaning in all manner of vista. And our vision is backed up by substantial cranial computing power, capable (for instance) of rapidly inferring the whole from a part. (Recall my recognition of the approach of a buck from the brief flash of its antler tine.)

Deer, on the other hand, are mere “dichromats,” they have just two color receptors, and they must seek happiness in a world they perceive as utterly drenched in the blues. In addition, they can see a bit of gray and yellow, and possibly have some UV (ultraviolet) sensitivity. Their retinas are short of cones, but high in rod receptors, awarding them good low-light sensitivity. Not only that, but a membrane behind the retina, the “tapetum lucidum,” reflects any un-absorbed light back out, giving them a chance to process it twice.

Which is why deer eyeballs glow if they are spotlighted at night. If you drive around a curve and smite them with headlights on high beam, the reason they freeze as if stunned is because they are. You’re like a SWAT team assaulting a hostage-taker with a flash-bang grenade.

Vietnam-era tiger stripes.

But far away from roadways, on woodsy deer turf where you have to play by deer rules, their strengths show a few definite advantages. Deer are “crepuscular,” creatures of dawn and evening, and they see much better in twilight. Bulging eyes positioned toward the sides of their heads provide a remarkable field of vision, on the order of 280 degrees, quite useful for a prey species, because it makes them hard to approach. They are attuned to spotting movement, not so hot at defining form. Their top usual visual acuity is rated no better than 20/40. They can only use binocular vision in a narrow band, extending perhaps 10 degrees to each side of their noses.

That’s why a deer who seeks to figure out who you are and what you might be up to will assume a classic “Y” configuration: Two great ears that jut up and out and cup at you, the nose down and pointed at you and snuffling, the eyes fixed in an unyielding stare.

And what does that staring buck or doe see? Should you cease all movement, and if your clothing blends with your surroundings, not much – not by human standards. If you use what I call true camo, and conceal your shape against landforms and inside patches of shade, essentially you turn invisible to them. You can become just as hidden when you stand unmoving out in front of a tree trunk, as you could be by ducking behind it.

Next camo-up with clothing –

Any drab clothing with minimal patterning works well for this. Of course, you want to avoid blue, since that shade appears quite bright to deer, and shun white also, since that can reflect blue light (along with everything else). But your granddad’s old red, “buffalo” plaid lumberjack shirt would work fine on a deer hunt.

Classic buffalo plaid

Another hunter can also see it easily, which makes you safer in the woods. Can a deer pick it out from a forest background? Not so much.

Even better performance can be won by use of the feathers, furs and fringed skins that indigenous peoples wore. Recall the pulses of air current I described as constantly wafting over a landscape? Imagine a warrior standing perfectly still, whose garments and adornments slurp up gusts of breeze, and sway with them in loose synchronicity with all those nodding branches, shuddering patches of brush and fields of grass. Think that might help him blend in?

European settlers were not slow to pick up on native ways of concealment after they arrived in the Americas. Well, maybe some were tardy, but it’s fascinating to read about the ones who weren’t, like Pilgrim raiders led by Benjamin Church, who often snuck up on Indian camps during King Phillip’s War. The novelist James Fenimore Cooper, writing 140 years later, describes his most worthy and enduring hero, Natty Bumppo (aka Deerslayer, Hawkeye, Pathfinder, Leatherstocking, etc.) as clad in, “a hunting shirt of forest green, fringed with faded yellow.”

Basically, the hunting shirts or smocks worn by settlers mimicked native buckskin garments. These were linen garments dyed in muted or drab shades, which sported frayed or fringed layers of cloth on the shoulders, chest and limbs. We could do worse than imitate colonial hunters. Some re-enactors do precisely that, stalking the regrown East Coast forests while toting a replica flintlock and powder horn, with a leather “possibles” bag (the day-pack of its day) flung on a broad strap over one shoulder.

German flecktarn.

However, since the majority of us will never attempt to dye linen fabric in a cast-iron kettle simmering over a wood fire laid on a rock hearth inside a log cabin, nor stitch it up into a hunting smock, let’s talk about the camo garments you can go right out to a store (either online or brick-and-mortar) to buy with a credit card, smartphone or whatnot. But just before we go there, let’s check out some more camouflage history.

Camo through time –

Military design exerts a strong tug on camo now. It wasn’t always thus; early on in Western armies mass concealment was undesired and unsought. From the phalanxes of Greek hoplites to the marching Roman legions to Wellington’s infantry squares at Waterloo, bold and assertive fashion in battle dress was order of the day. Bright and gaudy elements bore high value. By comparison, unobtrusive wear made a soldier look feckless and unheroic. In the heydays of pikes and muskets (the infamous “Brown Bess” had an effective range of just 50 yards), one pretty much had to stare an enemy in the face before you whacked him, and taking the field in a huge, bright, cohesive mass was itself a tactic of intimidation and often a key to victory.

Even so, there were counter-currents. British redcoats marching in formation became utterly flummoxed by colonial sharpshooters who concealed themselves by wearing buckskin and hunting shirts as they flitted between trees and fired from cover. Germany and Austria had a tradition of using skilled riflemen, termed “Jaegers” (hunters), who dressed in muted colors, including forest green, and could be assigned to sneaking up on and eliminating the officers on an opposing side.

British woodland

Starting in the mid-19th Century, bling in military dress was gradually subsumed by drab. An early-adopter was Sir Harry Lumsden, a veteran of the battles at Khyber Pass in 1842, who five years later got tasked with forming a Corps of Guides to gather intelligence and help direct English forces along the frontier of Punjab Province in northern India. The Urdu word for dust is “khak” (to remember this, consider the sound you’d probably make after inhaling a puff of it), and Lumsden asked his guides to wear outfits dyed in a dust color – which was swiftly dubbed khaki.
The advantages of blending in with the landscape, so opponents would have a tougher time detecting your force or estimating its size, soon grew apparent. By 1857, khaki was being adopted by other regiments, and by 1899 – in order to cope with daunting reversals sustained while fighting guerillas early on in the Boer War – it became the new standard throughout Britain’s army.

Whereupon, generals stroked their mutton-chop whiskers and began to visualize other possible advances in invisibility.

Disrupt or blend? What’s best? –

Nature displays two basic types of camouflage: the “blend-in” kind, similar to the spots an ambush predator like a leopard uses; and the “disruptive pattern” kind, such as stripes that a tiger displays, which can befuddle prey about a big cat’s size and movement amid a stalk or a charge.
Tim Newark, who wrote “Brassey’s Book of Camouflage” in 1996 and followed it with a further pair of authoritative volumes on the many methods humans use to hide in plain sight, says that disruptive pattern camo began to crop up in WWI, when the oddly bold lines known as “dazzle” camouflage began to be painted on the sides of ships, to make it harder for U-boat skippers to estimate the course and speed of a target vessel or a convoy.

Once aircraft came into use for recon, next in spotting for artillery, then finally to make bombing runs, ground forces adapted dazzle camo covers to break up the shapes of tent camps, gun emplacements, vehicles and so forth, coating them with so many aberrant angles they proved nearly impossible to recognize from the air. And yes, civilian artists (camofleurs) charged with making the stuff were heavily influenced by local trends in art, including Cubism.
Newark says that when a young Pablo Picasso noted a camouflaged cannon being drawn through the streets of Paris, he exclaimed, “C’est nous qui avons fait ça!” – “It is we who did that!”

Modern pixel camo.

Sporadic efforts to supply individual camo suits and helmets to trench scouts and snipers in WWI morphed into a wholesale effort to equip troops in WWII, especially by Germany, and a variety of patterns got designed and deployed, particularly to divisions of the Waffen SS. The U.S. experimented with camo uniforms, decided it actually could handle making troops in motion become more visible rather than less, and settled for outfits of famed olive drab.

That’s where the affair stood until jungle combat in Vietnam made U.S. brass recalculate, goaded by seeing American military advisors show up with duck-hunter camo bought at Sears, or trying to adapt tiger-stripe outfits worn by Vietnamese special forces. In subsequent decades, the U.S. played with a variety of camo styles, yet always tended to founder a bit on these competing and initially exclusive aims: do you want a soldier to blend in with his background, or do you want to disrupt his shape? Do you want your camo to work best when he is concealed and still, or function better when he’s in motion?

SEAL desert pattern.

Computer-aided design eventually squared this circle by creating digital patterns that achieve both ends, with blots of pixels that function on both a micro and a macro scale, which can seemingly blend with vegetation if a viewer is close, but also suggest shapes that break up the human form if seen at a distance. (One example of this is OptiFade, developed for W. L. Gore; another is modern Flecktarn, an advanced iteration of a WWII German commando pattern.)

Go cheap, but well-considered –

If you hope to bolster invisibility by adding the superficial camo of clothing, which items, plucked from a spectrum of outfits in sport catalogs and Army/Navy surplus stores, should you acquire? Well first, toss out any idea that the fancier and pricier stuff is, the better it works. You seek to hide from animals, not people, and most animal vision is just not acute enough to make camo that slavishly renders the shape of every twig all that useful. To a deer, that stuff is just a confused blob (might help you fool a keen-eyed wild turkey, though).

What I do, besides wear the drab shirt and pants, and brimmed camo hat and drab fingerless gloves, is add a field jacket either in a classic U.S. Army woodland pattern (with four colors: sand, brown, green, and black) from the 1980s, or a modern digital pattern jacket. The woodland coat I use amid bright light, from late morning onwards; the digital at twilight or in foggy situations.

But again, camo garments are mere aids, and do not provide us with a deep answer to the question, how does one fit into the wild world? For that, let us return to our first topic, stillness, and take up its manifestation in a fresh venue: the human brain.

Words from a poet of the wild –

Gary Snyder won renown as a Pulitzer prize-winning “Beat” poet. I prefer to think of him as a laureate of wild zones of the Pacific Northwest, since nature herself remained Snyder’s constant muse, as well as his dominant theme. I also admire his role as a cultural pioneer who brought an understanding of Zen to the U.S. (he studied in Japanese zendos for more than a decade). I’ve chatted with Snyder off-and-on since the 1970s, and felt intrigued when he said he thought the practice of hunting was at the root of all meditation.

Peace-loving Buddhists tend to go off their rockers when they hear an idea like this, since “ahimsa” (the spiritual rubric of trying to do no harm to any sentient being) leads directly to their First Precept: Take no life. However, I lean toward Snyder’s more nuanced view. He notes that, “It’s better to be a lousy Buddhist, than no kind of Buddhist at all.” He has deeply studied the web of life in which we’re all enmeshed, and perceives Indra’s Net: a living, densely woven mandala with a naturally enlightened being at every node.

Energy and wisdom and organic molecules remain in flux from one node to the next. It is all union, and the sacrament of eating is communion, within and throughout existence.

And I also ponder the tumult within my own bloodstream, where macrophages (white blood cells) constantly function as semi-autonomous hunters, tracking down, absorbing and slaying invasive microbes (sentient beings in their own right). In fact, if I, as well as every vegan, did not have such violence occur within us regularly, we might have an immune deficiency syndrome making us feel ill, right up to a point when we rather messily expired.

I prefer to translate the First Precept this way: Do no wanton harm.

Snyder summarizes this approach by quoting a T’ang dynasty Zen master, Hsiang-yen, to make a title for a poem in his “Turtle Island” collection: “One should not talk to a skilled hunter about what is forbidden by the Buddha.”

Mind of the hunter –

When I raise my rifle to take a shot, I wish to be in a state of mental calm, physical relaxation, and emotional confidence. That helps ensure the animal will drop as if struck by a thunderbolt, and so will experience minimal suffering.

One does not achieve such tranquility by accident. It must be fostered through your whole outing. You must begin to establish it long before setting out.

It’s easiest to achieve poise in “still” hunting, where one takes up a concealed position near a game trail and awaits the animal’s approach. Yet even such an ambush-style hunt can be ruined if the mind is not silent, if the hunter allows boredom to strike, and lets “busy-brain” thoughts intrude to overwhelm input from the senses. I.e., “Did I pay the utilities bill… What the hell is that weird noise in my truck engine… Are my daughter and her boyfriend having sex yet?… What did my boss mean when she told me…” etc., etc.

The sole way to do this effectively is to empty the mind of ego-focus and personal thought, and to allow sensual awareness of the wild world to take its place. And just sit with that. Stillness will finally grow past being able to hear yourself think. Your mind can flow on into being able to hear yourself not-think.

One should not even nurse a desire for game to appear, because, as T.S. Eliot puts it, “To hope would be hope for the wrong thing” – which can induce impatience and give you the jitters. Of course, nobody is able dwell continuously in a state like this upon the first outing, so plan to try it out as a mental respiration. Then whenever you catch yourself fretting, take a deep breath and return to emptiness. As you do, you’ll find that calling a nest built for hunter concealment a “blind” is a misnomer. Really, it should be named a “see,” since you’ll find yourself able to observe, and smell, and hear – and intuit – far more than before.

It grows more interesting if you take this act out on the road, by which of course, I mean a trail. Then you must try to maintain a state of clarity and calm and openness to the world as you move. We’ve already covered many techniques for moving through the woods with minimal disturbance, so I shall not bother you with a re-cap.
However, I will add one.

Enter the stalking game –

Once you and an animal notice each other, a psychic chess match is initiated. To keep the game afoot, don’t act like a typical human, and beyond that, definitely don’t act like a predator. Prey species are keen readers of body language. To convince them to hang around, you need to shape your messaging.

How? Number one, don’t “startle” or jerk in surprise or too-avid interest if you spot an animal. Instead, perform what I call a “soft freeze,” and let yourself glide to a halt. For two, don’t stare at them, but regard them fleetingly from the corners of your eyes. Acknowledge their presence, yet also scan around, as though you might be a prey animal yourself, and also on the lookout for predators. This is a policy of many flock or herd animals; they strive to maintain joint watch. Act this way, and you might score an encounter such as this…

A setting sun sent amber light through trees on the hill, and painted a broad swatch of gold-leaf on a hidden meadow. A large buck was grazing there. He did not scent me due to the upcanyon wind, yet had heard me coming. Since my footfalls were tentative and slow, similar to those of a wandering deer, the buck was curious about me rather than alarmed. Once we had each other in view, I reacted as described above. In addition, I bent over and plucked at the ground as if browsing. I’d move a few steps, browse, move a few more. I took a line tangential to the buck’s position, did not head straight at him.

I acknowledged him with a few glances, but clearly showed that I planned to quietly shuffle on by. He continued to graze, sometimes put up his head and chewed away with grass fibers hanging from his chin as he looked me over, once lifted a rear hoof and scratched his belly with it. I climbed slowly over a strand of rusty barbed wire, and got within 30 feet of him.

He was a magnificent animal, with a tall rack of branching antlers, a deep chest, well-muscled haunches. His tawny hide seemed to glow in the late evening light.

I wondered how he’d react after I moved completely past him, when he’d get hit by my scent. As I did so, I watched him glance back over his shoulder, but otherwise, he calmly continued to graze. I’d already demonstrated that I was focused on going someplace else, and was no threat – I was only another animal, out for a stroll. Yes, perhaps I did reek of humanity, but it wasn’t a deal-breaker.

My Winchester remained slung over my shoulder. I had been out for a walk in the woods just a few days before deer-hunting season, to enjoy a bit of a scout. Well then, after the season got underway, I never so much as got a glimpse of that grand buck again. Which was perfectly fine with me. Bathed in all that sublime, J. M. W. Turner light, he stands there yet, still and proud, in my vivid recollection. And actually, I’d much rather visit him in that mental space, than see his untenanted skull and antlers hung up on anyone’s wall. Including my own.

Orwell’s Last Resort

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Optimistic subtext in 1984

A literary pilgrimage can be rather fraught. One might journey to a famed writer’s studio or home, only to make a utterly unwished discovery – something that will diminish an author or his (her) work. But still worse, what if you gain zero insight – and the entire effort your trip required seems a waste?

A trek I made to George Orwell’s final writing retreat, on the wild isle of Jura, off Scotland’s west coast, fortunately resulted in no such debacle. Instead, I rambled into a scene of startling natural beauty, one providing some clues to messages of hope buried within Orwell’s dark and dystopic masterwork, 1984.

If you’ve not re-read 1984 recently, don’t worry! Present world news still invokes all its principal themes. Orwell envisioned a grim earth shrouded in three totalitarian governments, all perpetually at war against each other, with their benighted populations held in subjugation by a ceaseless flood of disinformation, comprehensive political oppression, as well as grinding poverty.

I’ve always been greatly impressed by Orwell – his biography, his general oeuvre, and 1984 in particular – ever since I first became familiar with them. So, my trip to Barnhill on the isle of Jura was indeed pilgrimage, as well as a sort of literary investigation. I’d sensed a deeply buried subtext in 1984, a suggestion the world it described was not quite as bleak as it initially seemed. I’d never been able to put my finger on how or why I felt this.

With our guides – descendants of the Fletcher family who had rented the country estate to Orwell – my wife and I rumbled in a Land Rover over the last miles of boggy track that led to the north end of Jura. Off in the distance, we saw a white stone farmhouse nestled in isolated splendor, in a lush valley that opens to a sweeping view of the blue sea between Jura and the Kintyre Peninsula. Soon, I would stand at a window in the centuries-old farmhouse, gazing out upon a vista that greeted Orwell’s eyes whenever he happened to glance up from his desk. It was captivating to think of him sitting in that exact spot, seven decades before.

A long, winding road led Orwell to a room in this rustic house.

Of course, he was not George Orwell at the beginning. The boy was born Eric Arthur Blair, in 1903, in Motihari India. His father worked in the Opium Department of the British Raj, so young Eric had an early education in the abuse of power. England fought two wars to ensure that a great many Chinese customers would stay addicted and craving copious supplies of a “special product.” By the early 20th Century, Queen Victoria and her successor King Edward VII could’ve laid strong claim to fame as our globe’s leading drug lords – had they lusted for such a reputation.

Eric Blair attended college at Eton, but by 1922 was back East in Burma, as an officer with the Imperial Police. Finally, the writer in him – and the political theorist – began to stir. One of his first pieces, A Hanging, published in The Adelphi quarterly in 1931, told of the death of a poor Hindu – one of 70 hangings performed yearly to keep the Burmese in line. As that man went to his death, Blair saw him leap to one side to avoid wetting his feet in a puddle.

Until that moment, he wrote, “I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man … I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting life short when it is in full tide.”

He launched into a lifelong devotion to the causes of the working poor and underclasses. Books like Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier firmly established this egalitarian mission. And Homage to Catalonia revealed that he himself was unafraid to put more than a literary life on the line. That book recounts how, in 1936, he went to fight in Spain against Franco on behalf of the anarchists and socialists – and survived being struck in the throat by a fascist bullet.

By then, Eric Blair had split the difference on a writer’s quest for success and renown and his own instinctive suspicion of fame. He picked out the nomme de plume George Orwell, as a “good round English name” – that could keep the public from “working magic” on him by knowing his true identity. Amid the war years, he worked for the BBC, making him an astute analyst of propagandists on both sides. He and his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, adopted a child, Richard.

Wildly woolly sheep are prominent denizens of the Hebrides Islands, like this rampantly rambunctious ram.

But 1945 bestowed upon Orwell both tragedy and triumph. Eileen died during surgery. However in that same year Animal Farm got published, and to rave reviews. This pithy novella combined Orwell’s sentiment for animals (he was an unabashed Beatrix Potter buff) with a stinging critique of political manipulation and mendacity. It brought him substantial acclaim, a robust income that he dubbed, “faery gold.” Renown made him flee off to Jura, into the bargain.

Then as now, Jura’s north was about the most remote area in all of the Hebrides. For Orwell, getting out there from London was an ordeal that involved linking a medley of trains, boats and taxis, then making a hike of five miles up a frail and boggy track to reach an old farmhouse he rented from the Fletchers. After moving out to Barnhill in 1946, Orwell used a motorbike to cover that last bit. It often broke down; locals would commonly see him on the side of the road, poking at its innards with a screwdriver.

In modern times, one can either take a ferry over from ports in Scotland or a commuter flight from Glasgow. In both cases, you should first make landfall on Islay, the island just to the south of Jura, which boasts a half-dozen towns, many lovely B&B inns, and – as an added incentive to visit – eight of Scotland’s top single-malt distilleries.

Islay also has car rental agencies near its tiny airfield. To get to Barnhill, drive your car north past Loch Finlaggan (seat of the ancient Lords of the Isles, back when the Hebrides were a separate kingdom, around 1400 A.D.) to the ferry terminal at Port Askaig, then cruise across the narrow strait to Jura.

Next you drive upon a long and winding single lane (oft shared with livestock), past the looming Paps of Jura – a pair of tall quartzite peaks. After nine miles, you come to the village of Craighouse, holding Jura’s sole hotel, single pub, solitary distillery

Distant Jura, as seen from a summit on Islay.

and only store. Twenty-one more miles brings you to the pavement’s end. Here, you can either park and hike out to Barnhill, or do what we did, hire relatives of the Fletcher family (Kate Johnson and her charming teenage daughter, Kirsty) to take us in a four-wheel drive SUV the rest of the way.

This last stretch makes you appreciate the isle of Jura as Scotland’s best wilderness – home to 5,000 red deer, but just 170 people. Our rig meandered over heather-clad hills (don’t call them “moors,” as that’s an English term) and rumbled over logs laid atop soggy peat bogs, to eventually deliver us to Barnhill’s splendid views.

Orwell didn’t trek out here just to achieve aesthetic distance from the big city bustle, but also to make highly productive use of his remaining time. In 1935, he had been diagnosed with a fibroid form of tuberculosis, a condition that progressively worsened. It wasn’t helped by long hours spent conjuring up bleak visions of 1984, as he puffed hand-rolled cigarettes of black shag tobacco.

The protagonist of 1984 is Winston Smith, age 39, a peon paid to distort reality in the oppressive government’s Ministry of Truth, dominated by now-famed slogans such as: War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength, and Freedom is Slavery. Smith tries to hide his infinitesimal spasms of rebellion from Thought Police, and takes scant comfort in oily gulps of Victory Gin. Then a rare dose of light comes via an unlikely romance with the feisty Julia. A core tragedy of the story is, after Julia and Winston have their hearts and wills crushed by Inner Party leader O’Brien, they wind up betraying each other.

Kate Johnson and her daughter Kirsty, descendants of the Fletcher family that rented to Orwell, guided me to Barnhill.

Well then, where’s any ray of hope? A first bit of it appears in the sheer resilience of the “proles” – or proletariat. These commoners might reel about, their simple minds engorged on jingoism, tawdry pornography and paltry pop tunes. But, “The proles had stayed human. They had not become hardened inside. They had held onto the primitive emotions, which he himself (Smith) had to relearn by conscious effort.”

I believe that description somewhat reflects Orwell’s time spent amongst the workers in Spain. “I had dropped more or less by chance into the only community of any size in Western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites,” Orwell wrote, in Homage to Catalonia.

“One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality.”

There’s yet another optimistic clue in 1984’s appendix. Orwell dissects Newspeak, the language of oppression, designed to destroy the tools of independent thought. Interestingly Orwell describes Newspeak as a past tense phenomenon – which was surely no mistake for such a meticulous wordsmith. In this manner, he suggests that, by the time his manuscript is being written, Newspeak’s already faded into history.

Red deer – resembling American elk – far outnumber human residents of wild Jura in the Hebrides Islands.

However, by far the most durable hope in his book derives from that grand natural beauty he saw pour into his upstairs window at Barnhill, whenever he happened to glance up from his work-in-progress.

Winston Smith scores a fleeting escape from the Party in 1984 as Julia lures him to travel out beyond Paddington Station to a forest-fringed field. It’s the Golden Country, otherwise existing solely in Winston’s dreams. Here he finds sweet air, singing thrushes, flowering bluebells, and – however briefly – a bold and beautiful girl in his arms.

That idyll passes, and Winston and Julia indeed are destroyed by the Party. But in his fullest vision, genuine nature endures beyond the Party’s corrosive grasp, out beyond all those gray and grim urban streets. And there it remains ready for the delectation and nurture of other Winstons, other Julias, until, as Orwell implies, the Party and its system can be overthrown. Or at very least, succeeded by something else…

After he finished the novel, Orwell went in and out of hospitals in England (mostly in) until he passed away in 1950. He hoped to the very end he could make it back to his favorite refuge.

The old stone farmhouse at Barnhill on Jura. Orwell wrote at a desk behind the window of the upper left-hand gable on the second floor.

Barnhill on Jura is where a talented writer planted fruit trees he would not live to harvest and roses he would never see bloom. Yet here, he could look out upon tumbling, brushy fields, alive with birds, the sweeping arc of the rocky cove, and beyond, a blue, breeze-swept seascape. That brief refuge of the would-be hero Winston Smith was Orwell’s also – and could be ours.

By adroitly placing this spot of bright Yin in a large and muddy puddle of Yang, by providing a few bright counterpoints to contrast with his dark themes, the author managed to provide us with a lesson in literary art, as well as invoke a durable if hidden wellspring of hope for us to visit amid dark times.

Which is why, in our present era, when a living earth and our shared nature undergo determined and unfeeling assaults far beyond anything ever experienced before, preservation of their vibrant health for sake of our conjoined futures should be a grand, overarching value for us all.

“The birds sang, the proles sang, the Party did not sing,” Orwell wrote.

Archives: First Ascent of Mount Trashmore

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Mt. Trashmore reverses that ancient poet’s line. Here, mice labored to give birth to a mountain.

That was among my last lucid perceptions as I struggled upward through a methane miasma. Up here, at elevations above 100 feet, consciousness itself became mighty Trashmore’s chew toy.

Strands of coarse crass coiled like snakes around my ankles. Jagged pebbles slipped into my sandals. Nevertheless, an awestruck wonder grew in my mind. After all, I was amid throes of an epic quest: the first solo ascent of the highest peak in the continental U. S. (south of Miami).

Before I charged for the peak, I’d been forced to wait out the capricious South Florida monsoon. I’d grown a bit cranky, watching my jalousie of opportunity slowly open, only to slam shut before I could swing out of my lawn hammock.

Now, all those besotted hours of waiting were over. The supreme physical challenge had begun. I should emphasize that the mountain I had challenged was none of the Almighty’s handiwork. Men had reared this peak against the heavens! With a foundation laid in the 1980s, by 1992, Trashmore already comprised a heap of some eight million tons of festering garbage. The good people of South Florida charged determinedly into the task of erecting a monument as emblematic of our culture as the Cheops pyramid is of that antique empire of the pharaohs.

The erection of Mount Trashmore is based upon stats that far surpass ordinary American excreta. In the U.S., each person, on average, daily generates about 3.5 pounds of garbage. The folks in Florida, demonstrating a clear sense of mission, more than double this figure. They produce fully 8 pounds of trash, per person, per day. Much of that product gets heaped on Trashmore – or other “vertical landfills” – to bring badly needed relief to the formerly boringly level South Florida horizon line.

Sadly, some of their waste does get, well, wasted, by being burned up in giant incinerators. And so, this refuse merely fumigates the landscape, instead of adding to more lasting monuments to excess, like this fine, pyramidal dump.

Trashmore and her sister peaks did score a literal windfall from Hurricane Andrew’s exertions, in late 1992. Doubtless, you’ve seen the video footage. Thousands of poorly designed, inadequately inspected and shoddily built homes went whiffff! under the sledgehammer blows of a storm any freshman student of meteorology could have predicted would sooner or later occur.

But Trashmore is much more than a convenient place to stash disassembled trailer parks and substandard housing. It speaks to me of man’s lust to re-make the earth in his own image. Culturally, it has even more significance than the gambling chip midden hidden outside the Vatican’s rear windows. Aesthetically, once the trash is frosted with dirt and planted with brush, it will our answer to the hanging gardens that once bloomed on Nebuchadenazzer’s ziggurats.

Such musings, fueled by my panting breaths of methane and ammonia (spiked with the odd passing zephyr of oxygen) heaved through my feverish brain as I stumbled up Trashmore. I was just beginning to realize that these slopes could be a prime spot for astronauts to train for manned missions to the moons of Uranus, when my attention was seized by a clumsy rustling in a wilted clump of coarse weeds just before me.

Could it be…? Yes! I thrust myself through the noisome vegetation to see scores of the legendary garuda birds flapping about on an exposed seam of that unique Trashmore formation, ordurite. The foul fowl gaped at me – perhaps the first human to ever invade their sacred domain. They stretched out long, naked necks, clacked their dripping beaks, waddled, then  launched themselves into the choking air. Some of the lowlanders mis-represent these grand garudas as a species of buzzard or vulture. But they’ve likely never seen them soar, free and glorious, at the epicenter of their habitat.

Before me now, for an awe-inspiring moment, one blotted out the dim sun. Surrounded by its streaming rays, he was almost heraldic, with a maggot-riddled mullet clenched in his right talon, a crumpled tract of abandoned political promises in his left.

In days of yore, Florida’s skies were clotted with lesser birds, such as roseate spoonbills, egrets, wood storks, and other feathered water lovers winging in and out of the Everglades. However, the wetlands, clean water flows and natural foods needed by them dwindled, while supplies of rotting roadkill and garbage rose spectacularly. And so, the songbirds, waterbirds, woodpeckers and such were forced to move on, and these mighty garudas came to rule the skies.

I spun around, to wave my arms and share my joy at this moment of grand discovery with my support crew, waiting down out our Base Winnebago.  However, even at the immense distance of at least a quarter-mile, I was able to see that no one stood watch on the other side of the barrier fence, at our tripod-mounted spotting scope. Then it was that I knew that succeeding at this adventure-of- a- lifetime would depend entirely upon my own skills, penetrating vision and bold decision-making.

Then a happy thought came. Perhaps my support crew had simply strolled away for a moment to bob baits in the torpid stream we called Miasma Creek – which the locals know as “The River of the Three-Eyed Fish.” This dank rivulet meanders around – not the foothills, since there are none – but the ingrown toenails of Trashmore.

An unsung attribute of Trashmore is that this manmade mountain concocts springs and freshets of a type never before seen on the face of the earth. Juices deep within this gargantuan heap, by methods arcane, slowly ooze together, blending into a noxious stew. This cocktail of ammonia-laden leachate is collected in a system of interior drains cleverly linked by the mountain’s builders, then mixed with sewage donated by generous local communities.

The resulting witch’s brew is then deep-well injected into salt caverns 3,200 feet below Florida’s limestone layer. It is unknown at present if these caves have any outlets that leak out to the sea, or upward, into the state’s freshwater aquifer. Even if it lies dormant for a long while, the potent broth obviously provides a rich legacy, an awesomely abundant offering for the delectation of future generations.

Smiling at the thought that my loyal support crew was even now likely trying to harpoon my victory dinner in the bubbling waters of Miasma Creek, I plodded onward, ever upward. Distant though it might be, I could say in no uncertain terms that I had begun to smell the summit.

I must allow, I did experience some difficulty at the headwall, where Mallomar and Irving had last been glimpsed by their basecamp observers shortly before they vanished forever into the Trashmore fastness, leaving behind nary a trace of their ultimate fate. Lurching up over this obstacle, I stubbed my toe against some rusty oxygen tanks, and needed to sweep them and broken camera out of my way with the Batso Mallet. Then I got this crucial tool all tangled up in a rotten Aloha shirt wrapped around a heap of bones. But eventually, I was free to resume the ascent.

One step. Two steps. Skip once, hop on both feet, skip and stop. I repeated this mind-numbing rhythm over and over. Over and over. Over and over. Over and over. The ultimate mountaineer must respond to each new challenge with some creative movement. It is only because of our superior mental and physical gifts that we are able to tread upon such lofty and sacred sites, places in which the great, coagulated mass of humanity remains utterly uninterested.

Finally, at last, in far more time than it takes to tell it, I was there! Mirabile dictu. I had no more steps to take. I teetered upon the very pinnacle of Trashmore! Tears of ersatz ecstasy spurted from my eyes. Oh, how my mates had all sneered when I had announced this project, calling me only a sport-climbing gym rat. Well, they’d be laughing out of the other side of their snouts now, with a climb like this to my credit!

A solo first ascent of Trashmore, by its feared diretissima, would ‘scribe my name in glory, far above peak baggers with mere bagatelles to their credit – such as taking K-2, Makalu and Desilu in a single weekend, the Himalaya’s Triple Crown. Let others brag about their skill on verglass-sheathed rock, jumbled glacial seracs and overhanging ice. My abilities on crushed plastic, crumpled cans and wet newspaper had been proven supreme.

Through a beige, murky smaze to the north, I could now make out the fabled Miami skyline, now slightly eroded by impact from small arms fire and rocket grenades after the death of Mayor Sonny Crockett. Off to the south, Turkey Point Nuclear Power Plant reared up the mighty phalli of its cooling towers.

I contemplated the magnificent landscape we are bequeathing to following generations.

“Someday,” I murmured, “all of this will be yours. Whether you want it, or not!”

I whipped out a notebook to record the moment, and jot down a panegyric to the mountain of refuse that bulked beneath my feet.

“O Mighty Trashmore – thou art the art of man above nature. It is magnificent that a peak should be so speedily erected where none stood before. In more benighted locales, people may purblindly seek to minimize trash, to remove and conceal it. Here, it’s potential is unleashed!

“In areas like Everest, misguided mountaineers sometimes organize expeditions to police litter. Fools! Can’t they see how the Himalaya’s paltry tectonic upthrust of a few annual centimeters could be wondrously enhanced? All they need do to seize the opportunity is pack all that trash on up to the summit, then stack it there!

“Today’s waste can form the building blocks of Tomorrowland. Some Florida eco-freaks insist on seeing Trashmore shackled to a height of no more than 250 feet. But I say, ‘Set Trashmore free!’ Bring in truckloads of refuse from neighboring states! Import it by garbage barge from around the world get Trashmore up above 12,500 feet – and then install ski lifts! In southern Florida! Can’t you just see it?

“And we need not stop there. The Appalachians for instance – now poor, worn-down, stunted hills, could serve as the foundation for a new crest of peaks far mightier than any that stood here in geologic history.

“Coming generations would simply reel at this achievement. Indeed, we can feel certain that, with epic monuments to our way of life like Mount Trashmore to our credit, they will never, ever forget us. Forgiveness, of course, might be another matter.

Archives: The Plane That Won The War

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Four roaring engines on the bomber’s silver wings vibrated the air above the tarmac, and the B-17 began to glide forward. Behind the plane’s Plexiglas nose dome, a tall man sat straight and proud in the bombardier’s chair.

This was Colonel John C. “Red” Morgan, awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor in 1943 after his plane was shot up by German fighters. That day he was forced to hold off his wounded and crazed pilot with one hand while he flew the plane all the way in to the target and part way back, until another surviving crew member could enter the cockpit and relieve the situation.

A few months later, shot down over Berlin, Morgan was blown into the sky as his plane exploded. The order to bail out had come just seconds before; holding under one arm the parachute he’d barely managed to snag, Morgan fell 20,000 feet before he could clip it into place and yank the ripcord – only to float down into the hands of a German flak crew and be taken prisoner.

But here he was, going up again. Many things had changed since that raid on Berlin. Red Morgan’s flaming shock of red hair had turned white. His B-17 was not taxiing past other prop-driven warplanes, but sleek modern jets. And he wasn’t launching into a hazardous sorty, but a flight of celebration. Morgan was one of a swarm of World War II aviation vets who had descended on Seattle’s Boeing Field for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first flight of the B-17.

Mount Rainier’s snow-clad watched, silent and gleaming in the near distance, just as it had back in 1935, when the B-17 prototype – Boeing Model No. 299, the largest land plane in the United States at the time – lifted off from this very field to make a record, 2100-mile nonstop flight at over 250 mph to Wright Field in Ohio. By doing so, it won a U.S. Army competition for a new bomber.

Once in production, the B-17, nicknamed the Flying Fortress, was mated with crews of citizen soldiers from across America. Those flights went to Europe in 1942 as an initial wave of direct American involvement in the struggle to defeat Hitler’s Germany. By several accounts, it was the single most important wave. The B-17, more than any other weapon, was responsible for the defeat of the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe. This victory made possible all other Allied successes on the European fronts.

As might be imagined, the Luftwaffe did not go gently into that good night. The first formations of B-17s were flung against the Third Reich at the zenith of its power. It is a tribute to the design strength of the B-17s and the courage of their youthful crews (their average age was 20) that their missions ultimately succeeded so well.

“I had been hauling logs in the woods of Oregon,” said Mickey Foster, who was with Red Morgan during the 8th Army Air Force’s most harrowing days, “Well, Uncle Sam decided I was going to take up field artillery, instead. I was drafted in early ’41. Although the situation looked bad, I didn’t figure on being in a war. Then the Japs hit Pearl Harbor, and it looked as if I was going to be in a war for a good long while.

“I didn’t want to be stuck with the foot soldiers. So I took an exam to enter training in aviation. I wanted to get into fighters, but they made a mistake on my orders and sent me to multi-engine school instead. Then I went on to ‘B-17 Transition’ in Washington, where we hooked up with our particular crews, and got to know the plane.

“Flying a B-17 was just like driving a big truck. They forgave a lot of mistakes. They were easy to land as a Piper Cub, and you could even fly them on two engines. Once I got to know the planes, I felt a little reassured.”

The British did not feel reassured. Twenty of the first B-17s built were rushed to England for use by the Royal Air Force; eight were promptly lost. B-17s, designed as precision daylight bombers, did not fit well with British tactical concepts. The Brits had seen Germans fail at daylight bombing in the Battle of Britain, and they failed at it now themselves, over occupied Europe. They decided they preferred night raids, which hampered anti-aircraft fire and Luftwaffe fighter retaliation. The British urged America to abandon B-17s and begin production of their own Lancaster night bombers.

The U.S. Navy men weighed in with their own objections: They thought American production should be devoted to heavy cargo planes, for ferrying supplies to Navy ships and bases. But believers in the potential of the Flying Fortress prevailed, and production of B-17 planes and crews proceeded at a mounting pace.

“B-17 school is where I met old Pop Nicol,” Foster remembered, “our tail-gunner – who wound up being my best friend in the crew. He was a tough customer, a coal miner in his middle 30s with a wife and five kids. One day he told his wife he was heading down to find work at the Baltimore shipyards. Next thing she heard, he’d enlisted and signed on as a gunner for B-17s. I think Pop knew things were breaking loose, and he wanted some of the excitement. Well, by God, he got it!

“One time during training I buzzed a tugboat on the Columbia River. Came up on him from behind, so he couldn’t see us. The captain had a little pilot house right up on top, and when I got about 10 feet over his head I changed the pitch on all four props, which made a helluva thundering racket.

“Well, Pop was watching from his turret, and he said that guy came running out so mad he couldn’t see straight, just waving his fists and dancing around. Must’ve scared the damn daylights right out of him.

“Now, that was a stupid thing for me to do. What made it seem especially stupid was a cable I suddenly saw strung across the river. I barely managed to dive the plane under it! But all of our pranking around did some good; it showed us what the plane could do, and helped build the morale we were going to need later. We didn’t know it at the time, but one of the secrets of getting back from missions was having a crew that really knew how to pull together.”

Part of the plane’s mythology was that a bombardier using the B-17’s new Norden sight could drop a bomb “straight down a pickle barrel” from 20,000 feet. Actually, on a level and steady practice run, a bombardier at that altitude who hit within 300 yards of the barrel might consider himself a pretty fair shot. But the crews who began to ferry planes overseas soon found the British had been absolutely correct about one thing: It was hard to take a good shot in broad daylight, when you could see everyone trying to take a good shot at you.

After the Luftwaffe’s severe losses to RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain, the German air force received a flood of new aircraft, thanks to Reich procurement maestro Albert Speer. By August of ’43, air superiority over Europe began to revert to the Nazis.

Of all the Luftwaffe fighter planes, the most formidable and feared was the “Wurger,” or “Butcher-Bird,” the Focke-Wulf 190. Attacking a flight of B-17s head-on, an aggressively piloted FW-190 could close at a combined speed of 500 mpg, firing from 20mm cannons and .30 caliber machine guns. In the last nerve-wracking moments before collision, the Nazi fighters would then break off in a sudden half-roll or dive.

“You never knew where they would come up to meet you,” said Foster. “Sometimes they’d fight you going in, sometimes coming out. On December 5 of ’43, we went in to bomb their aircraft assembly plant at Bordeaux, and they hit us both ways and shot us all to hell.

“These were the guys we called the Abbeville Kids – Hermann Goering’s personal squadron. Their planes all had the noses painted bright yellow. The Kids were dedicated professionals. I forget how many B-17s we lost that day – something like 40 – and I never did see one of their fighters go down. They came in from the front, barrel-rolling straight through the formation to spray their bullets around and make themselves harder for our gunners to hit.

“One smart aleck came in from behind – just slipped in between me and my right wingman, so neither of our gunners could fire at him. That’s when I fired my only shot of the whole damn war, with a Very pistol that was set in the roof of the cabin. I reached up and triggered it, shooting a green flare right past him. He veered right, put a burst into the next plane’s number three engine, rolled over and slid away without any of us getting another shot at him. Slick. They knew what they were doing.

“But we made it in to drop our bombs, even though I almost got my balls shot off. I was taking evasive action, and pulled up just as a shell drilled right through the front of my seat. It kept going into the next compartment, hit the oxygen bottles and blew up the plywood floorboards. I had my leather jacket on, and it blew a load of slivers into it, but they didn’t draw any blood, so I never got a Purple Heart. In fact, just one crewman was hurt – a guy who had a finger shot away.

“The plane was absolutely riddled. One engine was shot completely off the wing, another had its turbocharger shot out. Our oxygen was gone, the radios were shot up and the ball turret gunner could see holes in the landing gear nacelles. After the bomb run, we couldn’t maintain altitude; we had to drop back out of formation and fly home alone. Which was especially dangerous, because the Luftwaffe just swarmed all over stragglers . . . and we’d already run out of ammo. Even though we’d regularly bribed an armaments sergeant to give us twice the usual requisition of machine-gun rounds.

“Finally we limped back across the English Channel, only to find out our IFF (Identification: Friend-or-Foe) signal wasn’t broadcasting. All the anti-aircraft guns on the English coast started to fire up at us. That made us change our minds and head back out to sea. We were finally able to get a dinky short-range radio working, the Darky radio, and call off the English gunners. But by then, we were out of gas. Had to make an emergency landing at a P-38 small fighter plane field. We had no flaps left, and flat tires on one side of the landing gear. So when we touched down, me and the pilot stood on the brakes for the other side. But we still swerved, left the runway and plowed into the mud. We’d made it, but our ground crew sure had a mess of patching up to do on the plane.”

Myasam Dragon , Foster’s ship, had her name and a flame-spouting logo prominently displayed on her nose. Most B-17 crews regarded their planes with affection, even endowed them with aspects of personality. Structural strength had been wisely distributed throughout the semi-monocoque fuselage. The plane seemed to have a mystic ability to sustain incredible damage and still bring its crew back home. Many of the Dragon ‘s flying companions were also given names infused with punny humor and a certain rowdy romanticism: Phartzac , Vertical Shaft , Damdifino and, of course, the Memphis Belle , the first bomber to complete all her missions. In 1943, this was something of an accomplishment. Fewer than one B-17 in five managed to complete all 25 missions.

Most ships went down before they had flown 10 missions – before their crews got savvy. Many others returned so riddled with flak and gunfire they could never fly again. These became anonymous “Hangar Queens,” bequeathing their parts to those still airworthy. The big problem with keeping ’em flying was that long-range escorts had not yet been effectively developed. When the cover of Spitfires and P-38s fighters bade farewell to a flight of B-17s at the edge of the continent, the bombers had to go on by themselves, huddling together in tight formations to maximize protection from their own .50 caliber guns. They flew on into the teeth of a German fighter force that had started to realize that its own airfield and production facilities were the 8th Air Force’s main target.

The Third Reich was beginning to reap what it had sown.

Traveling to London on leave, Foster could see all around him the fantastic devastation wrought by Luftwaffe bombs during the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz. The Germans still managed to pull off occasional raids.

But the reason for go on leave was to relieve tension, not acquire it. This was accomplished by touring pubs, not bombed-out Allied buildings. Unwinding in the pubs a bit also gave the crews a chance to get to know each other better.

“Out of all our bomb group’s tail-gunners, old Pop was the best,” said Foster. “He never got excited or rattled; in fact, he helped the rest of us stay cool. Actually, Pop might’ve been a little too cool. He liked to drink, and one night we got him pretty well oiled in a London pub and he said, `You know, Mick, I kind of fool those Jerries when they’re coming at us.’ I said, `How do you do that, Pop?’ He said, `Well, I just sort of wink one gun at ’em, to make ’em think my guns are jammed. Then I just wait until they come up close, and really let ’em have it.’ I hit the ceiling. `You SOB,’ I yelled. `You better start hosing those bastards down with both guns while they’re still out there!’ ”

After the pub crawls came the long trip back to the chilly Nissen huts at Bury St. Edmunds. This lodging Foster described as, “like a big tomato can buried in mud.” It took all the coal a B-17 crew could get by legal means – and then some – to keep the places warm. To keep things interesting, every once in a while, the Luft-waffe managed to pull off a nocturnal revenge raid.

“There was some dame that used to broadcast from over there, like Berlin’s Tokyo Rose,” recalled Foster. “One day, she surprised us by saying that they were going to come over and bomb hell out of the 94th Bomb Group at Bury St. Edmunds. So that night we turned off all the lights in the camp, and turned on this other bunch we’d set up about five miles away. At 9 o’clock, when we heard them come over, I didn’t even bother to get out of bed. Just laid there laughing, listening to them bomb hell out of that set of dummy lights.”

Other, milder sorts of enmity were part of the scene, too. Once, after a local dance, Foster found himself being hoisted in the air and thrown through a plate-glass store-front by five British servicemen who objected to his friendship with a WAAF (a woman in England’s Auxiliary Air Force). The British soldier’s common complaint about Yanks was that they were “overpaid, oversexed and over here.”

Some additional chagrin may have come from the fact that the Americans were starting to succeed with their program of precision daylight bombing of military targets. The RAF had dared a few daylight raids, but most of their bombing effort was nocturnal and directed at the civilian populations of industrial cities, with the goal of “undermining their morale.” This policy reached horrific fruition in the fire-bombings of Hamburg and Dresden. (Dresden, packed with refugees from the Eastern front, saw some 135,000 civilian casualties – more than would later die in Hiroshima.)

Finally, a game-changer showed up. In January of ’44 the first P-51 Mustang escort planes appeared. The Allies at last found themselves with a few fighters that could outperform the best German planes and also escort bombers all the way to their targets. With a vengeance, the 8th Air Force now took the air war to the source of all its troubles: the German heartland.

“If a single enemy bomber ever reaches the Reich,” the rotund commander of the Luftwaffe had once boasted, “my name is not Hermann Goering – you can call me Meier!” In 1944, the air raid sirens that German civilians had sardonically christened “Herr Meier’s hunting horns” were howling all the way from the industrial zone of the Ruhr Valley to the German capital.

But when American bomber crews slipped on oxygen masks and ascended to a battlefield five miles above the earth they had more worries than Luftwaffe squadrons swarming up from airdromes. They also encountered whole thunderstorms of flak, shot into the heavens by gun crews far below. These black, sooty flowers with their cores of glowing red were not as harmless as they looked. Each exploding shell scattered whirling fragments of jagged metal that ripped through wings and hulls; a direct hit could tear a wing or tail section right off. Especially when sticking to a route during final bomb run approaches, gauntlets of flak could not be avoided. They could only be endured.

At times, the very weather seemed an enemy. Since ports had to be kept open for the B-17’s dozen .50 caliber machine guns, the plane fuselages were neither heated nor pressurized. As they soared above 20,000 feet on winter missions, the interior temperature often dropped to 30 to 50 below zero, and exposed metal became coated with frost. Though the men wore electric long johns and fleece-lined flying suits, for every three wounded in combat another four were disabled by frostbite.

In addition, treacherous flying conditions – thick clouds, fog and poor visibility – were commonplace. Such conditions produced collisions on takeoff, failure to find the target or, worst, when returning on a crippled bird with wounded aboard, failure to find the home airfield, a terrifying experience followed by a crash landing or a ditch in the icy North Sea. Sometimes a confusion of logistics or orders amplified all of these dangers.

“On the 11th of January, we took off on our worst mission of the war,” said Foster. “There were supposedly 663 bombers going over after a Messerschmitt factory in Brunswick, and targets in two other towns. The weather was bad, so over the French coast, headquarters issued a recall. Most of the planes turned around and went home. But Thorup, the leader of our flight, said he didn’t hear the confirmation word.

“I radioed him and said I’d heard it, but he didn’t even answer me. He just led us right on to Brunswick, and we had to follow. We were just three squadrons, of about 21 planes each. Our ship was with Thorup’s, in the lead squadron. We ran into flak and fighters on the way in, but we really caught hell over the target.

“What made it worse was that Thorup’s bombardier, the lead bombardier, couldn’t even find the target the first time over. The camouflage had been changed from the way it was described in the briefing. Thorup’s bombardier radioed the change back to the other squadrons, and they hit it OK. But we had to circle and make another pass.

“By then, all the other planes had toggled their bombs and lit out for home. Which made us the stragglers, and for two hours we fought our way out of there against every fighter the Germans could put up – JU-88s, ME-110s, ME-210s – you could see them swarming up from the ground just like ants. If they could’ve put wings on the kitchen sink, they probably would’ve sent that up, too.”

Myasam Dragon trembled from the continuous recoil of her .50 caliber guns, shuddered under the impact of bullets from her foes. Though the plane was riddled, none of her vitals were pierced. Then they saw a plane closing in on them at an impossible speed. It was a twin-engined ME-262, one of the world’s first combat jets and Hitler’s secret weapon for retaining control of the skies.

“Pop was on the intercom,” continued Foster. “He said, `Hey, Mick, there’s some kind oftrange plane back here. Don’t have any propellers. Looks like he’s lining up to shoot something!’ They had rockets under each wing, and they’d lay out beyond range of our guns, aim and fire. But Pop was still cool. He said, `OK, I see smoke . . . he’s fired! It’s coming at us!’ Those 50mm rockets were slower than a bullet, you could see ’em coming in. I yanked up on the wheel, and the rocket went under us and blew up. I didn’t get any hits on that, but Bill Seeley sure did. Had one hit behind his pilot’s chair and put a hole in the plane you could walk through.

“That one, I didn’t think we were going to make it back from. I was puckered up all the way to England. On that mission is when I learned how to pray, even though I’m not a religious man. The formation helped save us. We were in the front, and that time they attacked mostly from the rear. Of our 21 planes, 11 were wiped out from the back V’s. We made it, but there was nearly 300 holes in our ship.

“Seeley’s was the last to limp in, with that huge hole in the cabin, and two engines gone on one wing. Seeley had been a helluva good-looking guy, with bright red hair, but I saw him the next day and his hair was all dingy, like it had been bleached. It just took all the color right out of him.”

On the grounds at Seattle’s Boeing Field on that day in July of 1985, speaker after speaker extolled the strength of the B-17s and the courage of the men who flew them. The chaplain led a prayer for comrades in all the crews who never returned: “They shall remain forever young in our minds and hearts, as we get older.” And thousands of aging vets from the bomber groups stood silently, used fingers to wipe tears away from behind bifocal glasses, put arms around the shoulders of women with tinted hair and hugged them a little closer.

The debacle of Brunswick was only a minor setback in the ongoing pummeling of the “Vaterland.” In late February of ’44 came “Big Week,” six continuous days of raids in which 75 percent of the factories producing 90 percent of the Luftwaffe’s aircraft were destroyed. Shortly after, in early March, came the “Big B” – the first appearance of Flying Fortresses in a major raid on Berlin. It was on this mission that Red Morgan was blown into the sky, and his parachute blossomed over Germany along with hundreds of other white chutes as American crews bailed out of their broken planes.

More than 300 B-17s went down in these raids alone. But American war plane production was turning out 5000 planes a month – including the 16 new B-17s that Seattle’s Boeing plant rolled out each day – and a high count of those nimble Mustangs, fighters that could escort entire missions. And so, yellow German parachutes also began to blossom in unprecedented numbers. The Germans lost 600 fighters during Big Week and Big B. From July to April of 1944, 1000 Luftwaffe pilots were removed from the war, and as these were the most experienced and highly trained, their loss could be ill-afforded.

By D-Day, June 6, General Dwight Eisenhower was able to reassure the Allied invaders, “If you see a plane, it will be ours,” and he was 99.9 percent right. Of the thousands of aircraft over the Normandy beachhead, only two belonged to the Luftwaffe. That pair of FW 190s bravely made a single strafing run, then vanished. Subsequently, throughout Europe, a bitter joke began to make the rounds of the German Army. “If the aircraft you see are camouflaged, they’re British; if silver, American; and if they aren’t there at all, they’re German.”

Escorted flights of B-17s went on to pound other targets, including Axis transportation and oil facilities. But for some, the war in the air could end before the war did. Soon after the epic raids of Big Week and Big B, Mickey Foster found he had survived all 25 of his missions. In early June, he went home.

Rather than fly a “war-weary” back to the States, he opted to sail on an ocean liner, one with soldiers’ initials carved all over its hand-rails, and 24-hour poker games romping along below decks.

Though he returned as a hero to a grateful nation, Foster’s experience reveals that post-traumatic stress was not something invented after Vietnam.

“The war really changed me forever. I didn’t do much flying after I got out; it made me too goddamned nervous. I was offered a job flying for an airline between New York and Miami, but I didn’t feel up to being a pilot, flying with all those lives behind me anymore. Just said the hell with it, I’ll go back to driving a logging truck. If I make a mistake, I can’t kill those logs.

“Shortly after I got back, me and the wife went to a movie in Santa Monica called `The Memphis Belle,’ about the first bomber to finish its missions. Suddenly they cut to a scene where all this damn flak was coming up, so thick you could walk on it. I must’ve still been flak-happy . . . I jumped right to my feet and hollered `Flak! ‘ at the top of my lungs. Christ, I think everybody in the theater turned around in their seats and looked at me.”

Nearly 13,000 B-17s were built. Today, perhaps 10 of those planes, worldwide, remain airworthy. Three of them thundered into Seattle for Boeing’s memorial ceremony. For a few minutes of flight time, Red Morgan got to take the controls of one, the Confederate Air Force’s “Sentimental Journey.” It was the first time he’d been in a B-17 cockpit since he had been shot down over Berlin, 40 years before.

He sat straight and proud for the take-off, and upon landing, he emerged beaming from the nose hatch. “I just died and went to heaven!” he said. “It was amazing, terrific! We loved this plane.” He patted the fuselage. “It still flies as easy as rolling a baby carriage down a sidewalk.”

Well over 100,000 men once flew on B-17 crews.

Approximately 4000 of them and their wives made it up to the celebration in Seattle. They streamed around the vintage planes, touching them, excitedly swapping stories as memories came rushing back. Then, munching upon the fried chicken lunch that Boeing had provided, they went to sit under a sun that bounced bright rays off the distant profile of Mount Rainier.

They heard speeches by Lieutenant General “Moose” Hardin and General Curtis LeMay extolling their bravery and urging them to support the present administration’s arms buildup. As they listened and applauded, the veterans sat among the hulking buildings of Boeing, now a vast corporation with a hand in nearly every major military project in the works, including the B-1 and Stealth bombers, “Star Wars” gear and the MX and Midgetman missiles. From aggregate sales of $493 million at the height of World War II, Boeing’s gross income has soared beyond $10 billion, making it an armaments empire with a social and industrial momentum apparently quite difficult to reverse – unless the country begins paying arms manufacturers not to make weapons, the way it pays farmers not to grow wheat.

“No one who has really seen combat ever wants to see it again,” Red Morgan said. “I think the arms build-up is absolutely essential to prevent a future war. We can’t indulge ourselves in the luxury of waiting until war starts to prepare for it. The reason Hitler got off to such a rolling start is because no one was really ready to stop him.”

Other vets have other ideas about how to prevent another global conflict. Mickey Foster thought it should be obvious that war has become obsolete. If people want to be titillated by war adventures, he said, they can dredge up stories from World War II, not try to re-enact them. Re-enacting them is not possible anyway, he asserted. Instead of fighting man against fighting man, the next war will feature automatic engines of destruction aimed against all the civilian populations of the Earth. The black seeds of destruction sown over London, Dresden and Hiroshima may sprout a sequel incomparably more hideous.

“All that stuff about the joy of battle is horseshit,” said Foster. “We had a job to do – that was it. I was damn glad I could fight the air war rather than the ground war. That was the only point at which gladness came into it.

“Modern war has gotten way past the point of being a sane alternative. What we could do instead is just build a wall. Then, if we have to have a war, we can send all our politicians to the top of the wall, and they can punch each other in the nose. The first side that gets a man knocked off, loses. And that would be it.”

Three Family-Style Sierra Resorts

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Smaller, family-friendly ski resorts offer their own more-affordable charms at Lake Tahoe.

Cross-country skiing reigns at Tahoe-Donner; Soda Springs offers Planet Kids.

Granlibakken has snowplay, sledding and a modest ski slope.

You can’t say that California’s grandest winter resorts score all the media coverage – they just win most of it. Their dramatic terrain often forms a backdrop for the best sport photos and film clips.

Yet smaller, family-friendly venues display a charm of their own. They can be more affordable, offer a more personal touch and provide a less-stressful path into winter fun.

Here are three such resorts in the North Tahoe area.

Fifty years ago, large ranches in California were eyed by developers as sites for residential communities built around a unified theme. One result was rustic Sea Ranch, built along Sonoma County’s rugged coast. Another is Tahoe-Donner, which occupies 7,000 acres of wooded mountains just north of Interstate 80 and the town of Truckee. Completed in the 1970s and now run by its homeowners association, Tahoe-Donner offers some major resort amenities – such as its snow play, downhill and cross-country ski areas.

In February, that latter operation was even chosen among the nation’s 10 best cross-country (or Nordic) ski resorts by readers of USA Today. Tahoe-Donner took third place, right behind spots in Vermont and Wisconsin.

“When the homeowners’ board asked me to run the Nordic center here in 2012,” director Sally Jones told me, “they said they wanted me to make it the world’s best. I thought, ‘Well now, there’s a job I can really sink my teeth into.’”

A Brit with a degree in recreation, Jones went to New Zealand to help launch its first cross-country center, then arrived in the United States to run a center for Auburn Ski Club at nearby Donner Summit for 16 years. Next came her invite from Tahoe-Donner.

Jones soon won a bonus assignment. Some $9 million was slated for infrastructure improvements that included a $6 million new Nordic lodge, which she could help design. The resort’s sprawling Alder Creek Adventure Center opened its doors Nov. 27.

The new lodge is a spacious, dark-wood chalet, with staff quarters on the north end, a gear rental shop, bathrooms and lockers in the south wing, and a large communal space and good cafe at its center.

On Presidents Day weekend, early arrivals flitted away on the groomed tracks on skate-skis (the most modern gear for Nordic skiing). They deployed on the resort’s 62 miles of trail just after sunrise, and I followed them on my Rossignol OT waxless skis, doing a duffer’s diagonal stride (old-school gait). The Tahoe-Donner trail system begins at a flat beginner’s meadow, then opens into a network of forested routes that wriggle a thousand feet up from the lodge (at 6,650 feet) to the Tahoe Rim Trail and the Drifter Hut – one of five warming huts located on the system.

Jones boasts that all ski trails are groomed daily. I did indeed find them formed to perfection. They were garlanded with skate-skiers zooming along on their aerobic workouts, as well as striders like me simply cruising the woods. I visited two huts using easy trails, but felt intrigued by the intermediate and expert routes and the vistas they seemed to offer. Back at the lodge, adults took gentle lessons in the meadows, and a mob of enthusiastic kids enjoyed a beginner class nearby. Tahoe-Donner prides itself on offering lessons for all comers, particularly youths.
My visitor’s verdict was that Tahoe-Donner deserves its high USA Today ranking, and provides a fine venue both for beginners and experts. Day-use passes are: $12 for children ages 7-12, $22 for seniors and teens, and $30 general. Learn-to-skate-or-ski packages on weekends and holidays include a 1.5-hour group lesson, full-day trail pass (8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.) and rental gear.

In addition, the resort’s downhill ski area is just over a mile to the south as the raven flies, offering a 120-acre bald hill with 600 feet of vertical rise, a quad and a double fixed-grip chairlift, and three beginner lifts including a magic carpet. The focus here, again, is creating an excellent place to begin. Ski school director Dave Walker told me they offer group lessons to children as young as 3, and private lessons to any child able to walk. Lifts operate from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily; tickets are $23 for children and seniors, $43 for teenagers, and $49 general.

A new snow play area with tubing, sledding and a food truck lies just a little farther south and is open from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Fridays and from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekends. Entry costs $11 for children and seniors, $16 for teenagers, and $19 general; ages 3 and younger and 70 and older are admitted free.


At the end of a cul-de-sac, in a shaded glen of its own near Tahoe City, lies a compact, 74-acre resort that can be used as a comfy base lodge for exploring the entire region. Alternatively, guests and visitors can enjoy what’s found right here: a sledding and snow-play area, and a modest but well-groomed ski slope with 300 feet of vertical that’s served by a fixed-grip chair and a Poma lift.

There’s a classic log cabin that provides gear rentals, lesson sign-ups and serves Mexican-style lunches. Granlibakken also offers a trailhead for Nordic ski excursions, with 1.5 miles of groomed track that connects to user-skied-in tracks along the Tahoe Rim Trail a few hundred yards to the west, and Paige Meadows a mile to the south.

Granlibakken’s name, meaning “hill sheltered by fir trees,” was conferred by a Norwegian sea captain who launched the modern resort here, building upon a base begun in 1928 when a snowplay field and an Olympic-trial ski jump were created. Today, it’s a tranquil conference center in summer, and popular snowplay destination in winter, owned and run by the Parson family. The site was shrewdly chosen. Despite a base elevation of just 6,350 feet, a shaded, north-facing slope cradles and preserves all the snow falling here.

“Our strategy is to keep prices low, and work it out on volume,” says marketing manager Annora McGarry. That translates to: $14 for snowplay and sledding all day ($7 for lodge guests); $30 (adults and teens) or $20 (children) for lift tickets; and a beginner package including gear, ticket and group lesson for $70. A striking new offering, “Bed, Breakfast & S’more,” starting at $99/person, includes lodging, a buffet breakfast, use of spa, and a $50 lift ticket credit to any one of seven top North Tahoe ski resorts.
McGarry’s top guest tip: For ease of parking when using the snowplay area, arrive close to when it opens each day, at 9 a.m.

More information: 800-543-3221 or

Soda Springs

Powdr is a mighty ski corporation, with famed resorts such as Killington, Vt., Mount Bachelor, Ore., and Copper Mountain, Colo., as assets. So why on earth did it bother to acquire tiny Soda Springs, a few miles west of Donner Pass in the Sierra?

“OK, we’re not all that big by Powdr standards,” admits operations manager Mike Spain. “However, we still have a ton of potential for serving families. Other places offer child care, so parents can drop their kids, go off and ski without them. Here, we turn that on its head, and try to create an opportunity so parents can ski or play all day with their kids.”

Soda Springs is found just off a spur road at Norden, and occupies the end of a north-facing ridge with a base elevation of 6,750 feet and a vertical rise of 550 feet. Its sunny 200 acres are served by two lifts and three moving carpets. Eight years ago it started its Planet Kids snowplay area; that turned into an instant – and crowded – success.
Planet Kids was moved to a safe and secluded corner at the resort’s west side (accessed by a Jeep-pulled tram), enlarged and enhanced. Today it includes a snowplay area with “volcanoes” (big snow piles for climbing and sliding); a mini-slope with a moving carpet where parents or resort instructors can teach tots to ski and snowboard; and a carousel where kids can plop into small tubes and get used to sliding around on snow. The area boasts its own new lodge, with snack shack and bathrooms. It’s open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily; all-day access is $34 for one child age 8 and younger, plus a parent or guardian, and $10 for any additional adult.

Just to the east is Tube Town, presenting up to 20 lanes that run 400 feet, served by a moving carpet, and end in an upswept snowbank for a safe landing. On occasion, two lanes that go 500 feet higher are added, and the construction of a Tuber-Cross lane with terrain features could be on the way. Access costs the same as Planet Kids; but tubers must stand at least 46 inches tall.

Finally, back at the Soda Springs old main lodge are the lifts, a mini-snowmobile park and a Euro-style terrain park. Once each year, in March, a hand-dug half pipe is built for the Tom Sims Retro World Snowboard Championships. Lift tickets are $48 general, $44 for teenagers, and $39 for children; a ski or snowboard beginner package for ages 8 and up includes a limited-access ticket, rental gear and two-hour group lesson for $79.

The resort welcomes visitors who not only are new to winter sport, but strangers to snow – even loaning them weather shell garments, if needed.

Avocets at Cullinan Ranch.

New Habitat for Waterfowl, Human Recreation

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That darned pair of mute swans steadily out-maneuvered me. Plus, a breeze from the west slowed my kayak as I tried to position myself between a setting sun and that lovely pale duo so that I could take a photo. The swans weren’t frightened and didn’t bother to take flight. They simply swam off on a clever escape route to foil my plans. After giving up, I just let myself feel grateful for the sighting – and for managing to score it in one of California’s newest wildlife preserves.

I sat in a sea kayak, but I wasn’t at sea. I paddled on a newly flooded lagoon of Cullinan Ranch, a unit of the San Pablo Bay National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) found near Vallejo on San Francisco Bay’s north shore. There, a string of preserves form a broad and verdant arc of habitat that sprawls between the Napa and Petaluma rivers.

Avocets at Cullinan Ranch.

Avocets. Cullinan Ranch. Photo by Paul McHugh.

Sacramento citizens who value waterbirds and shorebirds as feathered friends have many potential options to watch them frolic in their native habitat. They can go north, to state and federal refuges in the Sacramento Valley, or south a few miles to the Cosumnes River Preserve. Or they can jaunt an hour west on Interstate 80 and admire the startling abundance of the San Pablo Bay refuge units.

“It’s been terrific to see the canvasback ducks migrate back here in such numbers,” says Don Brubaker, who has managed the refuge here (as well as two others) for six years. “Giving them a winter home was a big reason our San Pablo refuge was established in the first place. Those ‘cannies’ and other migrants will stick around a while longer, but be gone by the end of April. We’ve also seen lesser scaup in great numbers, mallards, wigeon, American coots, even some ruddy ducks already starting to color-up for mating – with those neat blue bills.”

One thing that makes San Pablo Bay NWR unique is how much of this feathered abundance can be glimpsed on both sides of Highway 37. Of course, to truly observe it well, and score photos, it’s better to pull off at a turnout and hike or bike one of the levee-top trails. Best of all, this refuge encompasses an array of lagoons, ponds and deep-water sloughs that can accommodate hand-launched boats.

San Pablo is a fun place to paddle – as long as you adequately plan for the yo-yo effect of the tides, a potential for wind and strong currents that can ripple through the levee breaches that let water flow from lagoons into main channels. During that day trip when I saw the swans, I rode an ebb tide out of Cullinan Ranch into Dutchman Slough, went into the Napa River estuary, then south to a Vallejo launch ramp. Here, I parked, ate lunch and read. After the tide turned, I rode the flood back in, for a round trip of about 16 miles that took some seven hours – including my lunch stop.

A much shorter voyage can be had by just paddling around the main Cullinan lagoon during a high or incoming tide. A floating launch dock at the principal Cullinan access point makes this relatively easy.

Once upon a time, the 470 square miles of San Francisco Bay were ringed by 306 square miles of tidal wetlands, the abode of tule elk and grizzly bears, and waterfowl in such abundance they could blot out the sun when they took flight. Now, a tiny percentage (5-10 percent) of that remains unaltered by development. The present refuge system seeks to bring back additional habitat, primarily by converting bayside salt ponds, ag land that can no longer be farmed and obsolete military facilities.

The San Pablo Bay NWR is dwarfed by its neighbor to the south – the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay NWR in Fremont. But since San Pablo has room to expand, it may do much better in coping with global warming and sea-level rise. San Pablo at present holds 19,000 acres, of which 11,200 are open water. The official boundary, set by Congress in 1970, encloses about 30,000 acres. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service hopes the infill will be accomplished by acquisitions from willing sellers.

Sonoma Baylands, on the west end of the San Pablo refuge, flooded 960 more acres of marsh recently and will open a new 2.5-mile-long hiking trail in May. Skaggs Island and Haire Ranch on the north side will add about 4,400 acres to the refuge, and public access will gradually be provided. Continuing that broad emerald swath of preserves are the nearby Napa-Sonoma Marshes and American Canyon state wildlife areas.

In all of this restoration labor of love, the wildlife service’s efforts have been ably and steadily assisted by an array of other agencies and non-governmental groups, including Point Blue, the Sonoma Land Trust, and especially the sportsmen’s conservation group, Ducks Unlimited – which planned much of the “terra-forming” to engineer the restored habitat.

Renee Spenst, the regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited in Sacramento, says all this doesn’t just benefit flocks of resident and migratory birds, but also provides enjoyment and enlightenment for human visitors eager to experience all the beauty and tranquility.

“It’s great for the people in Sacramento to find out about what’s been happening in the North Bay refuges,” Spenst said, “because they’re only about an hour away from our city. Plus, we just got new interpretive panels put up at the main Cullinan access, and they really help explain what’s going on out there.”


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Sacramento Bee, August 17, 2016
Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer

California’s link to the Hawaiian sport of surfing goes back more than a century.

Bay Area adventurer and writer Jack London helped to forge a lasting connection in 1907. After sailing his ketch Snark to Oahu, he eagerly tried to imitate local Hawaiians he watched scoring rides in the surf zone at Waikiki.

London’s first effort – as described in his popular magazine article at the time, then a book about his whole epic cruise later – was a type of body surfing.

He got under way with the aid of a tiny board kids used for their romps in the beach’s mild break. He followed it next day by scoring a lesson on a large adult board that he and a pair of guides paddled to a mightier surf line, out beyond the reef.

Even today, that’s a good progression for anyone who hopes to pick up surfing.

Articles-Learn-to-Surf-ThumbFirst, soak yourself in a mild version of the power of surging seas. Grow comfortable there. Learn a thing or two about the water and shore, before you seek to take on any more.

It’s a topic I had to face recently: How should one begin to learn to surf? An odd subject for me, since I already should know. I’d taught myself decades ago around the beaches and sea caves of Mendocino by paddling a kayak there, and was later on the first U.S. Kayak Surfing Team when we took top scores in a world championship in 1988.

Ever since then, I’ve surfed fanatically, and in a variety of ways.

However, I had to focus on basics again, seeing as my wife decided that she wished to learn them.

Her first desire was to try body surfing, without using any kind of board at all. She’d shifted two years ago from a running discipline to a swimming regimen, so her fitness level was both good and appropriate. However, she saw the Bay Area’s cold seawater as utterly intimidating (however pleasant its coolness might appear to folks, say, who sweat under an August sun in the Sacramento Valley).

So I took advantage of a trip to Hawaii to get her off to a start precisely where Jack London did, in those clear and balmy seas off Waikiki. Each of us geared up with flippers (for speed and foot protection from underwater rocks), a face mask (for clear vision and eye protection from salt spray) and a T-shirt (for protection from sunburn, which had seriously toasted Jack London).

We set out to ride the mild swells breaking across a shallow reef at the beach near Diamond Head. In short order, we both caught dozens of easy glides across the reef. None of them were amazing, none were very long, but the upshot was that now my wife’s enthusiasm for the enterprise knew no bounds.

When we got home, she announced she was ready to acquire a wetsuit and score new rides off Northern California shores.

So my next step was to scout out Bay Area coves that presented reasonable conditions: clean waves of a safe size, easy shore access and few-to-zero beach configurations liable to cause or strengthen problems, such as “rip” currents.

I gathered a list of likely sites. On one beach in particular, I hit the jackpot.

At Linda Mar Beach in Pacifica, I encountered a beginner surfboard class being taught by two highly experienced instructors from Adventure Out – a Santa Cruz-based company that guides and teaches an array of sports and Adrenalin activities. At a spare moment, both guys were willing to chat with me about my quest.

“Body surfing can be a good way for someone to start out,” said Warren Harasz, 32, who began on a short board as a kid in Florida, and has chased waves ever since. “One question we ask students is, have you ever swum in the Pacific Ocean? Because just immersing yourself, knowing how ocean energy feels, can be a big part of learning to handle yourself out there.

“When you body surf you can really find out what’s going on in a break, where the waves or currents are strong, where different types of surfers tend to line up. But a down side is that you’re sunk deeper in the water, and you are not all that visible to others. So you can’t develop tunnel vision. You must stay aware of what goes on all around you.”

His partner instructor, Alan Wu, 41, told me, “If your main goal is to get familiar with how the how ocean works, sure, body surfing’s pretty good. But if your aim is to end up riding on a surfboard, you should understand that body surfing is harder than boogie-boarding to master. And beginning with a boogie-board is more challenging than just starting out on a longboard.

“I’m self-taught as a surfer. Now that I’m finally an instructor, I see what a knucklehead move it was for me to begin like that. Now I say, if you want to end up as a board surfer, the best way to go it is to take real lessons on a surfboard from an experienced teacher.”

However, if one does instead choose to begin as a body surfer, you’ll discover a wide range of paths to follow in the surf zone after one learns those special basics. For the record, body surf basics are as follows:

  • Locate yourself right where the waves steepen and begin to crest. As a swell approaches, lie flat, stroke and kick, begin to move.
  • As soon as a wave picks you up, turn roughly parallel to it, and try to slide down at an angle to the face. (Don’t stay perpendicular, because a close-out wave can drive you straight down, creating a danger of head or neck injury due to impact with the bottom.)
  • When swimming back out, make sure you don’t pick a course that interferes with any other surfer riding in.
  • If a wave looks too big to swim through, dive beneath it.
  • If caught in a rip (seaward) current too strong to swim against, swim out of it at a right angle, then surf or swim back to shore.
  • If conditions happen to look terrifying to you, simply wait for a day to come along when they don’t.

For body surfers, the planing surface of chest and hands can be enhanced by using webbed neoprene gloves, or additionally bolstered with use of a hand-plane or handboard (like a tiny surfboard that straps to your palm). Beyond that – gradually increasing in surface area – one finds surf zone vehicles such as skim boards, knee boards, boogie boards, short boards, longboards and wave skis. Each vehicle has charms and advantages, each its own necessary skill-set.

To the list of gear my wife wore in Hawaii, I now plan to add a custom-fitted wetsuit for her (by far the most pricy item), plus webbed gloves.

We’ll see what gear and what type of surfing she ends up with; that shall indeed be entirely up to her.

As for me, I proceeded to get wet and check out other body surf sites for her to try at Red Rock Beach in Marin County, and at Grey Whale Cove State Beach in San Mateo County.

And I mulled over the interesting fact that some of the best surfing advice I’d ever heard actually did arrive courtesy of that good ol’ local scribbler, Jack London. Maybe he did not manage to end up as an accomplished surfer, but he certainly was a fast learner, and achieved some genuine insights.

London wrote, “The whole method of surf-riding and surf fighting, I learned, is one of non-resistance. Dodge the blow that is struck at you. Dive through the wave that is trying to slap you in the face. Sink down, feet first, deep under the surface, and let the big smoker that is trying to smash you go by far overhead.

“Never be rigid. Relax. Yield yourself to the waters…”

If you do so, London claimed, you’ll soon be on your way to discovering the “royal sport for the natural kings of the earth.”

Take a Ride in a Time Machine

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…with wings

The Sacramento Bee, August 3, 2016
Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer

Stearman biplanes are sailboats of the skies. Not only because their tails have big, curved rudders that appear to have been swiped off yachts, or because they’re steered by a wooden stick that resembles a tiller. They also bob on the shifting currents of air like a sloop breasting the waves. And when you ride in a biplane, you sail at a stately pace above a landscape much like a ship cruising along an enchanted shore.

These aspects combine to make a biplane ride relaxing and thrilling at the same time. The aircraft transport the rider back to an era when taking flight was both a romantic event and a beguiling adventure – the polar opposite of today’s scarcely tolerable commutes aboard jet-powered cattle cars.

Pull off Highway 121 at the Sonoma Valley Airport – just a few miles south of town – and it becomes clear you’re about to pass into a different realm. First, the toothy grin of a “Flying Tiger” logo painted on a fully restored P-40 Warhawk fighter plane greets you. Next, there’s a line of restored World War II-era jeeps, poised as if ready to run pilots from a ready room out onto an airstrip to mount a raid.

As you start believing a rigid martial discipline permeates the entire place, that impression wafts away like a puff of blue exhaust smoke with an introduction to the low-key Chris Prevost and his charming wife, Sheryl Prevost. The Vintage Aircraft operation was founded in 1975; Prevost acquired the business in 1984. His broad shoulders and barrel chest fill out a sun-faded T-shirt, and his face bears a perpetual tan from open-cockpit flying. A reassuring aura of calm emanates from this highly experienced pilot, suggesting that nothing short of a tornado vacuuming up his airfield at F-5 strength would be cause for any alarm.

“Love of airplanes is something I think I was born with,” Chris Prevost said. “I’ve always just found them naturally attractive.”

He first glimpsed this airstrip as an awestruck schoolkid from Marin, out on a field trip. Now, at 53, after also buying the airfield in 2008, he owns the entire shebang. Between those time brackets, he flew his first solo in a Citabria as soon as he could (at age 16), buying a Sopwith Pup (World War I British fighter) as his first plane at 17, and flying to New Zealand at age 36 to harvest the wrecked hulk of the P-40 – after which he spent eight years and $600,000 restoring it to airworthiness.

Now, with an estimated 11,000 hours of flying under his seat harness, Prevost (and his companion pilots) purvey rides on Vintage’s fleet of four Stearman biplanes four days a week. It’s his company’s bread and butter, bringing in $175 for one rider or $270 for two, on basic 20-minute flights.

As for the operation’s steak and truffles? Well, that comes with rides in his three restored World War II warbirds: 20 minutes in an AT-6 Texan, $399; 20 minutes in the P-40 Warhawk, $949; 30 minutes in his P-51 Mustang, $1,699.

“Basically, we sell smiles,” Sheryl Prevost said. “When people see our planes up close, they seem happy to plunk down some money for a ride. And many look beyond thrilled after they come back in for a landing, just completely over the moon.”

While I was present at the Sonoma airfield, a pair of test cases showed up in the form of two Coast Guard “boaties” who drove over from that service’s training center west of Petaluma. Matt Becker, 23, and Jay Hewitt, 25, both veterans of small-boat search-and-rescue teams, said they had now gotten halfway through training to become petty officers.

“We found Northern California was plenty beautiful as seen from a car, so we thought it was high time to take a look from the air as well,” Becker said. “Also, we hope to get our adrenaline pumping a bit, so we decided to add on the aerobatics package.”

Heads clad in canvas flight helmets, they were strapped into the front cockpit of a Stearman PT-17 Kaydet – the primary training aircraft for the U.S. Army Air Corps and Navy both before and during World War II. However, this plane had been upgraded with a Pratt & Whitney 450-horsepower engine (double the original’s power). That meant, after Chris Prevost roared off the runway and into the sky, he could treat his clients to a hot roller-coaster ride that left the rails far behind. He provided a set list of airborne stunts that included Cuban eights, loops, a hammerhead stall, plus aileron, barrel and point rolls, all for a nominal $50 added charge.

Once back on earth, Becker and Hewitt acted as if their dollars had been well-spent. They clambered out of the plane, chiming a burst of politically correct expletives that included “Wow!” and “Great!” and “Awesome!”

“Chris’ flips came out of nowhere for me,” Becker explained. “But I loved that feeling of big G-forces, followed right away by a sense of weightlessness.”

“We wanted to soak up as much adventure as we could while in California,” said Hewitt. “So this was a perfect box to check.”

Prevost’s restored fighter planes are right near the top in the rara avis (“rare bird”) department. For example, his P-40 is one of just 27 that still soar the world’s skies. But those Stearman Kaydets are turning rather scarce, too. Of the 8,584 that Boeing built – plus another 2,000 planes produced from official spare parts – Prevost reckons only 1,500 or so can still fly. He also estimates just about two dozen FAA-approved operators like himself in the U.S. can still provide legal rides in the biplanes.

“Main thing you want to ask your pilot is if he’s got an LOA – a letter of authorization – from the FAA to take up passengers in a historic aircraft,” Prevost advised. Among other considerations, an LOA stipulates desirable maintenance protocols.

The Stearman he took the “boaties” up in was an ex-crop duster that Prevost found in Watsonville in 1983. He promptly bought it, rebuilt it and nicknamed it “Big Red.” In subsequent decades, he’s rebuilt it three more times. That’s apparently the sort of effort required to keep ’em flying.

“Just locating parts for old planes is a sport, even a full industry. People wander all over the world hunting for stuff,” he said. “But I’ll bet you, in back of almost every barn in the Sacramento Valley, somebody who looks around carefully can find a box that holds a few old Stearman parts.”

That description almost exactly matches the actual history of another vintage aircraft, used to provide rides out of an airfield located in the next big valley to the east. Mark Feldman, the proprietor of Napa Valley Biplane Co., says he discovered his Stearman in a barn in Colusa, after he bought the remnants of a crop dusting outfit from the pilot’s widow.

“I imagined I might be getting a basket case, yet it turned out to be a gold mine,” Feldman said. “That old pilot had been throwing airplane parts into dusty boxes inside his barn for about three decades.”

After eight years of restoration work, his $32,000 investment in those cobwebbed crates has resulted in a gleaming historic aircraft Feldman says he wouldn’t sell for a cool million. (That’s at least one measure of love, since Prevost said his Big Red would probably go for around $125,000 on the open market.)

Feldman, 67, is a pilot with 14,500 hours of airtime, from flying the U.S. mail to years serving as a flight instructor. His regular job now is managing Aviation Consulting Services Ltd., which handles aircraft acquisition and flight crew services for both corporations and individuals. But his favorite gig is taking folks up in the Stearman (which he does at the rate of $249 for a 30-minute flight; $349 for 45 minutes; or $449 for an hour).

“I offer people a spectacular way to see the Bay Area,” Feldman said, “and I never get tired of it myself. It might be slower, but it’s a far more thoughtful way to fly. You get to be exposed, dealing with all of the elements. And it provides a mythological link, as well. You develop a feel and appreciation for all the stuff pilots needed to deal with, way back in flying’s early days.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed Aug. 4 to reflect that Mark Feldman spent $32,000 on parts for his Stearman airplane.

Next Door

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Sacramento Bee, June 22, 2016
Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer

Hey there, breeze-seekers! Sure is growing warm ’round Sacramento. I suspect that you’d love to find a way to play around outdoors, yet simultaneously cool down a tad. Maybe you’d give extra points to any cooling excursion that grants you remarkable new vistas to contemplate. Would you not?

Specifically, those points are the Fremont, Emeryville and Martinez train stations, located in the San Francisco Bay Area. Note, the big, operative word here is “bay,” as in a giant scenic body of water, constantly refreshed by Pacific tides and sweeping banks of fog. From these train stations you can swiftly pedal onto trails that bring you out to breezy picnic spots and touring routes, all with minimal exposure to automobile traffic.


This is a charming, old-school station with a Depot Café that serves breakfast all day. Once fueled up, you pedal three blocks northwest on Fremont Boulevard, turn right and go two blocks north on Thornton. Take a left and travel eight blocks west on Paseo Padre Parkway, then go right on Isherwood Way.

Immediately, you’ll see ramps leading down to the bike trails lining both sides of the green ribbon of Alameda Creek, a resting and roosting zone for white pelicans, herons, egrets and wrens. These trails ruBikes-Trainsx400n eight miles west, to a broad estuary where the creek opens to the bay. The north-side trail has patches of firm, graded dirt and ends at a picnic site. The south side boasts more and better pavement, and also provides an option to turn south and visit Coyote Hills Regional Park (open 8 a.m.-8 p.m.) and its visitor center.

Returning to the place where Isherwood crosses the Alameda Creek, you also have the option of pedaling 0.7 mile north on Isherwood to the Quarry Lakes Regional Recreation Area (open 6 a.m-7 p.m.), which boasts a swimming beach, shaded picnic area and fishing pier.


The biggest blasts of cool, bay-conditioned air can be found when you debark from the train at this station sandwiched between Berkeley and Oakland. Use the pedestrian overpass to cross west from the station to Shellmound Street. Pedal south a mile for access to a paved stretch of the Bay Trail that bends west under the infamous Maze of freeway overpasses, then travels another 1.5 miles out to the new bike path on the south side of the east span of the Bay Bridge. During daylight hours, the bridge path is always open for two-thirds of a mile. As the old bridge’s deconstruction allows, the span is mostly open for another 1.8 miles, out past the graceful stayed main tower, to a stopping point at Treasure Island. There is no exit onto the island as of yet, but this open stretch is visually exciting each step of the way.

Add distance and more great views on your return by jogging off Shellmound onto Christie, then go west on Powell, and follow it out to a marina and shoreline greensward and trail areas. After that, head north on the paved Bay Trail on the west side of the freeway’s frontage road. Decades ago, spontaneous sculptures were built out of driftwood and debris on the Emeryville tidal flats by anonymous artists. Two of these have been restored and kept: Snoopy in a Sopwith Camel flying a sortie, and the Red Baron in his Fokker.

You’ll find University Avenue 1.25 miles north; you can then go west a half-mile to ramble around the Berkeley Marina, associated greenswards, as well as trails in Cesar Chavez and McLaughlin parks.


The town began as a ferry terminal in 1847, where scows laden with goods, people and livestock could sail across the broad Carquinez Strait waterway to an opposite port on the far shore (Benicia, which served briefly as California’s state capital during the Gold Rush). Martinez was named for the rancher who held the original Spanish land grant. Today, it preserves a historic air, thanks to a lot of older homes and office buildings. When the mournful hoot of a train horn echoes about the valley that cradles this pioneer town, it sounds just right.

Martinez is also blessed with a number of nature preserves, parks and open spaces. Chief among them is the Carquinez Regional Shoreline, and its main feature is the Carquinez Scenic Drive, which lines the strait’s south shore, connecting Martinez to Crockett. Because nearly two miles of this road have been converted to a paved, multiple-use pathway, there’s no through traffic – except for cyclists, hikers, and folks on horseback.

Start at the modern train station (just west of the venerable one) and go southwest on Marina Vista road. At Talbart Street, take a right. In two blocks, the road bends left and becomes Carquinez Scenic Drive. The initial hills are steep, and the route does undulate over its course. But as Nordic skiers know, every uphill slog is rewarded by a downhill glide.

Gates that control car traffic are open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., but the route stays open to hikers and bikers from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. After covering 2.1 miles, you’ll reach the segment open only to nonmotorized visitors, which continues for another 1.7 miles. It’s named the George Miller Trail, after the congressman who secured funding to develop it. Along the way, there are picnic tables scattered at vista points, and what vistas they provide! The strait is the main outlet for Sacramento and San Joaquin river waters to the San Francisco Bay, and it’s broad, deep, full of powerful currents and shipping, and bracketed at both ends by the Highway 80 and Highway 680 bridges.

At the end of the Miller Trail, you come to a staging area with a restroom. Then – if you want to pedal more distance and visit a few more outdoor sites – you can continue (sharing the road with vehicles again) the four to five miles down to Crockett.

Otherwise, you can retrace your route on the Scenic Drive and profitably spend time cycling around old Martinez, taking in sights like the John Muir National Historic Site. The visionary naturalist moved to Martinez in 1880. The Victorian mansion where he lived out his days and penned his greatest works can be toured.

Big Bonus Trips

Once you cut your eyeteeth on short outings like these, it becomes far easier to visualize and plan multi-day, Bay Area bike trips that link various types of public transportation (such as ferries and buses) with long pedals on Bay Area rural roads, and allow you to use camping and lodging options. For example, one might hop off the Capitol Corridor train at Richmond, board a BART train to the El Cerrito del Norte station, and there get on a VINE express bus to Calistoga. Stay at a spa in town, or camp at Bothe-Napa Valley State Park. Then the famed Silverado Trail becomes your gateway for miles of pleasant riding, visits to Napa Valley wineries and bistros, and much more.

Badger Pass

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Sacramento Bee, February 3, 2016
Paul McHugh, Outdoors Writer, Special to the Bee

As a legend has it, the magic Scots village of Brigadoon comes to life once each century – but true love can help someone stay there longer. The historic ski haven of Badger Pass at Yosemite is like Brigadoon, but the main ingredient needed for Badger to arise and flourish is more basic: snow.

Our current El Niño winter is delivering that stuff by the bucket-load.

While I rode the comfy shuttle bus up from Yosemite Lodge in the valley, I stared out at droplets smacking its windshield. As we neared the base elevation of 7,200 feet, I noticed that spatter held ice crystals. By the time I debarked at the classic ski lodge – California’s very first, opened in 1935 – the snow had become a deluge of soft grains.

I must admit, I felt a jolt when I saw the old, fixed-grip double-chair line of the resort’s Eagle lift. I own decades-old memories of getting smacked in the rear end by that chair as I boarded. But on this day, I rose to Badger’s 8,000-foot summit aboard the new triple-chair, built alongside the old lift, and can report that it gave a much smoother ride.

Badger Pass celebrates its past, but does not seem mired in it.

Both the Eagle triple and Badger double-chair are new, and the lodge has revamped its foundations, bathrooms, locker rooms and food service areas. The downhill and cross-country rental equipment is well-sourced (Fischer, Rossignol), well-maintained and up-to-date.

Other aspects have not changed, nor would one wish them to. An emphasis on friendly, enthusiastic and skilled instruction established by legendary ski school director Nic Fiore (a charismatic French Canadian who set an amiable tone for 43 years) still holds sway. The 90 acres of Badger’s groomed terrain aren’t so much narrow runs as broad glades, where a skier or boarder can swoop at will and do some modest tree-skiing.
A grin spread on my face as I cut back and forth across slopes I’d not had the pleasure of visiting in years. Skiing on 7 inches of fresh snow dropped atop Badger’s carefully groomed runs was like carving whipped cream.

I dropped by the National Park Service’s A-frame cabin at the edge of the base area for a bit of perspective. The bearded ranger inside consulted a thick pad of statistics. The current snowpack is the best the park has seen in 10 years, he told me. Last January, on this date, with a 0-inch pack, Badger had to close. But now, he said, the depth was a full 5 feet thick, including those 7 inches that had fallen over the past 12 hours.
Outside the cabin, ski instructor Chris Moore, who goes by the nickname “Cowboy,” stepped up to ring the ski school’s bronze bell to start the morning class, a tradition that goes back to the Fiore heyday and beyond. In fact, Moore, now 60, said he himself was taught by Fiore (who died in 2009, at age 88) as a lad of 8, and considers himself a torch-bearer for the Fiore style.

As long as our present train of cold storms continues, Badger Pass, like the region’s other small and relatively low-elevation winter resorts (Dodge Ridge, 6,600-8,200 feet; Soda Springs, 6,700-7,325; Homewood, 6,230-7,881; Tahoe-Donner, 6,750-7,350; and Mount Shasta Ski Park, 5,476-6,866), should all be able to prosper, since they offer a combo of uncrowded slopes, cheap ticket prices and family friendly programs as their principal stock-in-trade.

Badger Pass’s special advantage within is that, once in Yosemite National Park, you win views of a wonderland featuring 1,169 square miles of grandeur with mist-wreathed, snow-draped massifs such as Half Dome and El Capitan.

It’s good news that Badger is presenting revived options for beginner and intermediate downhill skiers and boarders (as well as mountain veterans on a sentimental journey, like me). The great news is that Badger’s center for cross-country or Nordic skiing also has sprung back to life. There’s a school and gear rental facility, plus more than 90 miles of marked trail to ski on. The trail-system centerpiece is a 10.5-mile-long track, groomed all the way out to Glacier Point Hut.

The world-class operation up here, run by staff of the Yosemite Mountaineering School (YMS), is where I, as an ignorant immigrant from Florida 30 years ago, initially clipped into a set of boards. Then-director Bruce Brossman pushed me into a class and encouraged me past my first clumsy set of falls and bruises. He flogged me on into Yosemite’s classic Nordic race, then an outing to Glacier Point and finally a trans-Sierra ski trip.

A high point of my visit to Badger this January was taking another run out to Glacier Point. I started off under tranquil, sapphire skies to find another foot of powder compacted on a trail groomed with diagonal-stride tracks on each side and a skating lane in the middle. (YMS grooms all the way out to the point every Thursday or Friday, then after “as needed.”)

On the trail, I met and passed more folks heading out for snow-camping sessions or a visit to Ostrander Hut (a higher, more distant, and more rustic option). About 4 miles down the road, the lovely snow-clad peaks of the Clark Range appear, luring me on to further effort. At Mono Meadows, the trail bent north to climb for the next 3 miles. A 1.7-mile descent then ended at an overlook where the bulk of Half Dome rears in total magnificence against the northern horizon.

To term the Glacier Point facility a “hut” is kind of a misnomer. It’s actually a 3,000-square-foot alpine chalet, designed in an Ahwahnee/Craftsman style by Henrik Bull, with a soaring ceiling, peeled log beams and granite accents. In summer, it’s a drive-up visitor center for the point; in winter, it’s a ski-up lodge with dormitory bunks erected in one wing and food service in the other; a huge wood stove dominates the center.
I made my trip to the point in the four- to five-hour time window the park suggests for intermediate skiers, and was met at the door by Ryan Mann, 38, a former pastry chef from New York. Bearded, burly and smiling, he inquired if I wanted a hot beverage and snacks. My instant response: “Absolutely!”

Mann came to Yosemite to camp and grew spellbound by the park at first sight, then contrived a way to stay. Four years ago, he moved from cooking at the Ahwahnee Hotel to caretaking this hut.

“It’s a perfect job for me,” Mann said. “I like wilderness and solitude, but also love visiting with people and cooking for them.”

Soon, nine skiers ages 20 to 65 had slid up to spend the night. We shed jackets and boots, warmed up by the stove, and tucked into hot nachos and wine. As sunset rinsed Half Dome, Mount Starr King and the Clark Range in the pastels of alpenglow, we grabbed snowshoes from the pile by the door and strolled outdoors to soak in the view. We returned to further refuel on Mann’s stir-fry and salad, and get to know one another. Our cozy hut was soon full of yellow light, abuzz with chatter and laughter, as a blue darkness fell outside.

Our group included husbands and wives, a father and daughter, and a pair of friends: John Mullin, 43, and his pal, Ryan Wiley, 39. Both had been eyeing a Glacier Point End ski trip for years, and decided to jump on it as soon as conditions looked good.
“I grew up skiing in Colorado, but gave it up after college,” Mullin said. “Doing a job and having a family just didn’t leave enough time. Skiing out here today was my first time back on the boards in 21 years. It felt exhilarating to catch these views, and to pull mountain air back into my lungs. Maybe it’s time now to teach skiing to my kids. Probably, we should do it at Badger Pass.”


Badger Pass downhill ski area is open daily, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Basic adult lift tickets are $48.50, but even cheaper if purchased in advance, online ($44 weekends; $37.50 mid-week). The free shuttle bus runs twice daily from stops in the valley. Schedule, deals, rates, etc., online at Badger Pass Downhill Ski Area

The cross-country ski area at Badger Pass, operated by the Yosemite Mountaineering School (YMS), is open daily, 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Access to the groomed and signed Nordic trails is free, but YMS provides gear rental and lessons, including performance ski-skate packages, ski mountaineering and telemark gear. Guided overnight trips to the Glacier Point Hut are $350 (one night), $550 (two nights); self-guided trips are just $138 per night (provided a basic quorum of six skiers have signed up for that night). Custom guided options range up to trans-Sierra ski trips through the park. (209) 372-8444. Badger Pass Cross Country Skiing

Outings to the high-country’s Ostrander Ski Hut are arranged through the Yosemite Conservancy.

Information about lodging and other visitor services: Yosemite Park

Information about Yosemite National Park (includes special bulletins on road and weather conditions): Yosemite National Park


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I am a writer. I am a story-teller.

Stories are the way we tell ourselves about life, the earth, and each other. They are the way we create and order awareness. How we explain ourselves and all our deeds. The way we lead ourselves through a day, as well as how we share company with each other at night. The story of our hearts is told in love songs, the story of our hopes is told in the speech of prophets and heroes. I have been swept up and away by the potency of stories, and have made myself into one who relates them in poetry, journalism and fiction, and I remain constantly in search of a finer ways to work the magic and do this job.

I am a story-teller. I am a writer.

Welcome. You’re invited to poke the buttons, and enjoy a ramble through my site. Among its features, you’ll find links to a prize-winning novel (DeadlinesDeadlines.), to non-fiction explorations (Alcatraz – The Official Guide) and abundant adventures in the out-of-doors (The North Coast).

McHugh in Books

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Deadlines by Paul McHugh. DeadlinesDeadlines by Paul McHugh.

Paul McHugh

A novel of murder, conspiracy and the media, set in the San Francisco Bay Area in the fall of 2007.

Alcatraz, the Official Guide. Alcatraz The Official GuideAlcatraz, the Official Guide by Paul McHugh.
Paul McHugh
A battleship-shaped island, wrapped in fog and isolated in the middle of one of the world’s most beautiful bays, Alcatraz has intrigued the imagination of millions of people over the years. Today, under the stewardship of the National Park Service, Alcatraz continues to reveal its secrets. Step off the ferry, onto the dock, and into the past.
Goodbye-to-Rains Paul McHugh’s first novel, The Search for Goodbye-To-Rains can now be read online for free at GoogleBooks.

A young motorcycle rider hunts a mysterious entity. Captures the mood of 1970s America like no other story. Part road adventure, part existential quest, wandering from Florida’s panhandle to the mountains of New Mexico.

Wildplaces. Wild Places: 20 Journeys into the North American OutdoorsWild Places.

Edited by Paul McHugh

Top outdoor writers explore twenty of North America’s most captivating wild destinations. Tim Cahill, Gretel Ehrlich, Pam Houston and others contribute. Paul McHugh edits, contributes chapters on Alaska’s Tatshenshini River and the California Redwood region.

The Islands of San Francisco Bay. The Islands of San Francisco BayThe Islands of San Francisco Bay. Chapters by Paul McHugh.

Chapters by Paul McHugh

Marin photographer James Martin and Michael Lee portray San Francisco Bay’s remarkable islands. Paul McHugh contributes chapters on Alcatraz, Bair and Mare islands.

Shakleton's Boat Journey. Shackleton’s Boat Journey
F. A. Worsley
Introduction by Paul McHughThe skipper of the Endurance tells of Ernest Shackleton’s greatest polar adventure, a near disaster averted by marine heroics – an 800-mile open boat voyage across hazardous seas.

New Trail Provides Access Along the Waterfronts

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Special to The Bee

Water-sport fans, take heart: The sea won’t go dry despite the drought. Access to the ocean can begin with San Francisco Bay, essentially a long tongue of the ocean.

A new and growing “water trail” system is devoted to providing recreational access to the bay’s rippling blue expanse of 470 square miles.

Current sites along the San Francisco Bay Area Water Trail range from Suisun City to the new Tidewater Boating Center at the south end of the Oakland Estuary to Alviso Marina County Park in the South Bay, McNear’s Beach County Park in Marin and even a Main Street boat dock on the river in downtown Napa. And there are more to come.

Bay Area Water Trail. Paul McHugh, Photographer.

Bay Area Water Trail. Paul McHugh, Photographer.

“When an opportunity arose to get two units of the San Francisco Bay Area Water Trail designated on our waterfront, we leaped on it,” says Suzanne Bragdon, the Suisun City harbor master and city manager. “We want people to see us as a recreation and vacation destination.”

Suisun, now the nearest outpost of the Bay Area Water Trail to Sacramento, offers a visitors dock next to a hotel and restaurants on the north side of Suisun Slough, and launch ramps and guest slips at a marina on the south side. Bragdon says both fit nicely into a sparkling redevelopment of the city’s waterfront, a $60 million project decades in the making. Fans of power craft, sailboats, canoes, kayaks, outrigger canoes, dragon boats, Jet Skis, rowboats and the latest craze of SUPs (stand-up paddle boards) all have a close and choice spot to ply their craft just a 45-mile drive from Sacramento, or a 40-minute ride via Capitol Corridor rail.

“The water trail was a fabulous idea to get people out on the water,” Bragdon says. “We’re happy to participate.”

A band of ardent kayakers in San Francisco waterfront bars and bistros schemed in 2001 to improve their ability to use the bay, not just for day outings but also for overnight camping and multiday jaunts. These informal gabfests gave birth to a nonprofit organization dubbed Bay Access, which identified 135 sites that might be utilized.

Some of those sites were existing marinas and launch ramps that could be improved to accommodate nonmotorized small boats; some were informal access spots hallowed by use; some were just gleams in the eyes of navigators who saw no easy way to get from Point A to Point C unless some type of Point B happened to be established.

“It’s been a long slog, much longer than I thought it would be, to get this project up and rolling,” says Penny Wells, an early member of Bay Access and its current president. “After all our surveys and research, we had our lawyer members write a law to establish it, then lobbied to get it through the Legislature in 2005.”

Because the bay’s shoreline properties were held in so many different hands – state and county and regional parks, federal and state wildlife agencies, cities and private parties – an umbrella authorization was a preferred method to get them to operate in unison. The Bay Conservation and Development Commission took the initial lead on feasibility and environmental studies as well as planning. Then the State Coastal Conservancy served as lead agency for getting the project’s environmental information regulations accomplished. Other collaborators included the Association of Bay Area Governments and the state’s Division of Boating and Waterways.

Ann Buell has been a water trail project manager at the conservancy for the past 10 years. “Participation in the trail is entirely voluntary,” Buell says, “whether it’s an agency or an individual site owner.

“We’ve got 10 sites formally signed and designated now, and we’re in a good position to begin expanding much more rapidly. It’s all very exciting,” says Buell.

The plan is to fill in facilities between the existing sites like adding spokes to a bicycle wheel. Buell says around 110 sites will likely be available at full build-out.

Proponents hope to integrate the shoreline access with The San Francisco Bay Trail, a 500-mile walking and cycling route that has 340 linear miles already finished. That plus the outer ring of the 550-mile Bay Area Ridge Trail at higher elevations (with 330 miles built) could produce a sizable recreational synergy as these three huge activity loops grow toward completion. Visualize paddling or sailing for a day, hiking for a few more days and then relaunching your craft to top off a journey.

One of the hardest nuts to crack on the water trail system has been establishing overnight accommodations. For years, the only legal and easily accessed lodging sites on the water trail route were camps at the state park on Angel Island and just outside the Golden Gate at Kirby Cove, in the national recreation area. But recently, the East Bay Regional Parks District put in a camp at Point Pinole, and Marin County has permitted some group camping at McNear’s and Paradise Beach. Buell says that fresh options may open up soon at Candlestick Point State Park in San Francisco and Hudeman Slough in Sonoma County.

Other options under consideration include persuading shoreline inns and hotels to provide shuttles and boat storage, and perhaps invoking the new “sharing” economy by locating Airbnb-like rentals on houseboats and yachts that are moored in marinas.

There was a brief spate of objections to the water trail from members of the Audubon Society, who thought encouraging small-boat traffic might lead to wholesale disruption of wildlife – such as basking harbor seals and rafting waterbirds. However, Buell says, these complaints were answered by mandating new signage at all official sites to explain how to preserve distance buffers between humans and animals while traveling. Since the sites were already in use, the hope is that educating users will minimize or eliminate problems.

From a pipe dream of a handful of kayakers, the San Francisco Bay Area Water Trail has grown into a robust project that’s already outlived some of its initial visionaries. The torch is still being passed, with Buell planning her retirement from the conservancy. New personnel will take up water trail chores there and at ABAG. But, Buell says, she feels sanguine about the potent legacy left in place.

“The water trail will meet a real need for people to get out and enjoy the largest natural area in the bay,” she says, “which, of course, are those bay waters themselves.

“And it’s not just a system for the water sports elite. I don’t own a boat; I can’t even lift a boat. But there are plenty of groups that can and will assist and teach newcomers. I’ve taken trips with outrigger canoe clubs in Benecia and Alameda, and the people were all very friendly and welcoming. And with our focus on making sites quite accessible, the water trail can also be useful to retired folks and even the elderly. Getting out on the bay and learning new ways to exercise and appreciate nature is a very healthy thing to do.”

Wells illustrates this point rather well. Now 71, she reckons she’s paddled all over the bay for 30 years. It’s kept her fit as well as alert to the chance for more adventures. Soon she plans to take a break from her work with Bay Access and trot her bay-honed skills up to Alaska for a fresh bout of shoreline exploration.

Wells says her feelings about her kayak paddle are not unlike Charlton Heston’s attitude toward his flintlock rifle: It will take a maximum effort by the universe to pry it from her hands.


▪ The San Francisco Bay Are

Coast Range Wilderness on Path to Preservation

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Special to The Bee

Brush grew so thick on the ridgeline I could not see a hiking companion just 20 feet away from me. I looked down at cuts on my hands and rips in my shirt, then gazed back up at the summit mesa of Cedar Roughs Wilderness. Despite our hours of effort, we apparently hadn’t drawn a whole lot closer.

“This is nuts,” I shouted to Andrew Fulks. “Let’s stop, and call it good.”

“No,” he said. “You wouldn’t take a boat onto Lake Mead, then claim you’d seen the Grand Canyon, would you? We can’t quit until we actually touch those famous cedars! So don’t wimp out on me.”

Osprey. Photo by Paul McHugh.

Osprey. Photo by Paul McHugh.

In truth, I’d invited Fulks to join me on an exploration of one corner of California’s newest proposed national monument to provoke exactly this kind of response. The man’s a bushwhacker of huge experience and vast enthusiasm. I could predict that he’d flog me every bit as much as this undergrowth would. When he insisted we had to keep going, I took a deep breath and thrashed forward.

Fulks is also president of Tuleyome, a local conservation group that promoted designation of this 6,300-acre wilderness area in 2006. Today, with a much broader range of support, Tuleyome promotes designation of a Snow Mountain-Berryessa National Monument. This would encompass roughly 350,000 acres sprawling east, west and north of Cedar Roughs. Fans of this huge new preserve claim it would award long-deserved fame to an ignored region of the Coast Range that actually holds impressive natural and recreational resources. If the push succeeds, they say, new economic activity in surrounding towns should be invigorated by enhanced visitation.

But for that to work – as our foray into Cedar Roughs demonstrated – improved access must speedily become a top priority.

The first 2 miles of our uphill route lay on a rustic, volunteer-built path; the next mile consisted only of faded trail tape knotted to twigs; but our fourth mile had been a brutal, improvised slog.

“I love this,” Fulks said, as he leaned down to take a close-up photo of a wild flower with his iPhone. “No exotic species, just native plants doing their thing. This is a real wilderness.”

The proposed new monument would run 100 miles northward from the cool, trout-fishing waters of Putah Creek on the edge of Solano County to the rocky crest of Snow Mountain, at 7,000 feet, the highest point on the shared border between Lake and Colusa counties. It would embrace oak woodlands, grasslands, conifer uplands, wild and scenic streams, three off-highway vehicle recreation areas, and fling arms of protected land around the 21,000 acres of the Lake Berryessa reservoir (which itself would not be included). The whole region is a home to tule elk and black bear, osprey and eagles.

“It’s a spectacular place for all kinds of recreation, it’s got diverse and beautiful wildlife and native vegetation – especially the spring wildflower displays,” says U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Fairfield, whose 3rd District holds most of the proposed monument. “It will become widely known as a special place in California if we can only get this done, then integrate a unified management for the whole area.”

He points out that more than 9 million people are living within a two-hour drive of the proposed monument. Lake Berryessa itself is just 40 miles from Sacramento, 20 from Napa and 50 from San Francisco.

Garamendi credits Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, of the adjoining 5th District with launching and spearheading the bill for this new monument and says they are both trying to whip votes for it in Congress – either with a stand-alone bill that’s in committee, or by bundling it into a lands omnibus package.

Simultaneously, a parallel route to designation – via presidential proclamation – is also being sought. President Barack Obama’s naming of three more national monuments in February, including the 21,000-acre Browns Canyon preserve in Colorado, brings the president’s total to 16 named during his administration, and inspires hope that he might see a Snow Mountain-Berryessa monument as one more part of his legacy.

Another cause for optimism on the part of proponents is simply how many proponents there are. “Our town hall meetings have been packed with supporters,” says Sara Husby, the executive director of Tuleyome, and its manager of the monument campaign. “We’ve gathered expressions of support from 80,000 individuals, 200 local businesses, and gotten resolutions in favor from five of the most affected counties.”

The support ranges across stakeholders and user-groups, including the off-highway vehicle advocacy organization, Blue Ribbon Coalition, that signed on after negotiating assurances that a major BLM (federal Bureau of Land Management) riding area in Knoxville and areas in the Grindstone and Upper Lake districts of Mendocino National Forest would remain unaffected.

This does not mean that nobody objects. Colusa County, which includes a small slice of existing wilderness in the Mendocino National Forest, is not in favor.

Nadine Bailey is the operations officer for the Maxwell Family Water Alliance, with more than 2,000 members – primarily drawn from ranchers and farmers from the Sacramento Valley. “We don’t support monument designation,” Bailey says. “It’ll just put one more layer of government on a landscape that already has too many hoops to jump through when you’re trying to get something done – like thinning out overgrowth to lessen fire danger. Fuel loads already are way too high in those hills. If they burn, it’ll wreck the watersheds.”

Garamendi counters that management of monument lands – which would bring together federal, state and local agencies with concerned stakeholders and user groups – would just unify government, not add a layer. And it would tend to preserve water quality, not only through joint projects like controlled burns, but mainly by sponsoring concerted efforts to rid the region of illegal marijuana grows.

Other doubters, such as the tiny Lake Berryessa Chamber of Commerce, wonder if the claimed economic benefits of a monument designation can materialize. Over the past dozen years, Berryessa has undergone an upheaval that saw several shoreline resorts dismantled, and visitation plunge from 1.5 million people a year to a third of that number. That change also removed a jumble of private trailers and corresponding access and pollution problems. Their replacement by public campgrounds, day-use areas and new concessionaires is underway, but visitation has yet to rebound.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the lake, plans a 165-mile-long multiple-use trail to encircle the lake, providing not only a route for hikers, but also a venue for running, equestrian and mountain bike events – adding to the lake’s traditional draws of power boating, angling and waterskiing. This rim trail will have spokes that radiate out to other attractions in the monument, some already under construction. Tuleyome volunteers have built a 7.5-mile route to Berryessa Peak, routes up onto Blue Ridge and begun a link between Putah and Pope canyons, as well as establishing the 2-mile north entry to Cedar Roughs.

Napa County’s Regional Park and Open Space District presently is concluding negotiations for a parcel that would allow a much shorter east access into the Roughs, directly from a site on Berryessa’s shore.

That means it might not be much longer than a year or two before other visitors – but expending far less effort than Fulks and I did – can enjoy the fragrant cedar groves we found up on the mesa. Truth be told, these are not really cedars, but Sargent cypresses, trees endemic to California and particularly fond of serpentine soils that are thoroughly inhospitable to many other types of plant.

We broke out of the brush and into a quiet swale dominated by a grove of shaggy trunks twisting up out of a thick carpet of brown duff. Six stories over our heads, vivid green needles formed a canopy framing ragged patches of blue sky. I sat on a mossy rock to relax, and inhaled the spicy aroma of resin, and listened to breezes swishing through the boughs. We had come to a peaceful and magical spot. All around the rim of the grove, vistas of Coast Range hills rippled out to the horizons.

I rubbed some of the stout, fragrant needles between my fingers, and beckoned to Fulks.

“Well, as it happens, you were right,” I told him.


Cedar Roughs Wilderness – Access is via a trailhead near the Canyon Road, 2.2 miles west of the junction with the Knoxville Road. Get map and directions from BLM Ukiah,

Cache Creek – A 7-mile, mild whitewater run on this stream in the proposed monument will have enough water for flows through most of June and July. The outfitters are: Cache Canyon,; Rubicon Adventures,; and Whitewater Adventures,

Tuleyome – This Coast Range conservation group provides a comprehensive list of trails, hikes, recreation opportunities and volunteer activities:

Lake Berryessa – Recreation directly around the big lake is managed by the federal Bureau of Reclamation,; contacts with area resorts and visitor-serving businesses are also supplied by local chambers of commerce,, and

Mendocino National Forest – Manages the Snow Mountain Wilderness and other recreational assets in the northern portion of the proposed national monument:

Archives: Other Northern California Lighthouses

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Follows the Course of Maritime History

September 16, 2012
By Paul McHugh

Conquistador and explorer Juan Cabrillo sailed right by the narrow entry to San Francisco Bay without noticing it in 1542. For two additional centuries, other adventurous sea captains like Sir Francis Drake and Sebastian Vizcaino kept on missing the Golden Gate. Only after the entrance was discovered and ships began to seek passage into the bay in 1775 did they discover the strait’s dangers as well.

Trying to thread the rock-rimmed eye of this navigational needle – worried by potent currents, blasted by wind and obscured by fog – was not for the faint of heart. It presented a test that many skippers failed. A classic book, “Shipwrecks at the Golden Gate,” details the sinking of nearly a hundred ships here, as well as twice that many vessels stranded, rammed or capsized in the same area.Point-Bonita-Lighthouse

Some remedy finally arrived. “Let there be lights,” said Congress in 1852, and it proceeded to establish the United States Light House Service. After the Point Bonita lighthouse was erected on a promontory of the Marin County headlands in 1855, the shining beam of its whale-oil lamp, focused on a horizontal plane by prisms of an imported Fresnel lens, began to guide mariners into safe harbor.

Today, the Point Bonita light and others on the California shore are beacons for people who look for a great excuse to make an approach from the inland side. They can visit lighthouses to enjoy cool ocean vistas, to target recreational opportunities in the coastal region, to spot migratory whales in fall or spring, and to inhale a whiff of history.

A rebuilt footbridge re-opened public access all the way out to the Point Bonita light in April, and visitors can now undertake the half-mile walk to the historic site between 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays for free. Such visitation is enabled and guided by citizen- volunteers of the 75,000-acre Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which surrounds the overlook.

On a recent Monday, several dozen visitors of many ages and nationalities lined up for Point Bonita. A volunteer unlocked a steel door set in a lichen-splashed cliff of coastal rock, then led the way through a hand-hewn, 118-foot-long tunnel carved by Chinese laborers in 1877. That was when the light, originally placed much higher on the hillside, was moved to its current elevation so it could shine its beams below the high fogs.

Next, a visitor reaches several photographic vantage points for the light, and finally, a 132-foot pedestrian bridge that stretches to the lighthouse proper.

In the early days, a perilous footpath led the way out to the light for the keeper and his “wickies” (assistants), but that crumbled away, requiring an access bridge to be built in 1954. It too succumbed to the onslaught of ocean weather and was demolished in 2010.

The new suspension bridge uses abutments from the old one, and bears more than a passing resemblance to its humongous orange sister to the east – the Golden Gate Bridge – although this smaller conveyance is white, and needless to say, closed to vehicular traffic. Walking on it, you will notice a bit of sway, a small amount of bounce, enough to add a dose of excitement as you stroll a hundred feet above the base of wave-lashed cliffs.

Once across, you’ll see the iron lighthouse structure close-up, as well as the stout foghorn building and a small set of historic displays, and meet the informative volunteers who seem eager to share the lore of this site.

“I’ve hiked all over the GGNRA with my husband, and I felt like I wanted to contribute something back,” said an ebullient Elizabeth Hoffman. “People really enjoy coming out here.

“The only thing that can detract from a visit is if they forget to bring a windbreaker. Or try to hike down the trail in flip-flops or high heels.”

At the Point Bonita lighthouse, history lessons arrive in different forms. The progress of the illumination source itself comprises a mini-course in tech development: whale oil lamp (1855-70); kerosene wick lamp (1870-1913); incandescent vapor lamp (1913-27); electric bulb (1927-present) – the latter now a 1,000-watt item replaced every six months by the Coast Guard.

And the foghorn out here rode a similar technical trajectory, from cannon fire every half-hour back in 1856 to an electric horn that now gets triggered automatically when a laser detects enough moisture in the atmosphere.

When you drive across the Golden Gate Bridge at 45 mph, keeping your eye on the traffic that hurtles ahead and behind, it’s quite hard to take in the majesty of the strait below you and seaward with anything more than a swift glance. However, once you walk out to the Point Bonita light, you’ll find abundant space and time to appreciate the vastness of the sea and the stately in-and-out passage of deep-water vessels.

You may even indulge in casting your thoughts back to the wiry old salts with “h-o-l-d f-a-s-t” tattooed on their knuckles, clinging to the lofty spars of tall ships as they rode the prevailing westerlies in through a perilous passage, seeking respite and refuge in one of the most lovely harbors sailors ever found.

Archives: Foraging

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Paul McHugh comments:

I never met the fabled Hal Silverman in person. He was editor of “California Living”— one of three (count ‘em, three!) magazines that ran in the Sunday edition of the combined San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner in the late 1970s. Though we had strictly  professional contact, via mail and phone, let me just say, that guy Hal was one hell of a sugar daddy to a whole generation of Northern California writers. Through the Sunday Examiner/Chronicle, with a readership of more than a million, he bestowed upon us a huge  distribution of our stories, as well as a decent check for doing our best. Here’s one of my favorites from the “California Living” era.

The Worth of a Pineapple

Drip. Drop. It took a moment for me to realize – that muffled, offbeat percussion I heard came from rain hitting my sleeping bag. But I drowsed back into sleep, hoping that by waking up differently, I might arrive in a different world. One where it might not be raining. That ploy didn’t work. So I writhed out of the soggy, Army-Surplus, “down” (feather, really!) bag. I tossed the bag into the camper shell on the back of my truck.

Then, still yawning and stiff, by early morning’s wet, gray, light, I tottered down to the riverside.

The Eel River, choked with rain and snowmelt, looked cold and blue as steel. Powerful, twisting current ran deep and fast. Over on the opposite bank, some forty yards away, I could see a canoe pulled up, out of the water and under the trees. I knew a solitary resident of this place used it for crossing back and forth. Right now, he seemed “forth.”

No help for it. If I stood here any longer under the deluge of spring, I’d get soaked anyhow.

So I stripped, and tucked the roll of my clothes and boots in the dry shadow of a big, lichen-smeared boulder. Then I walked my naked body into the icy Eel. By leaning upstream as I waded, and planting the spread toes of my bare feet carefully on the slippery, rounded cobbles of the riverbed, I was able to cross many yards before it got so deep that I was forced to dive in and swim.

Upon reach the far shore, instead of shivering and aching with cold – as I’d anticipated – I found that my body steamed with exhilaration and warmth.

I scrambled up the riverbank, then bounded along a well-worn path that led to a friend’s cabin.

The door was unlocked, so after knocking on it, I barged on through. Tayhanay was still lounging in bed. Bare and streaming river water, I stood before him. He cocked one sleepy eye up at me.

“You could have yelled,” he said, sleepy and amused. “I would have gotten up, paddled the canoe over, and gotten you.”

I shrugged. “Didn’t seem right, to do a lot of yelling out here.”

He smiled, arose, stoked the fire, dressed, put a kettle on.

After drinking hot tea, we shuttled the canoe across the river, collected my clothes and equipment, and returned. I sat by his wood stove and soaked up warmth as Tayhanay cooked breakfast.

“Want some?” he offered. “There’s plenty.”

“Thanks, but no. I should tell you the reason I’m here. For the next four days, my plan is to eat nothing at all – except for the things that I can forage.”

He looked at me thoughtfully. “So. You know all about foraging, eh?”

“Nope!” I admitted. “Just miner’s lettuce. But I have some manuals. And if I don’t eat anything but forage items, that should give me plenty of incentive. Especially after a day or two.”

He seemed amused, unsurprised. Just as he had when I’d showed up wet and naked at his door. Call him, Mr. Imperturbable. He probably saw me as Mr. Improbable.

“More tea?”

“No. I’ve announced the program to you, so that means I’ve started. It’ll be strict observance. Just like the discipline of Cistercian monks.”

“It’s pennyroyal,” he explained, with perhaps a surfeit of patience. “From here.” With a hand sweep, he gestured toward the forested curves of the Northern California hills that ranged outside the cabin windows.

“Ah,” I said, and held out my cup.

After visiting for a bit, we went walking through the brush and wild meadows.

“Brodeias,” Tayhanay said, indicating a small purple flower nodding atop a short stem. “Flower, stem and bulb, all edible. Miwoks used it as a dietary staple. You may wish to consider the native attitude, and not pick too many from the same place. Treat plants with gratitude and respect, so they can prosper. Then they will see to it that you prosper, too. That’s the way life was lived, back then.”

As I plucked a brodeia bloom and thoughtfully chewed it, my mouth filled first with the cool moisture of raindrops, then the delicate savor of the petals. The flavor was earthy, herbal and light, all at the same time. During the next four days, no matter what else I found to nibble upon, these flowers would remain my favorites.

That morning in the meadows, Tayhanay showed me wild clover, edible grass roots and the green spikes of storksbill. Then, along the gulches where ephemeral creeks writhed down the hills, the flat wrinkled stars of soaproot.

Edible and Useful Plants of California. Charlotte Clark.

My foraging manuals were, “Wild Edible Plants,” by Donald Kirk, and “Edible and Useful Plants of California,” by Charlotte Clark. They seemed attractive and well-organized books, but I was happy having a friend who lived out here who could provide a personal introduction to the entities that Frank Zappa calls, “our green and yellow friends.”

That afternoon, walking alone and toting my collection sacks, I made my way along a high ridge. I knelt to dig up the tiny bulbs of brodeias with a sheath knife. Once stripped of their rough and hairy outer jacket, the bulbs were revealed as pale, shiny pearls that crunched, sweet and juicy, between my teeth.

As I ascended, meadows changed to chaparral, which grew steadily more dense and tangled.

Chamise, ceanothus with long flowering branches, red-barked Manzanita and scrub oak all competed for survival on the steep, poor soil, their interlaced branches forming a barrier nearly impermeable to progress. I wound up on my hands and knees, crawling along animal trails.

Delicate doe tracks printed the dusty earth. I found dry, broken rolls of coyote and bobcat scat. No plants looked very edible. I began to question the wisdom of expending energy on the climb. As a forager, it was probably smarter to stick around the lush meadows, where I knew I could find food.

Then, as I crawled around a bend in the trail, the shape of a bizarre, corrugated fungus caught my eye. It looked positively venomous, but it reminded me of a photo I’d seen in the Clark book. I pulled it out, found the page, and made my first solo identification: the fungus was a morel mushroom – Morchella esculens. Not just edible, it was supposed to be a culinary delicacy!

Clark wrote that morels could only grow where there was lots of fertile humus. I looked at the chaparral I’d been struggling through with fresh respect. Alchemizing sunshine into dark soil over decades, these tough plants had managed to lay down a layer of organic molecules rich enough to produce this sort of food. I left a few of the larger morels growing, to spore out and propagate their kind. The rest, I collected.

Near the summit of the ridge, I came across another beautiful meadow, where someone had once leveled a circle for a tipi. I saw a crude fence of stakes pounded into the ground around an overgrown garden and a springbox. Here, I gathered the young leaves of plantains (another positive identification from the books).

A light rain, almost a mist, began to fall, shrouding the river canyon from view.

But to my north, I could see a tall grove of Douglas firs. I hiked to these evergreens, and among them found a magic glen, where game trails laced through thick hummocks of bracken fern. As the tall firs swished and creaked high overhead, I picked soft “fiddleheads” from the tips of young ferns. I admired their symmetrical spirals, like chlorophyllic watchsprings. Each one looked about ready to twang out into a verdant frond.

By the time I finally came off the ridge, air in the lower canyon had grown blue and thick with dusk. The river chanted softly in my ears as I strolled up the footpath to my friend’s cabin. Sitting by his woodstove, I spread out my haul.

Tayhanay had already been feasting on coffee, panbread and vegetable stew. I noted that my nose had grown keenly appreciative of the aromas of cooking food, just one day into my planned forage-fast. He held up a dripping ladle of hot stew, and invited me to have some.

“Now, y’know,” he said – like an avuncular Mephisopheles – “anyone living out here in the old days would’ve had a garden, and a supply of stored grains and seeds. You wouldn’t be breaking your deal if you had a bowl of this.”

His eyes crinkled with glee as he blended the roles of tempter and host. This apparition, I can only describe as Coyote.

My gut growled a vote to take a bowl of stew and enjoy it. However, I turned it down. I still had to grant Coyote’s point – I did not need to be Puritanical, or strict to the point of self-righteousness. I borrowed a splash of mustard oil to saute’ the cog-shaped slices I sawed with my knife out of the morel mushrooms. As a hedge against mis-identification, I ate a small chunk and waited 30 minutes. Then a larger piece, and waited an hour. I was not bothered by so much as the twinge of a cramp, so I then happily munched my way through a panful. Urp!!

But I was less charmed by the steamed fiddleheads and plantains; both were strong and bitter. Their taste brought to mind the high mineral and vitamin content of wild plants. . . as well as the datum that bracken is supposed to be toxic and carcinogenic if consumed in quantity. They’re not alone in this. Even apple seeds contain hydrogen cyanide. Tomatoes are kissin’-cousins to deady nightshade. My foraging books, emphasized that only when carefully identified, selectively harvested and properly prepared, did wild plants offer valuable nutrition.

Assessing my condition at dawn on the second day, I did feel somewhat fortified, even though breakfast was simply a re-heat of the previous night’s dinner.


“What’s that?” I was startled by rapid gunfire.

“Just the dominant culture’s kneejerk response to wilderness,” Tayhanay said. “Idiots like to drive out of town to a spot across the river, and play with their guns. Sometimes I go over and scream at them. But I just don’t feel up to it today. Yet.”

“POW! POW! POW!. . .” The shooting trailed off, and stopped as abruptly and inexplicably as it had begun.

In meadows by the river, I dined on sunshine, sweet clover and soaproot. For the soaproot, I dug with my knife under the flat, crinkled stars of the leaves. While I did so, I thought about the so-called Digger Indians, a non-existent tribe that white settlers seemed to see everywhere. They accused these “Diggers” of indolence and sloth. But it takes a great deal of patience to extract a root. Perhaps whites would have been better impressed if the Indians harvested roots with hydraulic mining, the way the settlers took gold – and left behind denuded moonscapes and piles of sludge.

The soaproot was a bit hard to swallow as food. That name alone should have warned me. Supposedly, the Miwoks not only used it as a source of starch, but also as a soap, a treatment for dandruff, and would also mash up the whole plant and throw it into streams to stupefy fish. Following the manuals, I did peel the bulbs, and then boiled and drained them twice. My gorge still rose. With tears in my eyes, I did manage to choke down some of what I had cooked. Then, feeling fairly stupefied, I went to bed.

Trout swam away from me in my dreams.

On the third day, I found a new meadow, and browsed and storksbill. Though I’d gathered and eaten stuff almost continually during daylight hours, the actual mass of stuff I’d eaten was fairly tiny compared to what my body was used to consuming. And I saw clearly that I was expending much more energy to get my food. There’s a world of difference between hiking all over a hill, and pushing a cart down the aisle of a grocery store. To put the obvious bluntly: foraging makes you conscious of the value of food molecules in a whole new way.

I knew pounds were melting off my body. Some sensations felt characteristic of a fast. My body seemed to become more permeable to light and sound. The dull, omnipresent murmur of the river drifted steadily through me. A spectral power of the earth seemed to be rising up into me from the soil.

Bit by edible bit, I gradually became more expert. For example, the biggest storksbill spikes were far from the best. I found that the smaller ones had tiny buds of the sweetest flavor, and less woody fiber to chew.

Had a tribal elder been around to mention this, I wouldn’t have needed to spit out so many wads of soggy cellulose.

But the teachers who could have helped me gather the secrets that lay in plain sight among the groves, the grasses and the river pools had been decimated, nearly exterminated, a century ago. Even Tayhanay was just a smart, skinny old white guy, trying to insert himself one stage further back into the wild landscape than most modern people care to go.

I looked out at the rumpled patchwork of chaparral plant communities quilting the hillsides, and gazed at the distant sway of the dark firs. So many plant beings. Hundreds! All with their individual natures and potential uses, woven into a dense and deep, complex tapestry. I only nibbled upon its fringe. How much of the hoard of millennial wisdom had been been lost, and blindly destroyed.

Not far from the Eel River, the Hill Patwin tribe had once ranged around a “strong medicine” area that we now call Wilbur Hot Springs. Mabel McKay, one of the last of that tribe, had her talk recorded by an anthropologist. Her quotes were later used in an Environmental Impact Statement. That’s one cool thing about an EIS; the number of nuggets like that which you can find, buried in the heaps of bureaucratese.

“They had many trails for going-out and coming-in,” Mabel said of her Patwin people. “They’d go out on one trail and return on a different one, so they wouldn’t disturb the animals and the plants. That’s what they called destroying things, if you just tramped over them. You go that way, you go this way, and there’s no opening for the food to grow. That’s what happens today. People go this way and that way and every way. That’s why there’s no food. People destroy it. People-Destroying-Their-Own-Food, it’s called.”

I closed my eyes, and envisioned immense rents torn in the earth’s fabric. I closed my fingers around the small storksbill that I held in one hand. A needle, to sew a thread or two across one of those vast tears. How many sutures would it take to tug it fully closed? And did we have enough time to make the effort?

That’s the pathos of our ethos.

At length, I came calmly to the end of the fourth day of my forage-fast. As the sun dropped and shadows slowly thickened in the canyon, I used Tayhanay’s canoe to go across the river to my truck. I rooted around in the back, found the box that held a ripe pineapple, then ceremonially carried it back to the cabin.

I had planned for this moment. Before I had even left my hometown of Mendocino on this trip to the Eel, I had researched the amount of energy and effort expended by my culture to bring that particular pineapple to my neighborhood store.

This pineapple had been grown on the Wahiawa Plantation in Oahu, Hawaii. It was either from the first harvest or the first ratoon (second crop from the same plant). It had been twisted and broken from the stem by hand, by one of a line of agricultural workers following conveyor booms of a huge harvester/tractor as it was driven through the long rows of the plantation.

Bins packed right aboard this tractor were then driven by flatbed truck to the Dole packing plant in Honolulu, where the pineapples were dipped in a fungicide solution.

Then my pineapple was sorted, labled, sized and packed in a crate. The box was stacked, wrapped with others in a cardboard slipsheet called a Pulpak, and trundled via forklift into a steel shipping container supplied by the Matson Navigation Company.
At this point, my pineapple began to be refrigerated. The container was unplugged was grabbed by a crane and loaded onto a ship, the Maukai, and there it was promptly plugged in to another outlet on the deck. On voyage number 213, the Manukai sailed to Oakland, and docked at the Matson wharves.

A shorebased gantry crane seized the container holding my pineapple, raised it, plonked it down on the wharf, and a mobile crane called a straddle-carrier snatched it up and ran it to a storage zone where it was plugged in for another jolt of voltage.

Soon, a driver named George, who handles a GMC tractor-trailer rig for Sunset Produce, drove over the Bay Bridge from San Francisco to pick up the container.

He delivered it to Giovanni, who opened the container and spread its contents out with his other wares at the San Francisco Commerical Market.

Denny and Jim, who make pick-ups for “The Corners of the Mouth,” our health-food store in Mendocino, arrived in a bulk deliver truck they nick-named The Blue Goose, scored some boxes of pineapple from Giovanni, loaded them up with their other purchases, then headed back home to Mendocino.

We Mendo locals just refer to that store, located in an old church building, as, “Corners.” That’s where I found an almost-perfectly-ripe pineapple to put in my truck and bring with me on my trip inland to the Eel River and Tayhanay’s riverside cabin.

And then, inside that cabin, I hefted that pineapple in the same right hand that on the previous day had held a little, peeled bit of storksbill. This weighty tropical fruit held perhaps a thousand times the edible bulk of that little piece of wild plant. The amount of time, effort, fuel and energy expended by my culture to bring me that fresh pineapple was staggering.

I pulled out my now-fairly-dull sheath knife, and carefully sawed the pineapple into long eighths, and offered Tayhanay a slice. Then I raised a slice to my own lips. I chewed my way into it, as warm, sweet, stinging juice ran abundantly over my chin.

Oh, yes. Price. The pineapple cost me eighty-nine cents.

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Paul McHugh comments:

I’ll always feel grateful to the poets, musicians, actors, singers, potters, painters and other creative types that made Mendocino a counter-cultural mecca during the period I lived there, 1976-1983. One queen of alternate style in town was Liz Helenchild, a.k.a. “Late-Nite Liz” – her on-air handle. I won’t burn space here recapitulating the story below. I’ll just say, our community radio station KMFB circulated mental and spiritual lifeblood. Liz was a night nurse who helped that happen. I’m posting this story (it originally ran in the Mendocino A-and-E magazine in 1984) not only to celebrate Liz, but a magical era in that area. Also to suggest what FM radio once was, and what it could be again. On my kayak trip down the North Coast in 2005, I found a renegade Wall Street financier trying to recreate the phenomenon of community radio in the Arcata-Eureka-Ferndale region. It can be done! Here’s how.

The Swan Song of Late-Nite Liz

It felt like your friend was on the air, keeping you informed. There wasn’t any of the formality of the professional radio announcer. She was family.”

Sue Carrell, innkeeper

There’s a progression to the music she plays. You arrive somewhere, after you listen to Late-Nite Liz for a while.”

Cindy Frank, baker

We’d be wiped out after a hard day of fishing, come in to anchor in some lonesome cove, ice down the fish, then switch on the FM while cooking dinner. And that warm and sexy voice would be right there. Liz always was a real bright spot in the fisherman’s day.”

Nat Bingham, salmon troller

I’d tune her in later on, on my way home from the restaurant. Only time I’d ever listen to the radio. I really wish she weren’t leaving. I wish Liz could stay on the air.”

David Jones, restaurateur

It’s 10 p.m. in the Pygmy Forest. Inside a small concrete building with light spilling from its windows, a pretty woman  who looks like a beatnik version of Snow White (sandals, black pants, black turtleneck, purple shawl, big silver ear hoops, and a snow-and-rose face framed by luxuriant black curls) slips on headphones and leans unshyly toward the mike.

“Hah,” she drawls. “This is Late-Nite Liz with nothing much to do but dish it up for you. . . so let me hear what you want to hear. Ah’ll try to stir it in and spin it out, here on tonight’s edition of Wild Hair Radio.”

The Pygmy Forest is one of the few natural coastal areas suitable for erection of a radio broadcast mast. It’s an unusual stretch of low, bonsai cypress and scrub hidden among towering groves of fir, pine and redwood, midway between the towns of Mendocino and Fort Bragg. Late-Nite Liz is Liz Helenchild, an unusual infusion of Texas talent, who in six short years  became the North Coast’s closest thing to a homegrown media star.

Unfortunately, she’s a star going into apparent eclipse. Which is why I make myself present at the station during two of her final shows. It’s a last chance to see some of her magic in the making, magic of a sort now going increasingly rare.

Disc jockeys were the natural heroes of an entire American generation. They were the ones who knew what was about to happen, way back when rock-n-roll was a single obscure station way down at the end of the AM dial. They led us song by song through a change in consciousness, and did it with music that provided catalysts and then anthems of our times.

There are very few deejays around now who could fulfill that job description, or who could still cop to its sense of mission. Liz is one.  In fact, she’s probably a phenomenon even more unusual than that. Somewhat sheltered in Mendocino, like a flower in the wilderness, from vicissitudes sweeping through the broadcast industry, she represents a post-graduate form of a largely vanished breed. Which makes her disenfranchisement from the air that much more the end of an era.

Seconds after Liz makes her pitch for requests, the control panel winks with lights as phone lines fill with incoming calls. She answers each one graciously, as if she had all the time in the world. Then suddenly she’s up and darting along the shelves of the record library, pulling out the selections that will launch themes for the evening of airplay. She cues up these cuts on the station’s big Technics turntables. Then she dashes off to rip teletype sheets out of the AP wire machine, and rapidly edits them into a newscast by ripping out the best bits with a sharp steel trowel. It’s a one-woman act, and she has it timed to the micro-second. Hair flying about her face like a brunette whirlwind, she slides into her seat with no time to spare, and turns up the potentiometer on the next cut just as the last begins to fade. It’s a seamless performance. If you happened to be cruising in your car down Highway One with the radio tuned to KMFB-FM, you might also swear that it was effortless. Not hardly.

“I guess you could describe me as kind of a classical music beatnik in high school,” Liz says, as the turntables spin. “There weren’t too many of us. We were all classed as deviants. For me, it was a combination of the wild hair that I have, and this smart mouth that I have. And another part was a decision I made in the fourth grade, that since I was never going to be one of those fluff-headed popular people, I might as well make an art form out of being different.

“I used to see Janis Joplin around at folk sings and such. That was the great education for me in Texas, by the way, sitting around too much drinking coffee and listening to all the great minds rave. After I heard Joplin sing, I thought, now this is a lady I can identify with.”

Liz acquired a degree (anthropology), took over a night jazz show at a college radio station, worked as a fashion illustrator and lab tech – and then decided it was high time to break out of Texas.

“People there would get locked into roles with each other, and if you ever tried to leave your role, they’d just rear up and squash you back into it. Actually, though, the truth is that I got kicked out of Texas because I don’t drink beer. The San Antonio Chamber of Commerce found out about that, and had me escorted to the border.”

Liz found a new niche for her vocal talents as a dispatcher for Berkeley’s alternative transport system, Taxi Unlimited. Then she was invited to visit Mendocino by a friend, and fell in love at first sight with the town. She quickly moved up and in, attached herself to the Uncommon Good (a popular coffee house of the 70’s), and dove into the local music scene. Poet Bill Bradd, after finding out about her earlier broadcast experience, asked her to run the board at KMFB during a variety show. They concocted her moniker, Late-Nite Liz, just before air time, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Time to go back to the mike.

“We have a lost dawg near road 409,” Liz says, transmitting the bulletin that came in on one of her listener calls. “Apparently, it’s a male dawg in love. He slipped his collar and took off into the lonesome night. He’s a tan hound who answers – or quite probably just now does not answer – to the name of Raffles.”

Five nights a week for the past six years, Liz’s wit and wisdom, cozily wrapped in a soft Texas drawl for their voyage out into the darkness, have been sent through this microphone, up past the flashing red lights of the broadcast tower, and slung across the valleys and ridges of the Coast, flying north to the wildness of Whale Gulch, inland to hills above Willits and Boonville, and south – depending on atmospheric conditions – as far as Point Arena.

Her most devout listeners have been hermetic cabin-dwellers who must get power for their radios from solar panels, or batteries bought on their monthly trips to town. For them, Liz is legendary, an avatar of the airwaves, often their only steady link to the World Outside. For others, closer in and possessing telephones, Liz serves as an amiable switchboard, connecting folks like semi-retired Cat Mother members, Judy Mayhan, and ex-Byrd Gene Parsons to their still-loyal clientele in the region, and also running the tapes of worthy newcomers like Lawrence Bullock and Charles Tyler. Prior to their gigs at local clubs, Liz brings locals and visiting groups on the air for spontaneous interviews and live performances.

It’s all part of what she calls, “creative community radio, including local musicians, topical songs. . . putting some kind of appropriate soundtrack together for the movie we seem to be shooting out here. Community radio is not all that common in the nation right now. But it could be. It should be. It’s a real alternative to all the formula stuff you’re starting to hear.”

The musical realms Liz plunders to assemble her sets are not limited to local music, or historic rock, contemporary sounds, jazz, or blues. . . and a case could be made that she actually doesn’t feel limited by anything. If the station disc and tape libraries don’t happen to meet her needs, well, she’s famed for raiding the record collections of friends. On a given evening, depending on her mood and the general psychic weather, her listeners could be treated to anything from Bessie Smith to Tibetan monastery bells, from tapes of obscure Grateful Dead concerts to the latest Michael Jackson. During a recent lunar eclipse, when she continued for hours past her customary midnight sign-off in order to “drum the light back,” she found herself laying a Keith Jarret piano solo over Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue.

“They meshed wonderfully,” she says.

Such rogue inspirations are all part of what Liz calls the Joys of Segue.

“It’s always amazing how it comes to me what the next pieces of music will be. There is a certain musical logic, and if you’re working a theme, finding the next selection can be pretty straightforward. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had something cued up on the turntable, and just a second before it plays, someone calls up and requests it.

“Sometimes I get a more subtle feeling. As if all this electronic gear receives as well as it broadcasts, so as I send out the signal, there’s a subtle undercurrent flowing back in towards me. One time I got a wild hair to play a Tchaikovsky violin concerto in the middle of the show. That seemed plenty strange, but since it was a strong flash, I did it. A month later, I’m over in the hills, and I find a person who’d been practicing that concerto all day, learning to play it. The version I ran was the same she first remembered hearing as a child. She said it was an amazing experience to hear it over the air that night, as she was getting ready to fall asleep.”

Springing from whatever well of inspirational association, Liz’s selected cuts are laid snugly against each other and sent out into the mind of the listener, there to reassemble as a glowing matrix of connections, a slowly spinning gestalt of the most interesting sounds humans have committed to shellac and cellulose.

“Vibeskeeper,” Liz calls her job, playing with language in a way that delights her fans but would probably turn William Safire apopleptic. “I’m the person sitting next to the jukebox with a roll of quarters, rocking the whole bar.”

She relaxes somewhat from the fervor of her crank-up pace, and takes a moment to do a few stretches in front of the control panel. Besides broadcast, dance is a ruling passion; she’s a regular at all sorts of dance classes and performances in the Mendocino area.

Things are going smoothly, but this final night of Wild Hair Radio doesn’t take off and soar into hyperspace until Liz reads a news item about the death of the “Lady In Black,” a fan who brought roses to Valentino’s tomb for 28 years. That prompts a spin of Yoko Ono’s “I’m Your Angel” which segues into “You Got to Go to Sleep Alone,” by Rosalie Sorrels, and so on and on, into a long musical meditation on loss and faithful love. The phone lights wink on like fireflies. As Liz dances over to answer them, I think, what station manager in his right mind would ever dream of letting this woman go?”

The freewheeling format of Liz’s show found its genesis in the days when the station was owned by Steve Ryan, a young tycoon whose control over the station’s format and bottom line were neither quite absolute. His main concerns were that the shows be bright and creative, and the gear kept in good shape for his own jazz shows, broadcast on Sunday afternoons. Consequently, a wide range of talent in quest of a mike found airtime at KMFB. Some of that talent swelled and collapsed from the overdose of opportunity. Liz’s talent just kept blossoming.

But then the station was sold to George Anderson, a radio pro from Los Angeles, whose regard for the bottom line was visceral. He soon found out that his new station was anathema to a conservative portion of the North Coast’s business community, who thought it catered to leftists, artists and hippies. After first trying to change the station’s image by making minor trims, Anderson began lopping off branches. He explored automating, running pre-recorded programs from syndicates. Some members of the community responded by exploring a consumer boycott of the station’s sponsors. By the time the dust had settled, Liz Helenchild was one of the few members of the old-time KMFB cadre who remained. But she was not fated to remain long. She posed a unique problem: How can you format what you cannot pigeonhole?

“I didn’t fire her,” Lindy Peters, the station’s general manager tells me carefully. He professes himself acutely aware of the Liz’s great popularity on the Coast. “And Rodger Layng, the programming director, didn’t fire her. All we said is, this is what is happening, and she wouldn’t do it. We wanted to go for a light sound. Familiar songs, mellow stuff. Liz played a lot of mainstream music, but it was unbalanced by all the experimental things she did.

“Other than that, I have no complaints about Liz. She reads well, has a great voice, knows music, and is very organized. But we wanted to develop a softer, more consistent sound. You know, if the Reverend Sun Myung Moon buys this station, and he pays me to be general manager, then Moonie music is what I’ll put on the air. You have to roll with punches in this business,” Lindy concludes. “You have to go with management.”

But Liz refuses to fit the Big Chill profile. Since Wild Hair Radio’s flights of fancy are increasingly being cropped short by the new management, Liz is gradually permitting herself to be encouraged to leave.

“The real spirit and intent of KMFB as I knew and loved it has been slowly and thoroughly strangled,” she sighs. “The last year-and-a-half has just been the meditation on the rotting corpse. These last few shows I get to do are only the scattering of the final dry bones.

“But, everything changes. This is only the ‘disappearing’ part of the cycle. It’s only my particular attachment that makes me sad. It’s a shame, but I think really good radio is being meatballed and wonderbreaded out of existence. Not just in this town of Mendocino, but in the country at large. Go anywhere, and it’s the same freeway signs and fast-food joints. Turn on the radio, and it’s the same 15 songs. The programming is all by formula. A lot of the owners have apparently gotten so they just see radio as an advertising medium, a money-making machine. They don’t give a damn about the product. There’s not a whole lot of interest left in using radio as a vehicle for important communications.

“So. Do you leave your mad lover, or do you stay for the sake of the children? I guess you stay as long as you can. Then go.”

As I listen to the last hour of her last show, its seamless web of sometimes obscure but always appropriate cuts seems to be Liz at her finest. The expanding musical matrix is a paean to the pangs of separation. The emotions mixed into this audio cocktail are a blend of humor, grief, and a transcendent relief.

Hoyt Axton’s “Bony Fingers” leads into “This Could Be The Last Time” by the Stones. Then comes Pete Seeger’s a capella, “Quiet Joys of Brotherhood,” Vaughan William’s with “Fantasia on Greensleeves,” Geof Morgan’s, “Finally Letting It Go,” next Leonard Cohen’s, “Sisters of Mercy,” and “Little Jewels,” by Gene Parsons.

Up to this point in the story, I’ve written about all of this in the present tense, in order to provide the reader with a sense of radio’s immediacy. But right here, it’s appropriate for us to shift into the past tense.

Another person who listened carefully to Liz’s final show that night was Karin Faulkner, co-founder of the Rain Straight Down poetry collective.

“I sat at home reading,” Faulkner said. “Because I knew I had to read or do something besides just listen, or I would’ve started crying. That show was a historic moment for the area, something important to witness.

“For me, she has always been the connecting force to everything that’s been going on here on the Coast. She is that medium. We don’t have anything else that does what Liz does. I’ve always been in such awe of her integrity. It’s seemed to me that if everything came down to that Great Apocalyptic End, we could keep it together through Liz’s radio show. I can see her at the mike, helping us to make it through. . .

“The next-to-last song she played was something like, ‘Bright morning stars are rising, day is a-breaking in my soul.’ Then she gave this very cool sign-off. I thought it was a recording or something. But then she came on the mike in a very warm voice, thanking everyone for all their help over the years. Then she turned up the volume of the song she’d been playing as background, under her voice. It was, “An Angel Watches Over Me,” by black gospel singers.

“I glanced at my friend, feeling a little bothered because he hadn’t said anything for a long time, and I saw he had tears running down his cheeks. We just looked at each other. When that song was over, that was it. The radio went silent, except for some scratchy static.

“The silence was really profound.”

NB: Liz and KMFB parted ways for more than a decade, 1984 to 1995. The station meandered through owners and operating philosophies. Then Liz was invited back. As of this posting, in December of 2008, she’s on the air with the “B-side Herself” radio show, 8 p.m.-midnight, Tuesdays through Thursdays. If you find yourself up in the Mendocino area, just tune her in. She’s at 92.7 on your FM dial.

Archives: Outdoor Business

By | Articles - Archives

Paul McHugh comments:
Nature has always been our teacher. This story, from 1985, reveals how outdoor adventurers Royal Robbins, Yvon Chouinard and others extracted lessons from their exploits in the wild that helped them achieve success in other realms. These visceral truths stand the test of time, and can apply to many different types of endeavor.

A Business Class in the School of Hard Rocks

The great gray face of Yosemite’s El Capitan dropped away for a sheer half-mile below the climber’s dangling feet.

It was 1967, the ninth day of the first attempted solo ascent of this soaring granite wall. Icy winds that had buffeted the man early in his climb had ebbed – to be replaced by other problems. Muscles aching from constantly repeated moves. Nerves that felt inflamed by the relentless need for focus. The hour was late, the light fading. And a crumbling crack that seemed his only possible route was bottoming out.

Sometimes at a crux like this, the tendency is to panic a bit and rush the thing. But the best way is to just go on being methodical. Precise and thorough.

The climber set a small, wired nut, attached a sling and tested it. Seemed good. He slowly added his weight. Then hope slid into sickened fascination as he saw the nut suddenly tear free and felt gravity pluck him from the vertical rock.

That “rurp,” that tiny piton placed below! Could it stop a fall . . . ? His plunge halted with a sharp jolt. OK. Time to drill and set an expansion bolt. Bolts might be a conscious violation of the new “clean-climbing” ethic he and others in his youthful Yosemite climbing group had forged, but he’d just demonstrated that one was necessary.

Up here, a slight miscalculation could prove fatal. Even so, waiting till one hit a total impasse to employ the security of a bolt was simply a matter of climbing with the proper style.

“The most important thing I got from climbing,” Royal Robbins says today, “was practice in discipline, practice in self-control. It’s a way of showing yourself that in this, as well as other areas of life, you can do it , through years of total concentration on something you’re really interested in.”

In the ’70s and ’80s, many American businessmen strove to grasp the theoretical underpinnings of Japanese economic success. Their search took them into explorations of Bushido , the traditional code of the Samurai, stressing self-discipline, bravery and simple living, and Buddhist concepts of poise and balance. They read books like Eugene Herrigel’s “Zen and the Art of Archery” and turned “The Book of Five Rings,” by 16th-century swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, into a modern American best-seller.

But perhaps this bout of cross-cultural paradigm-envy, while enlightening, was not that necessary. Ignored and obscured in our rush toward urban culture and recreation, there has existed all along a distinct American ethos based on the code of the frontiersmen, our not-so-distant ancestors, who as individuals had to develop the inner grit to triumph in hand-to-hand combat with the elements, and who, as a new society, had to employ the virtues of simplicity, directness and cooperation in order to survive.

Other cultures have produced great adventurers and explorers, of course, but only in America has the settling of an untamed wilderness played a large and recent role in the formation of national character.

Today’s high-risk outdoor sportsmen are the re-discoverers of that frontier ethic, the natural heirs of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Zebulon Pike. They may have to crawl a little farther out on the same limb to achieve a comparable inner effect, but they have wound up grappling with the same wild manifestations of death, danger and fear of the unknown.

Unlike the Samurai, their opponents are not other humans but wind, rock, ice and rushing water. Their discoveries are not new forests to trap or fertile valleys to settle, but new dimensions of the secrets of fitting one’s character to the forces of nature so that one can briefly inscribe one’s intended trajectory on the face of it.

“Be sure you’re right,” Davy Crockett used to say, “then go ahead!” The simple wisdom behind this frontier motto resonates in the words of modern adventurers, some of whom have demonstrated the practical application of what they’ve learned in another American proving ground: the realm of business.

The morning of his 10th day on El Capitan, a weary Royal Robbins hauled himself over the top. A disdain for publicity meant that only his wife, Liz, and fellow climber Glen Denny were there to appreciate his achievement. In the photo below (shot by Denny), although Royal has his wife by his side and a cup of champagne in his hand, one can see the bewhiskered jaw is still clenched, the cheeks taut, his eyes still blazing from the energies summoned to cope with the ordeal.

“I’ve never seen a face so drawn and tired,” Liz remembers. “I also felt he really needed to be with people, and he normally wasn’t that way at all. To see that look, and realize what it must’ve been like for him out there – I’ll never forget it.”

Today, 17 years later, Royal bounds into the kitchen of his rambling Spanish-style home in the Central Valley. Perspiration streaks his stylish zippered sweats, but it’s clear that three sets of tennis after work have merely invigorated him.

At 50, the man Galen Rowell called “the most accomplished rock-climber in America” is remarkably trim, fit and vital. His eyes still have that gimlet stare, but the face is rounder, softer, more open and relaxed. The only evidence I can see of his climbing days is a lone carabiner used to hold up vines arching over the garage where he parks his vintage Hudson.

Artifacts of a more current pursuit are everywhere. His gray polypropalene sweats were designed for the Royal Robbins sportswear line, as were the soft canvas gaucho shirt and long cotton bush pants being worn around the house by his elderly father-in-law, Eric Burkner.

Burkner, a prominent retired Modesto businessman, admits he “didn’t think much of the situation” when his daughter took up with a youth whose only visible means of support was an 11mm perlon rope, but says, “He’s turned out to be quite a decent chap.”

And the mail-order outdoor-equipment enterprise Robbins began in the basement of Burkner’s paint store has turned into quite a decent business, supplying a coordinated line of Robbins sportswear (mostly designed by Liz), outdoor gear and more than 400 titles in sports and nature books to 1100 retailers throughout North America. The company is climbing from a gross last fiscal year of $4.5 million to more than $7 million in 1985, accelerating toward a goal of $25 million by 1990.

A high school dropout (“I didn’t want to let school stand in the way of my education”), Robbins credits his progress as an entrepreneur to lessons learned in his years on the rocks.

“I approach business the same way I approach climbing,” Robbins says. “I use what works in climbing.”

A principle he grasped early on, he says, is that “you never really know what you can do until you fall trying.”

“I used to go bouldering as a kid. We’d try to outdo each other on hard routes close to the ground. At a point on this one route, I figured I could go no higher, and fell . . . and it suddenly came as an insight that I wasn’t falling off, I was letting go! When I’d convinced myself I’d gone as far as I could, I was relaxing my fingers. And I decided right then that next time I’d keep going until gravity itself pulled me off!

“I started doing that, and increased my ability right away. In a phrase, what I’ve learned from climbing is tenacity of purpose. That’s more important than any skill or talent I’ve had, and it tends to make up for a lot. It tends to work toward success in anything you try.”

Not everything is transferrable, of course. Robbins was widely respected, and sometimes feared, as a fierce competitor back in his Yosemite climbing days. Unexpectedly, he’s discovering in business that this is a trait best modified.

“Business is much more cooperative than I used to think. My prejudice about it was almost a stereotype. I can look around at those doing a better job at it than I am, and it’s because they’ve got a broader attitude. It’s not exactly a sense that `there’s plenty for everyone,’ but it is an emphasis on cooperation insofar as you can extend it.”

Examples spring from his friendship with Yvon Chouinard, chief executive officer of Lost Arrow/Patagonia, and Doug Tompkins, owner and CEO of Esprit, the trendy activewear company that racked up more than $700 million in international sales last year. Like Robbins, Chouinard and Tompkins are graduates of the school of hard rocks. These days the three mountaineers find themselves sharing two new passions: whitewater kayaking and taking creative risks with their companies.

In Robbins’ case, the love of independence and risk-taking manifested in the way he resisted a recent – and attractive – buyout offer from North Face.

“We came within a hair of saying yes. North Face has worldwide sales of about $40 million; a merger would’ve given us the security for everything we wanted to do.

“But . . . ”

The gleam in Robbins’ eyes resembles one in the photo taken years back at the top of El Capitan, and what he says is strongly reminiscent of his philosophy on climbing, and the use of bolts: “It’s never been like us to do something just for security’s sake. That’s just a matter of style. A merger would have taken too much of the adventure out for us. So instead we’re going to our own bank, BankCal, for financing. They, and we, believe we can do it on our own.”

Top performers in sports may have some qualities in common, like decisiveness and self-reliance, but there is not just one pattern of character. Excellence is colored by the individual personality. Different combinations work. Kayaker Don Banducci, juxtaposed with Royal Robbins, illustrates this point perfectly.

“Some people are cerebral, some more passionate and intuitive,” Banducci says. Framed by curling brown hair, his triangular satyr’s face is pensive. “Not that one’s better. Cerebral ones can sit there scratching their heads when there’s absolutely no time for it. And sometimes the passionate one is going to be all munched up at the bottom of a rapid, while the thinker is going, `Whew! I’m glad I saw that hole coming!’ ”

He smiles. “Virtually everything I do is intuitive.”

Banducci is 36. Around his eyes are lines caused by years spent squinting into the sunlight sparkling off rushing water. Creases around his mouth, however, come from a sardonic grin that would perhaps be present no matter what he was doing. These days, his time is invested heavily in design, marketing and promotion for Yakima products, a sports-accessory company of which (at 22 percent) he’s also primary individual owner.

This business tends to keep him from a former favored pursuit: winning first place in the “Whitewater Rodeos” held by kayaking buffs on rivers throughout the West.

But, he says, “Watching our business grow is all the excitement and challenge I need right now.”

Whereas Robbins has only reluctantly moved toward promotional use of his outdoorsman’s image, Banducci admits he’s always gloried in the limelight. He grins when asked why he pursued fame on the whitewater rodeo circuit: “Adulation.”

But one thing makes the two alike: High-risk sports gave them both a chance to gaze down the barrel of a loaded cannon and grope within themselves for a response. In Banducci’s case, the barrel of the biggest gun was the Grand Canyon of British Columbia’s Stikine River, and the projectile was his own kayak.

“It scared me when I first saw it. Incredibly violent water, with tough hydraulics. And some of the rocks creating the big drops were awfully close to being exposed.”

He and four other top adventure-boaters were laying long-term plans for a first descent of the Stikine when producers of ABC’s American Sportsman series got wind of the scheme and asked permission to film.

“Fortunate!” Banducci says. “The more we saw of the river, the more we realized that their helicopter support was a very reasonable safety factor. That river was the most challenging thing I’ve ever faced. And the canyon! Sheer granite walls shooting up 2000 feet on both sides with just a crack of sky way, way up there. It was like the Gates of Mordor.

“I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” The canyon throbbed with the thunder from 300 tons of brown, churning water that crashed each second through the narrow canyon walls. The boaters launched themselves out into the middle of it. ABC’s cameras dwelt lovingly on the kayakers as they managed to finesse the twisting currents or, alternatively, got sucked down by vortices and spat out at the end of a drop.

One video moment, his friends agree, is vintage Banducci. In a rapid nicknamed Wicked Wanda, Don manages to remain upright as his kayak is spun so it faces upstream. Mere seconds remain before he must hit an immense standing wave. Yet, incredibly, instead of repositioning his boat, Don raises his arm and nonchalantly twirls his paddle like a drum major’s baton. It’s an audacious, darkly humorous gesture.

Then the brown water folds over him. He and the boat vanish. Coughed back up yards downstream, he’s upside down and minus the paddle. Yet he manages to roll up with an empty-handed sweep of the body and coasts on into the only available eddy, arms upraised, riding high on an apparently indelible mix of skill, luck and insouciance.

Don acknowledges the paddle twirl was a message sent straight to the camera.

“A lot of people think kayaking is a death-defying sport. Although I’ve done some hard-core river-running, maybe I’m best known for the playing I’ve done, the hot-dogging, which is really a social thing. I’ve always been kind of an ambassador for the sport, trying to present the idea of having fun with it.

“There’s a carryover into how I’ve conducted business. On the river, the people with me are just as important as the water. I want to see their eyes light up, watch them have fun. It almost doesn’t matter which river you’re on, as long as you’re with the right folks.”

For Yakima, the right ones were an ex-McDonnell Douglas draftsman named Steve Cole, Steve’s wife, Jan, and a former Macy’s special events coordinator named Maggie Kerwin. They met as river-runners. Together they bought a foundering Washington State enterprise, moved it to Arcata and began to redesign its products – primarily a sleek auto roof rack that can secure loads as diverse as skis, canoes, bicycles, kayaks and sailboards.

They’ve guided their company through six successive doublings (or better) in gross sales in each of the past six years.

“We’ll gross around $3.5 million in 1985,” Don asserts – “more than twice what we did in 1984. And we’ll be a $12 million company in two to three years.”

If a major domestic automaker follows through on plans to make Yakima racks a factory-recommended option, even this estimate could be modest. For someone who enjoys a good put-on slightly better than the next man, Banducci shows an occasional tendency toward understatement.

“The camaraderie in the subculture of river-running has been an important resource for the company,” he deadpans.

Actually, Yakima bears all the earmarks of a river-runners’ conspiracy. Not only did this sport throw the original group together; many of their vendors and retail clients are people with whom Banducci has boated. In fact, when Yakima had the new roof rack concept in hand, and saw that smaller cars plus growing interest in outdoor sports equaled a blossoming market opportunity, an informal network among kayakers put Banducci in touch with venture capitalists willing to take the plunge with the company.

Besides this critical chunk of venture capital, one other ingredient was required for Yakima’s strong and timely thrust into the roof rack market: a force from the realm of kayaking that Don calls “working in Geronimo Mode.”

“On rivers, I established a reputation long ago as the kind of person who would jump into anything. `Let’s get Banducci into that, and see if it’s safe!’ I gladly fulfilled that role. How else are you going to find out what’s inside of you?

“At the same time, there’s things it would be obviously stupid and arrogant to attempt. Business and river-running both constantly measure your ability to make these decisions. What’s a good risk with a high potential payoff, and what’s just stupid? You have to assess what you can do when pushed to extremes.

“And then there’s times when you don’t have any idea – you just say `Yahoo!’ and jump in with everything you have. Geronimo Mode! And you pull things out of yourself you didn’t even know about.

“When we sold a third of the company for capital to generate our new rack, then hit the road to see if we could sell it, that was pure Geronimo Mode. Our timing turned out to be perfect. Maggie and I went out on a 9000-mile trip and got accounts from dealers who were impressed with our grass-roots approach to marketing. We even snatched REI, a critical account, three weeks before our biggest competitor showed up at their door.

“You’ve got to stay maneuverable and creative, able to make fast moves in response to the market.”

Not surprisingly, Banducci says these are navigational skills developed in the dynamic, shifting zone of whitewater.

“I think of some big, big drops I’ve run where you’re in control of your brain and your body, but you’re riding this fine line of fate with the river. A wave can explode and throw you way off your path. Then, it doesn’t matter how perfect your technique was – you’re faced with a totally unexpected set of challenges.

“Of course, that’s the name of the game in business, too. A good business plan charts alternate routes, you have escapes from all situations you can imagine, but you also have to have it in you to deal with total surprises.”

The key virtue, he says, is peace. “You don’t muster up courage to battle fear; you just set that whole question aside. What makes paddling extreme water possible isn’t being ballsy, but having a sense of peace. A laissez-faire attitude that everything’s kind of temporary anyway, and that in the larger scheme of things it really doesn’t matter whether you run a rapid or not. . . . or, if you do, whether you come out OK at the bottom. You don’t go in expecting to die, but if you’re really afraid of dying, there’s no way you can do it at all.”

But in the smaller scheme of things, Banducci expects the vital rush that comes from such a philosophy to be a guiding light through both river exploits and business ventures. In fact, when Yakima’s growth levels out in a predicted five years, and “the adventure of not knowing what’s around the next bend” is reduced past acceptable levels, he foresees using the proceeds from his share of Yakima to launch himself into fresh pursuits.

“I’d like to sail out the Golden Gate someday on a big schooner, with the sun sinking in the West, heading for parts unknown. No schedule. If I die without ever having set sail like that, I’ll feel like I’ve really missed something.”

What Banducci wants, Jack O’Neill has. He’s sailed his 60-foot oak and mahogany schooner, the Marie Celine , out beneath the Golden Gate Bridge many times. The 63-year-old inventor of the wetsuit, and current president of the world’s largest supplier of neoprene sports garments, is the archetype of the sportsman/entrepreneur who’s arrived .

Feet braced against gentle swells in the blue sea off Santa Cruz (headquarters for O’Neill Inc.), Jack grasps the helm of his latest acquisition: a 64-foot catamaran named Team O’Neill that’s equipped with a jacuzzi under a skylight so the skipper can soak his joints while he gazes up at the stars, and a mast and standing rigging that fold forward so he can launch his prop-driven airship, gaining a view of the international surf contests in which the company team often scoops top honors.

“I look for things that work both as a toy and a tool,” O’Neill says. “The balloon’s lots of fun, but it also gets the logo photographed and into magazines and stuff . . . just as the surfing has worked both ways. I’ve been very fortunate at having my sport grow into my business.”

With his muscular build, gray beard, tousled black hair and trademark black leather eye-patch, O’Neill indeed resembles the buccaneer he’s often compared to in print. I see him more as Odin, the Viking god who plucked out his own eye and tossed it in Mimir’s well. It was the fee for a single drink of the magic water that brought Odin great wisdom – and the thirst for more. O’Neill has paid dues for his fascination with the sea.

He lost the use of his left eye in a collision with his board during “a freak wave suck-out” at The Hook (a spot near his cliffside home); his knees and shoulders are troubled from the wear of years spent paddling boards; he has kidney problems he thinks stem from inhaling fumes from the foam used to blow surfboard blanks and the synthetic rubbers he annealed, scorched and glued into some of the world’s first wetsuits.

But the rewards have also been great. From being just one of three surf shops in the entire state of California, O’Neill Inc. has grown into an empire that grosses $20 million a year from neoprene garment and licensed sportswear sales throughout the world. O’Neill has refused to barter off ocean time to bring about his business success.

“I’ve had a wetsuit on at least once a day for the last 30 years,” he claims. During that time his business may have grown slowly, but it has remained a desired blend of the sublime and the professional.

“Where some people might feel like they need a drink,” Jack says, “I feel like I need the ocean. When things get kind of tight, I’ll go down to the beach, and Christ, sometimes it’s cold and foggy and you really don’t feel like jumping in. But you do, and then you suddenly find yourself riding this great wall of water that you can go up or down in or cross or dive through, and you’re surrounded by the power, and it’s a tremendous release.

“Out there, everything’s happening at once, and you don’t have time for anything else. Getting a ride on a terrific wall of water just puts you into another zone, and when you go to sleep at night, that’s what you’re thinking about. Not your problems, but that beautiful curl you were in.”

Ben Srebow, O’Neill’s CEO, feels that Jack’s aquatic fascinations have given him more than concepts in wetsuit design.

“Many things are in flux, constant movement,” Srebow says. “Especially, you can see that in the ocean. I think that is the way Jack is. Having lunch with him is for me like going surfing.

“He keeps up that constant flow of ideas. I might say, `No! That won’t work!’ but the wave keeps coming back. He can be incredibly stubborn, like a wave pounding a rock. Eventually the rock will take the shape of the wave. And finally I’ll say OK, and we’ll do it. And it works.”

“The sea’s a great teacher,” O’Neill says. “But big surf is something you have to build up to. You’ve got to have your rips figured out. Learn to read the water, take a look, see what’s happening, have a strategy. Surfers naturally do that after being out with waves for days on end. If you keep your head clear, all your timing and your reflexes will come right out of your experience.

“So, you see a big wave coming, and you go for it. And then the big thing is to stay completely relaxed, especially if you wipe out. Panic is just the wrong response. You might get held down, and there goes your oxygen. You get rolled around down there, and you just have to let go, because you don’t know which way is up, anyhow.

“I’ve been glad to swim up to my next breath a few times. And I’ve been glad to make it back to the beach when I’ve been carried away by rip tides, during a few cold winters at Ocean Beach. And the main thing was always to relax, until the situation felt right, then make the move.”

Does he transfer these methods to the world of business? Jack strokes his gray beard, blinks his good eye, considers the question.

“The things a man experiences in his sport can be the most important things in his life. The sense of self-reliance. Your ability to read a situation and relax in it. The way you seize opportunity. If you have something that’s hot, a design that clicks, you just go for it , and that’s got the same feel as going for a wave.

“In fact, I think there’s a good parallel there for the whole thing. You don’t want to get into a conqueror mentality. You flow with it. You don’t butt heads with the ocean, you work with it. You want to keep your cool and stay grounded.”

He laughs. “Of course, staying grounded when you’re at sea is sometimes a pretty good trick!”

Like O’Neill, Lost Arrow/Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard right from the beginning struck a bargain with his business that tends to keep him outdoors – and preferably in wilderness – at least half the year.

“The more I get out and do different sports,” Chouinard says, “the more valuable I am to the business, really, because that’s where I get my ideas. I don’t get ’em sitting at a desk!”

It’s hard to say just when Chouinard’s company started. Did it begin in 1957, when he toured the country’s top climb spots, making pitons for other mountaineers with the hand forge he carried in the trunk of his car? Or in 1966, when he and Tom Frost began making and selling equipment from a tin shack behind an abandoned slaughterhouse in Ventura?

In any case, that old slaughterhouse is now refurbished and surrounded by several new buildings, all bustling with the activities of his six companies (including Chouinard Equipment and Patagonia) grouped under the heading of Lost Arrow Corporation.

This year, Lost Arrow will gross almost $40 million, and managers find themselves in the enviable spot of trying to keep growth down to 25 percent so they can retain the company’s intimate character. A corporate logo emblazoned on the Lost Arrow headquarters consists of two crossed arrows with fletching made of hawk feathers.

The symbol suggests Chouinard’s early interest in falconry, which originally got him out scrambling around on cliffs. It also suggests Lost Arrow Spire, the slim granite pinnacle climbed with revolutionary tools and techniques by John Salathe in the ’40s. The logo was adapted from an ancient Samurai crest, thus also reflecting Chouinard’s interest in the Orient, acquired during an Army tour of duty in Korea.

Chouinard has read the Samurai text “The Book of Five Rings,” but says he got “absolutely nothing” from it. On the other hand, he does admire the Samurai, and the American frontiersmen, “who had adventures happen every day, just from trying to survive.” He says that risk sports, for those who stay with them, can involve a similar Bushido.

“You can learn things much faster if there’s some element of risk involved, because it forces you to really concentrate. And it forces you to use other parts of your brain that you probably don’t normally use. You’re like an artist, totally intent on his sculpture, so that eight hours seem to pass like one. Being on the edge produces the same effect; it gives you the concentration that allows you to transcend time.”

For Chouinard, staying on the edge in the garment trade meant dropping polypropylene fabric, since “It’s gotten too generic,” and even the popular bunting jacket that Malinda, his wife, calls “the jacket that built our houses” – simply because there are now too many knock-offs of the design.

Instead, this year the company unveiled jackets in a new fabric, Synchilla, and its own new undergarment fabric, Capilene.

Jettisoning some of his most successful products may be a risk, Chouinard concedes, but what he says of risk-taking could go for every other sports adventurer in this article. “Probably my strongest point as a businessman is that I’m willing to take risks! That ability is something cultivated through all the years of mountaineering.”

In his manual on climbing ice, Chouinard writes about a climb on Wyoming’s Gannet Peak, at age 17, when he attempted to traverse a snow field positioned above a 900-foot cliff. He soon discovered that when fear made him lean in toward the mountain, his feet quickly slipped, and he was forced to claw at the snow to keep from falling. On the other hand, if he plunged his feet down with vigor and trusted his sense of balance, he found he could proceed with little trouble.

“That day,” he wrote, “I learned quite a lot about the insidious effects of fear.”

In a recent conversation with me in a sushi bar in Ventura, Chouinard enlarged on this theme.

“Once you decide to go for a thing,” he said, “if you don’t go whole hog, then you add a certain negativism, a self-defeating type of thing, and sure enough, it doesn’t work out. Loss of confidence produces failure.”

“Mountaineering was the best school I could ever have for business, and life in general,” Chouinard concludes. “You can get far more training in how to conduct yourself in business from climbing than you ever can from the Stanford Business School.

“I look around, and I see American businessmen reading books on the Samurai, trying to learn how to be more aggressive, you know, and have that good clean stroke.” He pauses. The smile on his thin face is gentle and mocking, but his gaze is merciless as a hawk’s.

“Well, that’s not something you learn from a book!”

Archives: Shasta Preacher

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Paul McHugh Comments

Call it creative mountaineering. When the Reverend Douglas Smith decided to live as a hermit atop Mt. Shasta to protest the war in Vietnam, it was a stroke that simultaneously brought him closer to fulfillment of his ideals, and much, much higher in the headlines. Smith boldly undertook a physical and spiritual adventure, and I never climb or ski upon Shasta without thinking of that remarkable episode. Interesting side-note: his son, Matt Smith, currently works as a lead investigative reporter for the tabloid SF Weekly, where he carries on his dad’s noble mission of praising the virtuous and smiting heathen.

The Preacher on the Peak

It was the most exalted pulpit in America, and the loneliest. A screaming wind served as both organ and choir. Stained-glass light came in just three colors: a cobalt blue high-altitude sky, the absolute black night that lay behind that blue, and a blinding white shimmer of snow and ice.

For his sermon to get out, the preacher relied on a frail thread of visitors that the mountain’s moods could snap at any time – a procession of the devout shuffling along on crampons through freezing mist as they bore up food, fuel and word of the outside world.

But he kept faith in his core inspiration: no one driving up Interstate 5 could avoid seeing that huge mountain jutting above the horizon. And anyone seeing it couldn’t help but think – if only for an instant – about that lunatic Methodist who’d left his parsonage in the quiet town of Etna to find a more emphatic way of making his point.

On June 11, 1971, the Reverend Douglas Smith, 35, climbed Mount Shasta to protest the Vietnam War. His intention was to live for a year atop the mountain above 14,000 feet – the same length of time that drafted American boys were obliged to endure the maelstrom of violence in Indochina.

Mt. Shasta. Albert Bierstadt. 1800s.

Mt. Shasta. Albert Bierstadt. 1800s.“I’d done demonstrations against the war in Etna – my little town of 700 people – but it wasn’t satisfying,” Smith recalls. “Then one night, gazing into the fire, I saw that Mount Shasta was the dominant symbol of all of Northern California. You couldn’t miss it. And as a dormant volcano, it was a natural peace symbol. It’s got more power than nuclear bombs, yet sits there quite peaceful and beautiful in the hands of the Creator.”

And so it came to pass that Smith and a support team of 16 followers – including local teacher and mountaineer Merwyn Rickey – made their way up to the peak after a night camped in howling winds at Lake Helen, and installed the preacher near the summit plateau.

The site of Smith’s harsh alpine hermitage was just 160 feet below the peak, near an area where volcanic vapors and hot water seeped from fractured Earth – the spot where John Muir had once lain down and turned himself into a human rotisserie in order to survive one night on the mountaintop.

For his longer stay, Smith was much better equipped than Muir. He had a four-season tent, duck-down-filled booties, vest and a sleeping bag with nine inches of loft. All these were hand-sewn from kits by Kathleen Smith, his wife of eight years and the mother of his three children. He had a big supply of dried Mormon survival food and a walkie-talkie radio he didn’t yet realize would not reach all the way down the mountain.

After the tent was dug in, and the support team turned around to leave him there, Smith says, “I felt about as lonely as a human being could feel. I didn’t know if I could go through with it. I did know I’d probably die up there before I went back down.”

Within days, winds too strong to stand against beat his stout tent into a heap of broken poles and ripped nylon. Smith was forced to dig a snow cave for refuge. Sunburn blistered and peeled his face while he tried to figure out ways of protecting every centimeter of skin.

Smith’s lonely demonstration occurred at a time in America when your stand on Vietnam was considered a litmus test of patriotism. And rural Northern California was a notoriously conservative enclave. Parishioners of his church debated fiercely among themselves about what their minister was doing. Partisans and opponents waged epistolary battles in the editorial pages of local papers.

One stinging message that reached him from the valley floor was word of a resolution by businessmen of the Mount Shasta Chamber of Commerce. It recommended that – should Smith get into trouble up there – the county should not spend a dime of public funds trying to rescue him. Up on the peak, his main concern had to be the daily needs of simple survival. When hard winds blew daggers of ice horizontally through the air, he spent long days in sleep. When at last he could move outside, it was a welcome relief from the cramped snow cave with its damp, dripping walls. Acids in the volcanic vapors dissolved the stitching in his clothing; much time was spent sewing things back together, and he had to wonder what those vapors were doing to his lungs.

Unfortunately, the Mormon dried food did not reconstitute well at high altitude. Fortunately, the parade of visitors and supporters would swell through the summer, when the weather was good. With them came fresh food, high-calorie snacks and even the blessing of an occasional beer.

And with them came an opportunity to explain himself.

“I am a patriot,” Smith said. “And I love my country. But I do not love what we are doing in Vietnam. The war is a malignancy. It’s eating people up, ours as well as theirs. We are a democracy, and in straits like this every citizen must maximize his or her voice, which is why I’m up here talking about this.”

Not all visitors to the peak that summer were receptive to the reasons behind Smith’s high-altitude hermitage. Some radiated hostility, especially a young man who showed up with a pair of long-barreled revolvers strapped to his body.

“I felt really lucky there were other people around that day,” Smith relates. “There was no overt indication he wanted to create problems, yet why else climb up a mountain wearing six pounds of weapons?”

With Smith’s increasing notoriety came national media attention: wire stories by UPI and the Associated Press – even mention on Paul Harvey’s syndicated radio show. And in the classic 20th century feedback loop, media attention meant more visitation, which meant more attention.

In several cases, his visitors were poorly prepared for the mountain, and Smith had to jeopardize his own life in order to ensure their survival.

Pine Marten.

But not all aspects of life on the mountain were grim. There was the matter of his humorous turf battle with the pine marten. This clever, house cat-sized member of the weasel family had a scam going. He’d found a steam-heated pile of rocks for a house, and a year-round food supply in plastic sacks of garbage buried by climbers on the mountaintop.

When Smith’s snow cave began to suffer meltdown in July, he followed the pine marten’s lead and built a rock hut in that same heap of volcanic talus. This usurpation of prime space was more than the short-tempered beast could bear.

“Afterwards, when I was out, he’d come and rip open my chocolate and powdered milk, and scatter it all over the hut,” Smith said. “He also had a bad habit of excreting right in my doorway. I think he was trying to tell me something.”

When the wind and other forces of nature quieted down, Smith could actually envision the peak as a rather healthy place. “The germ count was zero, and there was no pollen to aggravate my asthma. The water I drank was pure, boiled snow, and all my rigorous exercise meant I was really burning off calories. I dropped 35 pounds of unnecessary weight up there. After a month, I could just run around like a goat.

“I began to see that I might not be in such great jeopardy, as long as I stayed real careful.”

And there came moments when Shasta and the surrounding land and sky were suffused with a transfiguring beauty. “There were incredible sunrises and sunsets,” Smith recalls. “It was marvelous to see the shadow of the mountain cast out into infinity, just like it was shooting straight off the edge of the Earth.”

But there were also nights of terror, when he would awaken in a sweat that the volcano was about to explode under him; or ice and snow were about to surround, seal and suffocate him.

And the sense of social and sensual deprivation became overwhelming.

“After a while, you just can’t stand that harsh, sterile white any longer,” Smith said. “You just get kind of rummy from it.”

Despite traditions of wilderness theophanies – Moses and the Burning Bush, or Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert – Smith says, “There really is no way to manipulate God. He wasn’t closer to me on that mountain than he is to you in the city. It’s not right to think, “I’ve come all the way up here, now God is obliged to reveal himself more clearly.’ A person in a slum or a prison should have exactly the same access.

“In fact, on clear days, when I would look down on the cities, and the patchwork pattern of all the farms, a feeling swept over me that I really wanted to be down among those people, working there. I wanted to be home. I was only up on the mountain to try to stop the killing.”

Several summer thunderstorms raged over the peak, giving Smith and his supporters a taste of the nightmare they’d face in trying to keep the lifeline of hikers intact through winter. The prospect was formidable: Weeks could pass without being able to make any contact.

Though a hardened cadre of supporters remained committed, their numbers steadily waned.

In September, Merwyn Rickey, his face lined with fatigue from six Shasta climbs in as many weeks, arrived with a handful of letters from supporters asking the preacher to abandon his protest. He found Smith hard at work building a foundation for a new plywood hut, in which they had theorized he might be able to survive the winter.

“I was of two minds,” Smith recalls. “Part of me said, bulls – – -, I’m not going to stop just because others are giving up. But another part of me was willing to seize any excuse to come down. What helped me decide was that in winter the hikers would be in the greatest danger, not me. I’d be safely bivouacked-in at the top, while they’d be fully exposed. That made a clean argument for coming off. But the bottom line was – I really couldn’t handle the social and sensual deprivation anymore.”

After three continuous months in the sterile realm of high alpine light, Smith abandoned his lofty hermitage.

“Coming into the green areas below tree line was incredible. I had to stop every 10 feet to admire blossoms and ferns. Every little mossy rock seemed like a magnificent thing. “And when I got down to the buildings of the old ski area, I was reunited with my wife and kids. I had missed them desperately. The television cameras were ready to intrude on our reunion, of course.”

Reporters asked if Smith felt he was losing face by abandoning his vigil. Not at all, he stoutly replied. “The United States can do the same thing about getting out of Vietnam.”

The truth was, as soon as he came down he began to feel that he had made a mistake. New mountaineers stepped forward, ready to take up slack in his support crew; and the winter of 1971-72 went on to develop as one of Shasta’s mildest in a decade.

Yet the momentum of his commitment continued to play out anyway. Smith went on to Washington, D.C., to lobby against the war. News of his exploit immediately connected him to the Quaker peace movement, and provided some entree to congressional offices.

Siskiyou County

Finally back in Siskiyou County, Smith moved into a tiny, rustic dome with his wife and kids, and began supporting himself with odd jobs as a carpenter. It was a year and a half before he felt able to involve himself again with the regular affairs of the Methodist church.

These days Smith can be found at his church in Knights Landing in Yolo County or tending the homeless at a shelter in Sacramento. He did little mountaineering before Shasta, and has done none since then. He’s surprised sometimes that others still remember his vigil on the mountain. Memorabilia of the time are scant: a dog-eared cardboard file full of notes, some yellowing photographs, a packet of letters tied with string.

But some of his personal memories are crystal-bright.

“Sometime after I came down, I got stopped by a highway patrolman in Yreka for a missing taillight. After he found out who I was, he frankly told me that, during the days of my protest, if he’d gotten me in the sights of a scoped rifle with no one around, he probably would’ve shot me.

“He didn’t agree with what I was saying, at all. But he’d read everything he could on what I was doing and why. He felt I was serious, and after I came down he admired what I’d done.

“And I thought, the mountain was perfect for that. Being able to use it as a magnified way of addressing people – that’s the stuff of dreams.”

Archives: Xmas on the Locked Ward

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Paul McHugh comments:

The meaning of Christmas gets reduced to basics on the locked mental health ward of a veteran’s hospital. A day spent there during the holiday season a number of years back still resonates. Sometimes, the rather unhinged don’t seem all that much different from you and me. They have many of the same issues, but they burn with a much greater intensity.

Holiday on the Flight Deck

It’s one of the places we put crazy people: Ward 5C4, in the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in the otherwise tony burg of Palo Alto, California. This ward’s official title is, “Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit.” But in a burst of the gallows humor that docs and cops often use to drain off tension, the Stanford medical students and staff here commonly call it, “The Flight Deck.”

Dr. John Rork wears a Formica nametag identifying him as a Resident in Psychiatry. He’s 32 years old, in his third year of post-graduate work at Stanford, and just 18 months away from his board exams. As he leads me up a dank, echoing stairwell toward the fifth floor of the VA, Rork cautions me that the Christmas Season is usually a time of high disturbance among denizens of locked psychiatric wards.

That’s when they feel most keenly the wide gulf that yawns between them and people on the Outside.
Consequently, holidays present a time of extra stress and danger. Staff must pay extra attention to procedures that keep the patients from doing harm to themselves, or to others.

I accompany Rork in part because, as a former student of psychology, I am entertaining the idea of entering the field for a career. But beyond that, I have a simple, much more existential motive. I just want to see how much like me, and unlike me, these confined folks are.

We move down a hall with its faint, stale redolence of medicine, paint, bedpans and disinfectant, and walk toward a big metal door with a tiny square of wired glass in its center. I start to feel a bit apprehensive. Author Ken Kesey did his research for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” at the locked wards of a related hospital, the VA in nearby Menlo Park.

Although Kesey’s novel and the movie derived from it are by-now-dated works of fiction, scenes from the book still drift through my mind.
Two surreal details before me at the moment are the cardboard Santa waving a cheery mittened hand, taped to that steel door, and a tired tinsel wreath. Somehow, these nods to the holiday spirit fail to reassure.

Rork tugs a bundle of keys from his pocket, unlocks the door, and leans his body into its mass as he shoves it open.
The good doctor is greeted enthusiastically by a slender black man in a rumpled jump suit and snappy blue hat. Patient, or staff? I wonder.

It’s not immediately easy to pick out staff from the small crowd I see milling around in the entry and common room. No one acts in manner notably bizarre. But after a few minutes, I do catch on. Since patients are not permitted to wear belts, their clothing remains in mild disarray. Also, they seem to have an air of grim, silent struggle, the sort of aura one often perceives hovering about impoverished drifters, or the urban homeless.

The staff, in addition to a neater appearance, also tend to be garbed in lab coats – which I’d initially mistaken as a variation on hospital gowns. In contrast to the mood of the patients, they also seem to broadcast an intentionally upbeat demeanor, as if they seek to communicate optimism to the patients by contagion.

In the common room, men lounge on couches and watch TV. An adjoining room with large glass windows permits observation of the patients. Down the hall is a small commissary, and dorm rooms where beds and steel lockers are arranged in orderly rows. Further along are the office rooms used by the resident doctors, and finally, those famed, tiled seclusion rooms, equipped with padded restraints, to consign patients who go into violent phases – episodes that are rather antiseptically dubbed, “decompensation.”

A senior nurse summons Rork into the glass observation room to tell him what’s gone down in this ward over the 32 hours since he was last on duty.
A day earlier, sponsored by a local Elks Lodge, Santa and his elves had come to 5C4. A small tree had been elaborately trimmed in anticipation. The jolly saint arrived, there was joy, even hilarity, small gifts and useful toiletries were distributed (all razors confiscated immediately afterward, of course).

Then, all too soon, this icon of the holidays vanished, and the ward sank back into a deeper gloom.
Rork and the nurse stand before a plastic board listing the names of all 20 patients in the ward, followed by a letter code that indicated status.

“A” means a patient must wear pajamas and stay confined to the ward. “B” and “C” patients can take escorted trips off the ward to the hospital’s gym or canteen. “D” is a full-privilege status, meaning a patient can spend up to six hours a day off the ward, even engaging in unsupervised activities.

The nurse’s update to Rork is full of shorthand, slang, and the same kind of humor that christened this place as The Flight Deck. She points to a name and says, “Now, this little man is very busy in his head. Really schizing away.”
“He still talking word salad?” Rork asks.
“Maybe. Didn’t hear. He stayed glued to his bed all day. Like he had Elmer’s Glue all over him.” She points again. “Now, Dale left to spend a day with his folks, but a few hours later he came right back to the ward. I don’t know yet exactly what happened. . .”

And so on, until they clear the board. Then there is a call for, “Medication!” and the top half of a dutch door is swung open. Patients line up, and their doses of anti-psychotics and anti-depressants are passed out in paper cups that contain pills, capsules and various colored liquids.

One patient, a short, muscular chap wearing a bruise that encircles one eye, sees me watching him as I sip away at my coffee. He raises his cup, filled with a solution of lithium salts, says, “Cheers,” and splashes it off his tonsils.
I return his toast, and swallow the dregs from my Styrofoam cup. We smile at each other. Evidently, humor about this situation is not solely the province of the medical staff.

Time for Rork’s first consultation with a patient. He brings me into his small, barren office to witness the encounter. The room’s sole furnishings are made of thick steel layered with multiple coats of paint. Rork tells me this is the décor of mental wards across the globe. The monotony of the walls have been somewhat relieved by pastoral scenes cut from calendar photos.

Rork sees me glaze at the pictures.
“Interesting thing,” he says, grinning. “A patient pointed this out to me. I put up three pictures of bridges, right next to each other, without even thinking about it!”
I wonder how many other psychiatrists got a kick out of hearing patients reveal patterns in the doctor’s thinking.

His first patient of the day is a pudgy blond man, Dale, who jetted back into the ward after spending just a few hours with his family.
Slumped in one of the thick steel chairs, staring intensely at Rork, Dale says, “I’d like to love my parents. But something down there just isn’t right. I cried when I left the house, because I was still a kid. Meanwhile, everybody else is acting like an adult! And I’m the oldest. I feel left out.”

Rork uses gentle, insistent questions to navigate between Dale’s statements, drawing lines between the man’s expressions of consternation or anger, and some of its potential causes. This process is slow, but fascinating.

“My dad always made me sit on the bench in baseball. It was the start in my life of the way it was gonna go. But I don’t want that! I want to have a couple of at-bats. I’ve never been an engine, doc. I’ve always been a caboose. I figured I could be an engine, until I went in the service. All my walls started tumbling in then.”

The feelings Dale is describing must be common to many, I think. Wherein lies his madness? Why must he be confined here? Then, as Rork continues to probe, I start to see what sets Dale apart.

“Air seemed different. We’re talking both here and in Greece, now. In Greece, everyone was getting back by cab, and it seemed a nuclear war was happening. ‘Cos I’ve always thought of a nuclear war as dark, and it was plenty dark in Greece. People were looking at me funny. I felt they were talking about me. And now, I feel the people in the hospital are talking about me. But I want to get well! I don’t want to get angry. But by the same token, I don’t want to kill anybody, either.”

“You lost me.”

“I sort of lost it too, doc. I was in the military when it first broke me down. Now, I can’t even make it in civilian life. That’s real scary. I don’t want to go back to war, no way! See, I’m not a crazy person. I don’t talk about myself, I talk about what’s going to happen. And I know I’m not Jesus, even though I’ve got a head. I can speak to you clearly. I’m not that bad. I’ve got God in my head. But I won’t tell you the other one, because then I know you’ll get the secret.”

“You’ve got a god, and a devil?”

“No,” Dale answers craftily. “A fly.”

By the session’s end, Rork has brought the man’s meandering verbal flight back to earth, and they calmly discuss Dale’s prognosis. Rork suggests that, if things go well, in a week or two, maybe Dale can leave 5C4 for an open ward, and start taking occupational therapy. Such positive steps depend, however, on Dale remembering to take his meds.

Dale needs anti-psychotic drugs to make his thought disorder more manageable. He had been on the Outside before, but elected to stop his maintenance doses. That brought on his third nervous breakdown and involuntary return to 5C4. Refusal to medicate is a common cause or ward recidivism, Rork tells me later.

“The patients who come to 5C4 can just about be evenly divided into the three main groups of severe mental illness that modern psychiatry recognizes,” Rork says. “About a third have thought disorders, or schizophrenia, like Dale. Their connection with consensual reality is impaired. So, it manifests as a cognitive disease. Hallucinations and delusions impair goal-directed behavior, and judgment, and reasoning. Our research suggests that most forms of schizophrenia have some sort of genetic base.

“Another third have affective disorders, which are long, substantial deviations in mood. The most common forms are severe depression, and manic-depression – which involves swings from the depressed state to a giddy, manic high. When not at the ends of that spectrum, these people can seem pretty natural, fairly normal.

“Then, there’s personality disorders. These are the people who can’t fit in, no matter what. They have their personality structured in maladapted ways. Their only role in society is that of the oddball, or ‘real character’.”

Rork says a root symptom in most cases, especially with the first two groups, is an imbalance in neurotransmitters, the brain chemicals that act as vehicles for transmission of impulses, from nerve to nerve, across the synaptic bridge. High stress aggravates weaknesses in a person’s genetically-ordained nervous system, and trigger an onset of mental illness.

Look upon the brain as a fuse box, and folks with a genetic predisposition to madness could be seen as those with an excess of exposed wiring. Stress that a normal person could experience as a half-hour of mild anxiety will turn a manic-depressive’s fuse box into a three-alarm fire. Anti-psychotic and anti-depressant drugs are like rolls of plastic electrical tape that a doctor can use to wrap around some of the bare wires, reducing the intensity of the blaze.

Since the 1950s, when Thorazine was discovered, some 15 anti-psychotic drugs have been found (by the mid-1980s – author’s note), with five in common use. These range from Thorazine, considered the weakest but possessing desirable sedative effects, through Navane (mid-range) to Haloperidol, or Haldol, the “elephant gun” of anti-psychotics. There is also lithium, a carbonated salt thought to resemble salts naturally occurring in the brain, and a class of anti-depressants called Tri-cyclics.

“If someone acts psychotic enough to come here to the Flight Deck,” Rork says, “they are usually put on hefty doses of medication until they calm down. Then we set about finding their minimum daily dose. These drugs aren’t entirely benign. They can produce negative side effects, like involuntary tremors, or sometimes shaking feet and a tendency to pace that’s called the Thorazine Shuffle.

“Before I began doing practical psychiatry, I used to think that psychotropic medications were horrible,” Rork adds. “But once you’re around real schizophrenia and you see how miserable these people are, and that a significant percentage gets real help with drugs, it becomes more difficult to maintain that naïve stance.

“Because of these drugs, the number of mental patients at public health institutions is one-tenth of what it was. I wish we had even finer tools, medications that more clearly address the target systems. These are still much too blunt.

“But used carefully, these drugs achieve an amazing purpose in allowing people to live outside institutions. Most of my patients would much rather be out in the world; institutionalization is what they hate. Their biggest fear is that will end up without an independent existence – because independence is at the core of self-esteem for people in this culture. Drugs are in fact a kind of dependency, but nothing like being confined in an institution.”

That innate drive to independence is on full display when all patients gather in the communal room for their daily meeting. A pretty, brunette Psychology Intern opens the floor for business, and Terry, the muscular patient with the bruise around his eye, dives right in with a defiant statement.

“I want a discharge right now! And if I can’t have it, I want ‘D’-level status or ‘D-B’ at worst!”

A chorus of other patients clamor for an improved status on the ward. It’s as though the status board were a ladder to sanity and freedom, and each grade a rung. Enhancing mobility to the Outside stays the primary order of business, until it’s announced that Dr. Rork has finished his residency, and will depart from the ward in a few days.

This is a double-whammy. Not only are the patients losing a friend, but Rork’s free, outward bound trajectory illustrates a kind of mobility about which they can only dream.

An elderly patient launches an abrupt tirade against the night staff. “They ordered a strip search and wouldn’t tell me why! It’s part and parcel of the jailer mentality of this place! You staff take a great delight in acting like cops!” He levels a bony finger at Rork. “You can go back to Stanford and get down in the scum with Reagan and Nixon and Billy Graham and all the other capitalist swine. I don’t really care.”

John nods calmly. “And what about Nina and Karen?” he asks. These women are an intern and a resident, both of whom are also leaving. They sit beside the old man as he rants.

He sneers, “I wouldn’t mind if a Mack truck ran over them.”

This launches a wave of other comments that are less personally directed, but just as critical of staff arrogance and assertive of the patients’ inalienable rights. Esprit de corps unites the patients as they dump their grievances. Many of them give each other winks and high signs during this group display.
But the thing that impresses me most is that Nina and Karen look as if their feelings have been genuinely hurt by the raging old man.

They have spent a lot of therapeutic time with him. This tells me that these women made themselves available for genuine interactions, did not utterly armor themselves, or withdraw behind the shield of their identity as staff.
As I mention this impression with Rork, later, he stares at me as if I am reporting I had just struck gold in his back yard.

“That’s right!” he says. “If patients get the idea that you regard them as some form of dangerous alien, that only makes your work harder. So, you’ve got to let them touch you. You’ve got to hold yourself somewhat vulnerable to them.”

Then the staff holds a meeting about the meeting. They agree that the patients had to express anger about the departure of Rork, Karen and Nina.

“The clue,” Rork says, “is that the anger was directed at the staff in general. They generalize as a form of avoidance. But it’s important not to fall for that, because it’s not a therapeutic form of release. Most of the public running around out there on the street does that too. They all project affect away, instead of owning up to what it actually is.”

Since so much energy was released in the group meeting, the staff predict the rest of the day will be fairly quiet. It is, allowing me to wander around the common room, hanging out and talking to the guys. As I do so, I wonder about a question that all of Rork’s comments have posed. Can it be true that the very crazy are not all that different from you and me? That they simply have many of the problems of normalcy writ exceptionally large, etched into their minds and lives by the Kafka-esque machine of their own aberrant biology?

Sometimes, the similarities may seem hard to track, as in the case of Elliott, who sits by himself in a corner, woofing down cigarette after cigarette. He wears his hair in a high, greasy pompadour, sits on the edge of his seat with charm school poise, and talks like Blanche DuBois. He’s one of several Vietnam veterans present. I seek to use that as a conversational opener, and ask him about his experiences there.

All Elliott will say is, “Ah was loved in Vietnam. I was very deeply loved, in fact, from bootcamp right on through Vietnam.”

Then he gracefully rises and minces across the room to light another cigarette from the tiny electric coil set into one wall.
Even though I can only speculate about what Elliott’s inner reality is like, parts of him are congruous, they make a certain kind of sense – and it’s the same for the others. In fact, the wildest, most incohernet babbler in the place is not any patient, but the big color TV that alternately blathers and croons from its niche in the corner.

I make additional contact with Terry, the bruised manic-depressive who had come to the ward after getting himself into a barroom brawl in Monterey. I can sense his chagrin at finding himself back on the Flight Deck. I share some of my own past with him, and it turns out we have in common a Catholic boyhood.

He says he maintains a deep regard for the Franciscan brothers who taught him. But these days, he tends more toward the free-lance mysticism of Krishnamurti.
“You can discover states of mystical consciousness that are just absolutely blinding in their purity, and the sweeping vastness of your perception. . .” Terry pauses, and gives me a sidelong glance. “So I bet you think, that sounds pretty close to a description of a manic state, huh?”

I ruefully nod, and Terry bursts out laughing.

“Well, I have to admit,” he says, “there’s probably more than a little similarity between the two!”

We finish by trading back and forth some altar boy responses from the old Latin mass, and I sang him some Gregorian chant. It is a humor-filled, friendly and even poetic encounter that would seem valuable in any setting, but is particularly poignant here.

Just under half the men in the ward are actual combat bets. But all are veterans of a war waged for years behind their eyes. The shock, the weariness of that, stays evident. Achieving any sort of ceasefire is just the start of making their way toward a peaceable, promised land. Even if that storm of inner chaos can be subdued, other obstacles and hurdles loom.

“The VA system is kind of a ‘borderline’ mother,” Rork says. “One who is overwhelmed by the nurture needs of her children, and conveys that by falling short in a couple of key areas. But at the same time, if the children start to pull away, she threatens to cut off even the scant support she does provide.

“See, as it’s currently set up, the VA pays people to stay crazy. A one-hundred-percent, service-connected, disabled vet gets thousands of dollars per year, tax-free – much more than most could ever hope to make free and clear on the Outside. The trick is to look and sound sick enough to get all that money, but seem well enough so they can stay on the street and spend it. You have to be clever to maintain such a fine line.

“So the guys who want to achieve real independence have a much tougher row to hoe. They have to desperately want to wean themselves off that support, in order to even have a chance of doing so.”

Heroism was not one of the things I expected to find on the ward, but I’m starting to learn how to see it. Rork has two more consultations that day.
One is with a young man who retreated into a fantasy realm after being sexually brutalized in his early teens. But over the past three years, he has moved out from the Flight Deck and on to self-sufficiency on the street. He has a romantic relationship, and he has just won a raise at his job. Returns to 5C4 now solely as an outpatient.

He and Rork discuss his medley of anxieties and strategies for coping like two experienced players dissecting a game of chess.
That sort of graduate status is what Malcolm, Rork’s final interview of the day, seeks to achieve.

Malcolm is a tall, dark, bearded and slender man who has just advanced to ‘D’ status and is looking next for a discharge. The flesh on Malcom’s lips and fingers are stained like old ivory by all the cigarettes he’s smoked during his confinement. His hands and feet shake from dyskinesia – tremors that are a common side effect of anti-psychotic drugs.

But he speaks calmly and clearly, and has an aristocratic, faintly sardonic air about him that I like.
Malcolm pulls out some recent crayon drawings to show Rork. The first illustrates a rabbit by means of concentric lines of vibrant, clashing color. It’s a classic example of schizophrenic art. At the moment, it reminds me of Huichol Indian yarn drawings, which I mention to Malcolm.

“Really? Interesting,” Malcolm says. “I’m trying to portray a bunny who’s recuperating after three weeks on Navane.”

We pore through other drawings, with Rork asking questions about symbolism and meaning. Malcolm sometimes answers, sometimes fends him off. I simply assess them as art. I particularly admire one titled, “MARCOS!” that mourns the assassination of Benigno Aquino. And I like a drawing of a rhinoceros that suggests that near-sighted animal’s suspicious, wary soul.

Pleased by my interest, Malcolm uses his new privileges to invite me out to the VA hospital canteen for a cup of coffee. The big steel door that closes off the ward is unlocked for us, and we head downstairs and then out into a cool, blustery, December afternoon.

It’s a huge relief to be leave behind the stagnant, medicinal, smoky are of the Flight Deck. We stride along, kicking through drifts of sere leaves scattered by the most recent winter storm.

“The rough edge of mind changes people who get close to it,” Malcolm volunteers cryptically.
I ask him what he means.

“It’s hard to explain. You’re either a virgin, or you’re not. You’re either exposed to that, and it changes you forever – or it’s hard to know what it’s all about, whether you’re a patient or a doctor. No matter what a person is like before he’s in the system, once he’s expressed himself in a hostile way, taken the drugs, been bobbled around the system for a while, he’s then different from that point on.

“So, this rough edge of mind which changes him, is that part which is confusing, which is destroying, which is unholy. Which is, ultimately, irrelevant.”

Outside the entry to the canteen, Malcolm pauses. Some sort of half-crippled insect has landed on his boot, and he stops, stares at it. I look, too. The bug has tattered wings, and appears to close to the end of its life-cycle, prepared to die after the exhaustion of mating. Malcolm tenderly plucks it off his boot and deposits it on the sidewalk.

“Well, I guess he’s on his own now,” Malcolm says. “I don’t think there’s anything we can do.”

Inside the canteen and sipping our dark, bitter brew, Malcolm tells me more about life on the ward.
“You get to see a lot in this system. Big moments come through for people. A lot of big suffering. Bursts of joy, too. Both can occur in the same person, I think, because of mercy. In retrospect, one is always thankful for feeling healed in the new moment. When a clear space comes, you can look at the past, talk about it, and it doesn’t really mean anything. But when you are inside the suffering, everything only hurts, and that’s why they give you the drugs. To relieve pain, and give you a chance to get your mind together.

“That’s their theory, anyhow, and the practice is pretty close to that. You’ve got to make allowances, because we’re all the same, and we’re all different, too. It’s like any other classroom situation. Some people get the message, some don’t. Some already know it, but can’t put it into practice.”

Watching Malcolm speak, I think of how weary he looks, so aged beyond his years. Yet, there’s also the glow of an inner grit and determination in him. He resembles some early frontiersman, who has recently crossed the Great Basin desert, alone and on foot.

Malcolm tells me of his plans for the future. He’s located some broken medical equipment stored at the hospital, and wants to start a business repairing and returning it to use.

“There’s no restrictions on me. I’m a dischargeable patient. The only thing stopping me is a lack of housing. I get disability from the military, and I have the chance of work here. I don’t to find a salaried job, though someday I’d like a chance to try that. I know that there will be hindrances. But as far as I can see, the next six months look bright. If I can just keep practicing in the same way. Still, I know there will be many decisions ahead of me, about things that may not be so easily accomplished.”

Malcolm places both of his stained and shaking hands together, palms upward, and shrugs. He looks like someone uncertain, lost in a quandary.

But since it’s Christmas, I prefer to think that he looks like someone about to receive a gift. Perhaps a universal, endlessly recyclable gift, something he gives to himself, something given to him by Dr. Rork, and the staff, and his friends on the Flight Deck. Perhaps it’s something I am giving to him now, and he is giving it to me also, by taking me out to coffee and offering to explain things about the ward.

There’s an amazing mental achievement most of us accomplish steadily – without even needing to think about it, if we are fortunate. Call it sanity, call it normalcy. But we should never take for granted the small, healing touches of friendship and nurture, given and received, that collectively help us to make sanity occur.

Note: To protect privacy, all names were altered and identities concealed in the story above.

Deadlines and Dan Rather

By | Articles - Archives

Dan Rather.

October 8, 2009

“Every reporter worth his or her notepad is a sleuth at heart. Paul McHugh brings this truth to life with crackling suspense and a true, ink-stained veteran’s eye for the newsroom.”

Click to read how Paul McHugh won an endorsement from Dan Rather for his novel.

Dan Rather, TV anchor and newsman

Murdering the California Coast
Rick Kleffel, 03/08/2010

It’s come to this; the fate of newspapers is itself news, consuming more and more of the ever-shrinking number of pages that are willingly delivered to your front yard every morning. At least, I hope they are. I truly start every day by reading The San Francisco Chronicle while I eat a hot breakfast. This assures me both the mental a physical wherewithal to make it through the next 16 hours.

Paul McHugh spent more than 20 years writing and editing for The San Francisco Chronicle. One might truly say that he knows where the bodies are buried. And, given that knowledge, it’s bracing to know that his first novel, ‘Deadlines’ (Low Coast Press / Cypress House ; February 13, 2010 ; $16.95) is a mystery featuring a grizzled veteran news reporter who is bestirred into action when an unburied body shows up on a typically scenic California shoreline. But there’s more at work here than land-grabs and real-estate scams. The real mystery to be solved is what is happening to America’s newspapers.

McHugh’s approach to mystery writing is — not surprisingly — journalistic. You start with the murder of a land-use activist. Sebastian Palmer is the young reporter in pursuit of her story, and thus, the killers as well. He befriends Elle Jatobá — who hopes to become a cop — and the two of them begin poking into the Cornu Point problem under the disinterested eye of Colm MacCay, the grizzled veteran who bestirs himself when Palmer ends up comatose. Clearly, there is more going on at Cornu Point than habitat preservation. Real estate is not priceless. But the reporters looking into the death of Beverly Bancroft will face all the perils of the investigation with none of the powers of the police. And the cops themselves are not so hot on the trail.

McHugh brings three levels of authenticity to ‘Deadlines.’ Narrated in the first person by Colm MacCay, ‘Deadlines’ offers an authentic newsman’s voice to tell the story. The prose is not that of a breathless or brainless thriller, but rather, that of a man who has seen and written about a lifetime of San Francisco news. ‘Deadlines’ reads like a particularly gripping newspaper story where real-estate speculation and land-use issues escalate into murder. It’s fascinating to see events from the newsman’s eyes, and then read not just his words, but the words he writes for his newspaper. It’s a neat meta-fictional trick. And McHugh knows how to pace his story as well, as journalistic piece, which means that ‘Deadlines’ is not just another cheesy page-turner, but a welcome insight into how newspapers themselves are written.

The meat of the matter here — the buying and selling of the California coastline — is also something of which McHugh knows whereof he speaks. In his years working for The San Francisco Chronicle, McHugh himself investigated events that bore no small similarity to those in his novel. He knows the political, business and environmental climate well enough to create crime fiction where the motives and emotional ties are authentic—and he knows how a veteran columnist would write of these events. And finally, McHugh has a front-row seat on the biggest mystery here, though many contend there is no mystery whatsoever when it comes to the Case of the Disappearing American Newspaper. We see what is happening from the inside, in an unvarnished portrait of the day-to-day issues that keep reporters’ feet on the street — and profits remain perpetually just around the corner. This is the kind of research that you just can’t accomplish in a couple of days (or for that matter, years) with search engines. And this is the kind of story that can best be told as fiction. If you need to read the facts of the matter, Id suggest subscribing to your local newspaper, before it too ends up as a story in another newspaper.

Rick Kleffel, Bookotron


“Paul McHugh’s new “novel of murder, conspiracy, and the media” is “Dead Lines,” which is set in San Francisco and environs, especially those nestled against the Pacific Ocean. Louis’, which overlooks the old Sutro Baths, is mentioned; also Duarte’s, down the road a spell in Pescadero.

“And also Tu Lan, just a block away from The Chronicle. McHugh worked here for 22 years, and the book, in his words, is not only a murder story but also a “celebration of what a newsroom is like when it’s running at full steam.” He’ll be at Book Passage in Corte Madera on February 13.”

Read more at S.F. Gate. . .

Leah Garchik, San Francisco Chronicle

“The themes of Paul McHugh’s companionable, rock-solid and soul-satisfying mystery ‘Deadlines’ could not be more modern and relevant. But it is his wonderful character, the has-been alcoholic newspaper columnist Colm MacCay, who will stay with you, and who channels McHugh’s considerable writing talent into a voice that surprises and delights with all the narrative panache of the classic Irish storyteller. ‘Deadlines’ is a superior story, not to be missed.”

John Lescroart, NY Times best-selling author

“With Deadlines, Paul McHugh nails the desperation of new-millennium newsrooms and the quirky crusaders of the Bay Area. He also has a lot of fun with the unlikely culprits in this land-and-money murder mystery. As you learn from very first page, Deadlines is not a ‘who’ done it but a ‘why and how will our heroes find out’ done it. The fact that those heroes are journalists, and that McHugh’s prose uses humor to great effect, are welcome twists indeed.”

Farai Chideya, Author, “Kiss the Sky” and “The Color of Our Future”

“People who love San Francisco and appreciate a good mystery will find Paul McHugh’s ‘Deadlines’ a page-turner with unforgettable characters and a realistic view of crime. Mchugh creates an eccentric figure who epitomizes an endangered species – a reporter who can connect the dots. My wife Beverly and I couldn’t put it down.

Sheriff Mike Hennessey, City and County of San Francisco

“A cheerful romp through quite serious territory.”

Tony Miksak, Words on Books

“I love Colm MacCay, the unlikely hard-drinking protagonist as much as I do David Skibbins’ bi-polar, tarot-card reading Warren Ritter. A big plus, too; revisiting San Francisco, Half Moon Bay and points south, places I know so well. But best of all is the story itself. I was riveted!”

Joel Crockett, Four-Eyed Frog Books

“Paul McHugh’s ‘Deadlines’ is an entertaining tale that concisely captures life in a big-city newsroom. In fact, this amusing novel is more than a murder mystery. It’s a portrait of metropolitan journalism amid its time of troubles.”

Pete Carey, San Jose Mercury News

Dan Rather

By | Reviews

Anyone who grew up in America in the late 20th Century had to be aware of Dan Rather’s fabled run of 24 years as the anchor of the CBS Evening News. Myself, I’ve been a fan ever since that tough Texas correspondent bearded the wily Richard Nixon at a presidential news conference in 1974, shaking Nixon’s aura of unassailability – and wound up asking Nixon many of the toughest, direct questions he ever faced about the Watergate scandal. For the record, Rather tackled that task many years before David Frost tried to do it.

So when I completed my new novel, the media murder mystery, “Deadlines,” Rather was my furthest-out, long-shot hope of scoring a memorable endorsement. I thought, no one in the country knows more about news and reporting than Dan Rather. He remains our preeminent television journalist. So if Rather reads and likes my book, that should provide one helluva boost to my project! You see, in addition to writing a good tale and a good mystery, I also wanted to document and celebrate newsrooms, and the distinctive ways that they operate.

Through contact with Rather’s reporting staff in the summer of 2009, I was able to make my way up the hierarchy in his current organization, which produces “Dan Rather Reports” for HDNet, a high-definition cable television station. To my delight and amazement, I was soon told that Dan had agreed to read, “Deadlines,” and would be getting back to me with an opinion. But you could have knocked me over with a Post-It note when his judgment arrived, in mid-September:

“Every reporter worth his or her notepad is a sleuth at heart. Paul McHugh brings this truth to life with crackling suspense and a true, ink-stained veteran’s eye for the newsroom.”

Wow. Über-newsman Dan Rather not only liked it, he used variations on the word, “true,” twice to describe my story! I wanted to thank him for his endorsement, and in some more direct and immediate way than simply sending a note back through his staff – though of course, I did that too. My eye happened to fall upon an ad in the San Jose Mercury News, announcing that Dan would be a special keynote speaker at an annual benefit breakfast for the Shelter Network, at a hotel in Burlingame, on Oct. 8. Perfect! My wife and I bought two tickets.

The Shelter Network, which provides housing and support services for homeless families, evidently is the sort of charity that appeals to Rather, who grew up a blue-collar home in Texas during the Depression and never forgot that experience – or what it meant, or how decent folks ought to respond.

In his 20 minutes in the limelight at this breakfast, Dan gave an amusing talk about his early years in the news business, followed by a heartfelt plea for generous support for the Shelter Network cause. As this breakfast drew to a close, I made my way toward his table, near the speaker’s platform, but suddenly he stood and was ushered out . . .

Riders on the Storm

By | Articles - Archives

Aidan’s beat-up kayak rode low in the water. He still kept trying to bail it out with that plastic cup he kept stuffed under his kayak’s spraydeck. But the boat’s lumpy patches and cracked seams, tweaked open by all the combined torque of two hours spent riding big surf, now let seawater gush in faster than he could pitch it out. So the Irish surfer said he’d just paddle on in, hoping to reach shore before he sank.

“Eh very like, I’ll make it, y’know,” Aidan Doyle proclaimed, his bass voice burred by a County Clare brogue. His grin was broad and cocky.

Cold storm swells, twelve feet high, grey and shaggy with broken foam, steamed in off the North Atlantic to hammer on cliffs of Ireland’s western coast.

Aidan’s faith was impressive, but I did not share it.

A low beach where we’d launched was no longer attainable. Tide had come up. And the storm seas had steadily mounted higher, too. Now those hoary combers exploded right against the base of the black cliffs. Get slammed into that glistening, spray-shellacked wall, and your body and boat would be broken up like a crab on a platter.

Our sole hope for a safe landing lay in stroking across Lahinch Bay, then trying to come in on a steep slope paved in boulders.

I wondered: Did Aiden truly know how long he had before his kayak was transformed into a submarine?.

We angled toward that rocky beach. Waves always arrive in different sizes, of course. A crucial line of demarcation for us would be that point where the very largest waves walled up to topple over.

If we could just get inside that zone, catch and ride a medium-size wave, that would be the best tactic. But once we crossed that line, we also could be snatched up and mauled by a giant. So, we kept a weather eye to sea.

Aidan’s scrofulous old boat wallowed. Maybe a dozen gallons sloshed around in the cockpit. Before it went totally awash, and he was forced to abandon the kayak and swim for his life, he had to catch a wave, any wave, and score a boost in toward the beach.
Maybe I could inspire him by catching one. In fact, here came a huffing beast just about the right size. Better grab it. Because the next one hulking up just behind it seemed like Godzilla.  My chosen wave walled to my stern. With a bow sweep stroke, I spun the prow of my Phoenix Arc around.

I took paddle strokes to accelerate, but felt bogged down as I rose up the wall, trying to get my kayak moving fast enough to catch the ride. Finally, I broke loose and fell down the face. From a paddling speed of 5 mph, I suddenly flew along at 30. I got on a left cut, with the bow low and tail high to maximize speed. Hissing spray shot up to sting my eyes. The swell steepened, and my speed rose. The fiberglass hull flexed sinuously under my butt . . . .

Agghh. Angle alert.  The face of the wave was rising, steepening, going vertical. A 12-foot swell can make a 24 foot-high face. This big dude would reach the height of a two-story building, and it was to tumble in seconds – a blow I didn’t want to take. Time to hit the silks. I shifted from ruddering the paddle blade on the right, dabbed a left rudder to initiate, then stabbed a hard right sweep stroke off the bow to confirm and enhance the sharpness of my turn. I leaned into the wave wall as it went vertical, and took just one more hard forward stroke on the right.

Pahh-hh-h-h-h. . . ! I was suddenly free, clear, and flying up into the air, as that large wave, with a low growl and a pneumatic WHUMPFF thundered down into total close-out behind and below me. Beauty. I’ve performed my first aerial move, ever. Great time to pull one off!

But now, where was Aidan? .

Riding curled in the white-knuckled grip of Godzilla, the giant wave just behind mine.  That vast mound of jumbled water — which luckily had broken outside of his position – was indeed his fastest ticket to shore. And now it was going to be mine, too. No way to avoid it. The seething mass loomed behind me, scooped me up, and then we both hurtled straight for the rocky beach.

It was backwash off the shore that saved us. It disrupted the hurtling pile of foam we rode, dampened our speed, served as a counterforce. In the last hundred yards before the rock slope, we bumped through a roiling fleece of confused waters. I flipped over and did a wet exit close to shore, found my footing, put the boat upside down on my helmet, and waded out onto the boulders. Aidan had preceded me. Without hesitation, he’d ridden a heap of foam right up onto the rocks, then let it bonk him down on that hard, uneven shelf. It was suddenly quite clear how his boat had earned its network of leaky patches.

That same cocky grin was still on him. Our eyes met in a flash of shared delight – we’d snatched plenty of rides from the storm, and still made it in!

Aidan and I were supposed to be combatants, antagonists. We’d faced each other in opening rounds of the 1988 Home International and European Surf Championships. This international contest, to determine the world champs of kayak surfing, had brought together teams from Ireland, Wales, Scotland, England, and — for the very first time — the United States. This contest was my big reason for coming over.

This storm swell had arrived during a day off, between contest sessions. Aidan had turned to me and said, “Well, the event got us all here. Now, let’s go have fun!”

After my successful landing with Aidan, I stood for a while on that boulder-strewn slope to gaze out over the heaving sea. My kin had come from these Scottish and Irish isles. That prompted me to do a large amount of background reading and research before I’d winged into Shannon aboard an Aer Lingus red-eye from New York. So I was quite aware that I trod upon a landscape drenched in history. Stories of the past, intense sensing of the present, and a spellbinding resonance that seemed to waft up from my very DNA were psychic companions that came along on every mile I traveled in Ireland.

As I gazed out on the cold smoke of the storm-tossed Atlantic, I suddenly realized that it was almost 400 years to the day when many ships of Spain’s Great Armada had foundered here, wracked upon the rocky promontories of County Clare and western Ireland.
Admiral Medina Sedonia’s fleet, mauled by Drake, had fled around Scotland only to find itself in a fatal struggle with an enemy even more merciless.
Some of my great, great, great, great, great, great-grandfathers might well have stood on this very shore at Lahinch, to watch King Phillip’s grand galleons founder, and groan, and wrench apart, as they were driven hard upon the rocks. My great-grandfather had left for America from Sligo, 163 years before the present, a county which lay way around this emerald Isle to the northeast. But plenty of McHugh headstones adorned County Clare graveyards all  around Lahinch.

I thought about what it had been like for those grizzled Irish warriors — already scarred as a people from earlier centuries of battle with the Vikings, the Normans and the English. Many  had watched without sympathy as survivors from the Spanish seaborne infantry floundered ashore in their armor, like so many steelclad lobsters, pleading in a strange tongue for mercy and coughing up the sea.

You hold the broadsword, a boarspear, or a pike. Which course do you choose, as the dark-eyed, trembling stranger falls to his knees? Slay him to filch his scant belongings? Execute him, then report the death to the English overlords in return for their rewards and praise? Or  rescue and hide him, then covertly ship him back to Spain, so he might return to annoy Drake and Queen Elizabeth upon another day? History says all three of these choices were made, at various hours, in varying locales.

Warfare is humanity’s ultimate risk sport. It pins bulls-eyes atop our hearts. In war, you don’t get whacked by some vagrant, indifferent force. You are targeted by others who aim to kill you, with great specificity. The fabulous gifts of human beings, talents of vision, logic and will, become focused on exterminating your tribal unit, and you, as a representative individual. And y’know, we seem built for that sort of thing. At birth, we hold foetal forms of all lusts and drives needed for wreaking mayhem on any perceived enemy.

To dig up the root for that, you’d need a spade with quite a long handle. Go back four million years to A. anamensis and Ardipithecus ramidus. . . the “ground ape” who didn’t need to swing through trees to survive, but stepped out from the sheltering forest onto savannahs where hooves of the great herds thundered, and giant cats stealthily stalked. Now, go one step further into the shadows, back into the jungle shadows of five million years or so ago, to find a fork in evolution. One route away from those forebears led to us. The other, to the chimps.

There are 5.6 billion genetic “letters” or DNA molecules in the human genome, stitched together in 80,000 genes. More than 98 percent of the combinations found in us occur exactly as they do in African chimpanzees. Similarities crop up in our behavior as well. Chimps maim, mutilate, rape and slay other members of their own species on a regular basis.

Biology may not invariably be destiny, but it would be a brave pundit who swore it lacked all influence. .

Atavistic lust for battle surfaces in the most idealistic. However, it frequently goes unrecognized, especially after being coaxed into modern, “politically correct” formats. .

You may choose to do what you call good. But if you also feel compelled to fight for it, you will have to trek to that same old source within, to acquire combative wherewithal. Battle lust, per se, is undifferentiated. What makes the difference is which team(s) or tribe that you decide you’re on.

Personally, I never felt drawn much to compete on teams. Did a little football in high school. In college, I briefly joined the corps of American irregulars who were clubbed and jailed for protesting the Vietnam War. But, when it came to confrontation, I gradually realized that I preferred channeling my aggro tendencies into individualized risk sports. My favorite battles were those that occurred when I pitted myself against nature’s raw force.

Which led to a paradox. I found myself drafted onto an athletic team after I’d grown adept at a highly individualistic risk sport — surfing kayaks..

Kayak surfing, was, of course, invented by visionaries who built the first kayaks: Greenland Inuit (esquimaux) and Alaska’s Aleuts. With neolithic technology — shaping driftwood and bone by the light of sealoil lamps through the long winters — they built tough, light, flexible boat frames. They sheathed these kayaks with seal or walrus hides, covered themselves in waterproof jackets sewn from whale intestine, and paddled out to claim the frigid Arctic seas. The first Russian traders in the region were astonished to see the Aleuts easily scoot about amid tempests which made their own stiff square-riggers groan, and cheerily ride combers which twisted seams of the Rusky ships agape.

“They can move about the sea boldly and freely and take great pride in doing this,” one wrote. “They put to sea during the worst storms, and teach this to children as young as twelve years of age.”

California kayakers surfers paddle in their actual wake; not least because the Russian and Aleut base established furthest south to nurture trade in sea otter pelts, in the early 1800s, was at Fort Ross (“Rus”), a hundred miles north of San Francisco. About 130 years after the Aeuts paddled these coastal waters, California river paddlers stroked out into the surf in summers, looking for entertainment in months when whitewater river rapids ran low.

This rogue activity reached a new plateau of respectability in 1985, when the state’s first kayak surf contest was held.

I made that scene, and showed for the next five regional contests, as well. And so my name was scribbled on a short list by our coach, Matty Kinsella, as he drafted a team in 1988 to cross the pond and have it out with the Brits, Micks, Scots and Welsh — who had their own version of the sport. And so it came to pass that I found myself installed on a national team.

Still feeling mystified by this development, I had looked avidly out the porthole of an Aer Lingus 747 as it  descended on the rumpled green chessboard of the Emerald Isle. Each verdant square of that land below seemed demarcated by a wavering line of stacked stone fences. Outside Shannon Airport, I stood out on those rolling hills for the first time. And found an ancestral yen for the auld sod was woven deeper into my psyche than I had kenned. As I sniffed up my first snootful of humid air laced with peat smoke, every cell in my body chanted a message: “Laddybuck, ye’re home!”.

I strapped my Phoenix kayak atop a teensy rental car, and set out driving on the wrong side of the road. In west Ireland, most thoroughfares are narrow lanes, constricted by those encroaching fences of stacked rock. There’s no margin for steering errors, especially when a loaded lorry barrels toward you from the opposite direction, demanding the roadway’s center to ensure safety for his precious fenders.

Another hazard for the newcomer is that your eyes are continually dragged off the road by seductive panoramas, such as the gothic ruins of castle keeps. Castles, in Ireland, are as common as piles of whale crap on the sea floor. Many of the cruder towers were stacked by the Normans, who invaded Ireland in the late 12th Century. Sleeker battlements went up later under English hands, to use as bases during their re-re-colonization of Ireland in the 16th and 17th Centuries. And most castles today have been reduced to a melancholy ruin by the siege cannon of Malby or Cromwell, blasted apart to deny any refuge to rebel Irish.

However, some castle walls were just blackened and crumbled by fire, signifying that the rebel Irish had piled peat bricks against the structure and set it ablaze, smoking out Norman or English warlords in their turn. .

Country towns commonly lie adjacent to such towering relics. The hamlets are clusters of slate-roofed, two-story stone houses painted in pastels. From lower stories, ornate signs thrust jauntily into the street, proclaiming wares of shop and pub.

Mostly pubs. There’s like, one of them for every eight houses. All the pubs look  snug and inviting. Some, I would add, are especially famed for sporting a mix of lively conversation and impromptu music sessions known as, “the good craic!”. . . (pronounced, “crack”).

At Lahinch, a cluster of houses and pubs parted, and I finally located the sea. I parked my car to scout the swells coming in off the Atlantic, and was delighted to also find familiar faces. All of Team USA, and several members of the Irish team sat there on the bay seawall, studying the ocean. Swells were low that day, so they were also spending time getting to know one another.

We really didn’t know what to expect from the other teams. Thanks to the research by our American coach, Matty Kinsella, we did know more than a decade of earlier contests had occurred between Scots, Irish, Welsh and English teams. But the results, structure – and especially the culture or prevailing tenor of these wave-battles were unknown to us.

On my flight into Ireland, I began to worry about the combative mood that might prevail between the Irish and English. Would this approaching contest be just one more chance for them to carry on their ancestral conflict by another means? What would be the real depth of the “sporting” struggle that was I about to see? .

Americans tend to think of The Troubles — that poisonous, persistent, low-key war between Catholic Irish Republicans, Protestant Provincial Separatists, and occupying British Troops — as confined to Ulster, the six northern counties grouped around Belfast. We may even have a vague sense some sort of modern flashpoint was reached in 1968, when Catholics marched through the streets of Londonderry, demanding parity with the Protestants in housing, jobs and the vote. They were set upon by the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Escalating violence brought about the revival of the IRA and a simultaneous deployment of British troops. That attained a climax on “Bloody Sunday,” January 30, 1972, when edgy British soldiers gunned down seven teenage boys and six adult men during an Irish march. .

Landscapes are illumined by history, once it is known. And in the light of history, Ireland gleams with a varnish of tears and blood. Gazing back through the past millenia, it would be hard to find an acre or a decade unbedewed.

As invasions go, the influx of Strongbow’s Normans in 1170 wasn’t so bad. The Normans swiftly adopted Irish culture. Sons and daughters named Fitzroy, Fitzhugh, Fitzmaurice, Fitzpatrick and so forth soon wove strands into the tapestry of aboriginal Celts on the auld sod. .

The subjugation of Ireland as a vassal fiefdom took place 400 years later, during the Elizabethan era, as Sir John Perrot, the first strong colonial warlord, sought to crush opposition, extract taxes, and hew Irish into Elizabeth’s Navy. Also, it was thought smart to replace recalcitrant Irish with subjects more amenable to the crown. Scots Presbyterians were shipped in to displace the natives of Ulster in 1610 – an early stab at ethnic cleansing.

Lord Mountjoy put down native resistance to this scheme. Under Rory O’More and Phelim O’Neill, the Irish rose up to attack the colonists yet again. Then Oliver Cromwell brought his Roundheads, fire and the sword in 1649, avenging any English dead by repeated massacres of the Irish. Another war closed in an apparently decisive Irish defeat, by William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne, in 1690.

Rebellion erupted again from Ulster to Dublin, 1794-98. Rebel bodies were dumped into shallow mass graves. The following spring, a forest of green shafts sprang up — shoots from seed corn the dead Irish had carried in their coat pockets for combat rations.

Tiny insurrections and desperate acts of vengeance against oppressive British landlords continued through the Great Famine, 1845-1850, when two million Irish lives were lost to starvation, typhus and cholera. An added factor was the genocidal decision by British authorities  to continue to send to England the wheat, oats and barley produced on the best Irish farmland. Meanwhile, Irish underlings desperately tried to live on potatoes grown in patches in odd corners of the stone fences – a harvest that failed, year after year, due to blight.

Against such a backdrop, it’s not surprising there was an Easter Uprising in 1916, promptly followed by the Tan War of 1920, when auxiliary British troops called the Black-and-Tans (due to colors of their mismatched, impromptu uniforms) engaged in vicious, pitched battles with the IRA throughout the country. A pattern of political assassinations and reprisals ricocheted through battered counties for the next decade. It was the era of Michael Collins and “Dev” De Valera.

The eruption of Bloody Sunday seems just another russet bud, unfurling. But the Irish are noted, not only for stubborn combativeness, but – oddly enough – also for great warmth and conviviality.

At Lahinch, especially in Brewster’s Pub, we Yanks grew acquainted with members of the Irish kayak surfing team. I felt a bit shocked to discover that none of them were red-haired poets, anchorite monks, rambunctious sots, bomb-tossing IRA cadres, or clog-dancing colleens. They were schoolteachers, electricians, computer specialists and a soldier for the Irish Republic.

Similarly, the Irish seemed astonished our troop of California surfers did not include tanned, blonde studs wearing sunglasses, flowered shirts and sandals – or buxom bikini babes. We were a bunch of average, non-flashy, young Americans from all walks of life who had gotten reasonably good at an ancient sport.
Interesting, isn’t it, how much human thought leans upon stereotypes.

Still, my supposition that all might not be hearts and flowers between the British and Irish teams was borne out. That animus erupted, at first, in pranks. A pool table’s eight ball was hidden in a pint of stout, where it would roll down and smack against a British drinker’s teeth as he tilted his glass. The young Irish surfer who had put it there — Aidan — was grabbed by Brits and “pantsed,” stripped to his undershorts, straightaway on the dance floor at Brewsters.

Escalation seemed inevitable. Brits boasted of the way an Irish prank had backfired the previous year. An Irishman had coaxed the British into a conga dance line, then led them, dancing, into the men’s restroom. The mischievous Mick grabbed a firehose off the wall and soaked down the entire British team. But as that hoser turned to flee his retribution, he yanked the knob right off the door. He was then forced to swallow copious gouts of his own medicine.

I warily watched out for such imbroglios, wondering if or how I’d react if one erupted.

Meanwhile our international kayak surfing contest began. Low waves initially gave European teams an advantage. Their surf craft seemed decidedly odd: long, high-volume river slalom boats, with special control vanes and fins glassed onto the surface. They did boast superior hull speed. They could catch and ride almost any riffle, then stand on their bows in the final shorebreak to perform pirouettes and forward loops that earned high marks in Euro-style judging

In contrast, our low-volume, hard-railed American kayaks needed to be riding tall and steep (California-style) waves to turn in a credible performance. We bogged down when waves were this small.
Another depressing development lay in finding out the Euros thought the scope of our fight should extend beyond actual surf heats. Struggles for advantage continued into rule-making and judging. As we observed blatant favoritism bloom and flower, members of the U.S. team were aghast. Our lobbying for even-handedness was taken as naivety, a sign of weakness.

Hence, our asses got handed to us during early days of the contest. Our hosts, the Irish, sought to cheer us up with a jaunt in the countryside. They desired to show us a rural pub with “the good craic.” And so a caravan of tiny rental cars wound through the unlit Irish night, and eventually debarked at a rather remote, rural pub.

Clearly, this tavern hadn’t been visited often – perhaps never – by any foreigner. As our crew of Americans sauntered in, bug-eyed Irish locals reacted as if the Martians had landed.

But we stayed low key, acquired our own “dirty old pints” of draft Guinness stout, and sat to tap our toes to traditional tunes. These were jolly, swooping reels played on the tin whistle, fiddle, squeeze box, guitar and flat drum (bodhran). During lulls in the music, people rose from the audience to declaim a poem or belt out a ballad. All kibitzers were shushed. Each performer got heard. This was the grand and lovely craic. A grand dame sang a bittersweet tune about a captain who falls in love with a cabin boy. Then she strolled over to our table, and announced that we visitors ought to go on stage to make our contribution.<.

I gulped, nodded and went up to mumble through a John Prine tune. . . then chased that with a manic Lord Buckley monologue. Other members of Team USA offered their bits. Afterwards, the grand dame saw fit to reward us: “Ye’re good company!” .

Headlights tunneled through the wet night, leading us back to our lodgings. It struck me as we passed their digs, that not a single person from the British team had come along. I asked one of Irish whether Brits had been invited. A brief grunt was my only reply. .

As I mentally thumbed through my stocki Irish lore and history, I located a translation.

The good craic is regarded as more than mere entertainment. It’s the “harp-beat” of society, pumping the blood of cultural identity. Craic ventilates all wounds, promotes social bonds among the citizenry, connection with ancestors gone. It generates jollity in a snug pub during Ireland’s parade of cold, misty days.

Centuries ago, the invading English astutely perceived bardic tradition as a mainstay of the culture. They attacked it viciously. Queen Elizabeth’s warlord, Sir John Perrot, outlawed bards and rhymers on the grounds that their ditties stirred up defiance, inspiring Irish kerns and gallowglasses to rebellion. An even sterner edict was handed down in 1579. “Harpers, bards, rhymers and loose and idle people having no master are to be now executed by martial law.” .

Still, yet, through all the centuries of persecution, Irish music somehow found paths to survival, and it thrives in the present day.

Mindful of that history, the Irish may allow Brits to enjoy pubs along the main drags. Buses can unload tourists of any stripe at such joints. But the Irish team would no more have thought of bringing a limey into venerable craic halls in rural villages than a Brit, in turn, would consider inviting some Mick into the Tower of London to juggle the English crown jewels. After I had asked our principal guide why no English had been invited along on our soiree, and he grunted his response, I noted that his face took on a sour look as he gazed out the car windscreen, into the onrushing darkness.

Next day, at Doughmore beach, our surf competition continued. And on this day, third of the contest, God created waves — swells big enough to break before they actually hit the beach. On ’em, we could shred turns in our short, sharp American boats. Points began to roll in for Team USA. Which created no little consternation on the judge’s stand. A sense that advantage might veer within our grasp made our whole team buckle down to the task of beating our enemies — among  whom I even began to include our hosts. I’d a bellyful of watching biased judging and partisan wrangling. If our team displayed unarguable superiority in the surf, so much so that even the most unfair judges from other teams had to grouchily award us points, that would be the best revenge.

Smoldering anger led my emotions; a fierce urge to dominate others motivated my actions; determination to win infused my will. I was growing prepared to fight.  Yet, fairly promptly, a reactive switch clicked in my head. I found myself distrusting these feelings. I struggled to stand outside them mentally, to distance myself from them, to objectify and analyze them. This distrust stemmed from my belief that a militarized mind had been my father’s worst  addiction, casting a shadow over my entire childhood.

My dad had been a smart and ambitious man, struggling to succeed while our nation was mired in the Great Depression. He only came into his own after he joined the Army. His first military gig, jaunting around with the pre-mechanized cavalry, had been a lark. But after he joined the engineers and advanced to Lieutenant, he stumbled across a darker niche of power. He swiftly gained fame as a martinet, a bear for order and discipline.  So much so, that officers reputed as insubordinate were put under him for a bit of shaping up. This, I think, was his life’s true glory period. Amid exigencies of wartime, with full approval of his superiors, he could crush and humiliate men of lesser fiber. It was all accomplished under the shining aegis of patriotism.

After the war, he moved to South Florida, where he became a general contractor. But his construction business faltered. That was an odd development. Being a home-builder near Miami during that era should have been like pushing a wheelbarrow under a golden waterfall. Uncertain, perhaps, why his pockets stayed empty, he turned back to an earlier type of success. He took military command of his wife and kids. He set about shaping us into a platoon that would jump when he said boo. We were conscripts, forced to submit to abuse while fulfilling every order. It’s the same method a boot camp drill sergeant uses to format a random mob of men into a tight squad.

And that’s why, out at Doughmore beach, when I felt that hard, sharp-edged, metallic mind beginning to grind away inside of me, I sought to evade it. I did not, at first, succeed at doing so. Both offshore and on, teams competed in ultra-nationalistic fashion. We sketched giant logos of our countries in the level beach sand. Each sketch was fashioned larger than the next. Bonus points were won for erasing someone else’s work with your own.

“Unenlightened people show a karmic illness. They consider whatever they attach themselves to as having a self. Form a group, and they consider it to have a self. Bind themselves to a nation, and they believe the nation has a self,” wrote Yasutani Roshi, in 1967. (That opinion was well-researched, since this Zen master himself had generated propaganda for the Japanese empire during World War II.)

On the beach in Ireland, we cheered madly for our teammates to spank the neoprene off our rivals.  Arguments over points and rules erupted in the judge’s area. I got involved, and veered dangerously close to punching the smirk off the mug of a particularly smug coach..

While I glared at him, revelation suddenly dropped on me like a hod of bricks. It was not only Micks and Brits with their tradition of granting sway to aggressive urges which was of concern. I needed to get the chimp off my own shoulder.

I took a stroll on the beach to cool down, and acquire a freshened perspective. As I did, the clouds parted and the sun shone. This may not sound like a big deal, but in many parts of Ireland, rain falls 250 days per year. However, total annual precipitation is just 50 inches. Translation: You may not get as damp as you fear; but you’ll be genuinely ecstatic to see the sun.

Whenever sunbeams hit Ireland, rounded hillocks take on a glow so green and gold, so ripe, rich and fulfilling, it makes some deep vegetative root of the psyche sigh with pleasure. But our bringer of miracles was not yet done. Next, a troupe of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins swam into Doughmore Bay and began to surf with us during the contest. Party mammals that they were, they soon grasped the name of our game was plying hydraulics for fun. Their dorsal fins began cutting all around our boats on the wave faces. Round, dark eyes glanced up at us as they cruised alongside.

Christine Calvery, a distaff rep on Team USA, described it this way: “When I was out in my boat and they were surfing with us, I saw darting black shadows all around me, and bubbles trailing behind as they went below. It was great to be close to creatures who know how to enjoy the sea. It was like they were teaching us to be playful.”

Onshore, an evolution occurred. After the dolphins showed up, everyone began cheering with a fresh porpoise. (Sorry.) A half-dozen dolphins at once arced their powerful bodies in a wave’s glassy wall, cutting to this side and that. Some judges may actually have begun scoring them. In any event, the importance of team standings faded into background buzz as everyone began to grin and yelp in delight at the day’s enchantment.

A glow still surrounded me as I drove back toward my lodging. Then I came upon a memorial which I’d passed for several days in a row. This time, the spot hit me with greater emotional impact. A bronze plaque set in a stone wall bore the image of an angry man in a long coat, brandishing a revolver. The text below said that a band of Irish patriots had held their ground on this spot, battling against “forces of English oppression,” in 1926. I drove thoughtfully onward.

The next morning, our competition had a bye day. The Welsh came over to the American cottages to have a go at us. Their coach, Alan Page, said good morning, then whacked me across the forehead with a tin bar tray. The Welsh had a special trick with these. Gripping one by its rim, they could bash a victim with the tray center right on the front of the skull. It made a loud noise, produced a flash of light in the brain, and hurt the head not a whit. However, it also usually dented the tray beyond repair.

“Wherever we go, barmaids hide trays from us. But we talked them into selling us a few,” Page gloated. “The night of the big party, we’ll be able to attack!”

Another hit they proffered came from a bottle of poteen. This clear (but vicious and highly illegal) Irish moonshine trickles down your gullet like liquid flame, then suddenly rebounds and bolts like lightning up to the brain. Liberated in your cranium, it produces a luminous burst, not unlike getting walloped on the forehead with a tin tray. The five Welsh, plus the one Irishman accompanying them, had hit their bottle of poteen all night. It’s a tribute to the stuff’s potency that they had barely drawn the liter down to the halfway mark. .

After we succeeded in reducing the  by another centimeter, their plan to take us hiking on The Burren began to acquire charm.

The Burren is a bulging plateau of limestone, with miniscule canyons worn into the rock by erosion. Subarctic plants sprout in niches on the surface; temperate vegetation seeks shelter down in the narrow cracks. Amid the spring bloom, The Burren is a botanist’s fantasy. In dry autumns, this area resembles giant gray globes of stony brain tissue mulling green thoughts.

As we wound north through County Clare, heading for The Burren, a member of our expedition had a few green thoughts of his own. The Irishman turned pale, then fell unconscious. We roused him long enough to have him point out a turn in Lisdoonvarna as the right way, the wrong way, then the right way once more. This forced a series of improbable U-turns on the narrow lanes. Drained by his exertion, our Virgil flopped back on his seat and promptly passed out.

We found The Burren anyhow. Our first attempt to climb up the soaring, gray-green mound was defeated by a network of tiny erosion gullies so deep, random and intricate that ankle-busting seemed certain. We retreated, and tried a route leading up from the Black Head lighthouse, where the brow of the hill was worn a bit more smooth.

Once we had ascended several hundred yards above the wrinkled silver foil of the sea, the giant mound of rock beneath our feet began to speak. We crossed the long swath of the Green Road, a winding ribbon of cleared land that writhes over the desolate Burren. It could have had Sam Beckett as chief engineer: it starts nowhere, goes nowhere, and is used for nothing. It simply was a make-work project in the 1800’s, a way of making starving people perform some sort of task before they could receive their dole of bread.

Now, the surreal route simply makes despair of a bygone era visible. Large flat rocks, upended, form tall curbs on each side of the Green Road. This line of blank tombstones writhes by the windswept highway, then vanishes into infinity.

The next masonry project we found was a job from two millenia ago. “Cathair dun Irghus,” our guide called the Celtic ring-fort which loomed on a crest. Open air gradually revived him from his stupor. “That means the ‘Fort of Irghus,'” he said. “Don’t know who he bloody was. Some chieftain of the old days. These forts were used from 200 B.C. until medieval times. The Burren has hundreds of ’em.”

This fort was a circle of stacked rock, perhaps 300 feet in diameter. Just as at Peru’s old Inca stronghold, Machu Picchu, each piece of stone was carefully fitted to the next, creating a walkway below the rim of the outermost rampart. It was easy to visualize some hardy warrior, boarspear in hand, stalking here while a North Atlantic gale streamed his long hair and beard back over a rough brown cloak.

“Barren as it is,” our guide said, “this was the first place settled in Ireland. There were impenetrable forests and bogs almost everywhere else. And y’know, the free people were forced to seek shelter back up here after Cromwell invaded. There was nowhere else. The watchword at the time was, ‘You can go to Hell, or you can go to Connacht.'”

The merriest sight the Emerald Isle offered me was the comfort of Irish pubs. Next to them, an American bar is a cold and lonely place. The dreariest sites I saw were right up here on The Burren: tiny huts made of stacked rock, with smokestained rock slabs laid across to make a leaky roof. These hovels were the last refuge for those fleeing Cromwell’s wrath. Huddled next to a peat fire, their mouths stained green from munching herbs for survival, wretched refugees passed the icy seasons until the Roundheads were gone and it was safe to descend. At this moment, I finally grasped how deeply and thoroughly the Brits could be hated for the long, long train of misery inflicted on this island.

Our guide put his hand on the roof of a wretched cot. “I should come back, try to sleep in one of these some time,” he muttered. “What dreams would you have? It’s a desolate, desolate place. Maybe, a spiritual place, too.” .

We descended from The Burren around mid-afternoon to find that results of the 1988 Home International competition had been decided. Different countries could boast winning particular divisions. Team USA had won the surf kayak part. Ireland took the womens’ wave ski; Wales had the junior kayak division. But the combined scores from all divisions gave the Brits the best overall total.

Wind that had whistled past our ears up on limestone bluffs of the Burren had signaled a sea-change. As if goaded to fury by our paddle-slaps, the North Atlantic reared up and hissed foam across packed sand of Irish beaches. Sheets of air moaned over the seawall at Lahinch, building toward a full-throated howl. It was a remarkably inauspicious set of circumstances for launching the contest’s final phase, known as the European Championship. In this, surfers would compete against each other as individuals, not as team members.

Two emerging favorites in the last heats were Harry Babcock of England, and Eric Hanscom of the USA. Babcock boasted the current title. Tall, broad, and imbued with exuberant ferocity, he seemed a medieval throwback, someone who had popped out of the Bayeux Tapestry and come to life. Babcock would’ve looked perfect in a hauberk and helm at the battle of Hastings, swinging a broadsword.

Our cerebral Hanscom, by contrast, more resembled a lean and cool fighter pilot from WWII, tapping a cigarette on his thumbnail as he shows his mechanic how to stick up that last decal which proves he’s an ace.

So, it was our Apollonian Hanscom vs. the Dionysian Babcock on the unlevel playing field of the North Atlantic. I’d have to say, conditions seemed to favor Babcock more. Waves had become shaggy twelve-footers — the same sort of stuff Aidan Doyle and I had fought during our outing at Lahinch the day before. .

On these big dogs, Babcock would find plenty of room to turn his long boat before they walled and pitched. And he’d be able to blast back to the outside of the break easily, bending his giant strength upon the paddle shaft.

Still, Hanscom was afire with purpose. A former boardsurfer who’d switched to kayaks after a depressing loss (“Shit, I got second in the California state championships, and life went downhill for me then.”), Eric saw kayaks as a new venue, one where he could triumph. It was a thrill to watch him push a kayak to perform with the precision of a surfer’s shortboard.

Amid heaving seas, blasting winds and gloomy skies, the day went absolutely frigid. As he rested between  rounds, Hanscom sat in my tiny rental car. I tried to get its anemic heater to wheeze out more BTU’s. He stuffed Cadbury’s chocolates into his mouth, and calculated his odds. Matty pushed his bearded visage into the window on Eric’s side. .

“You got ahead by one point in your heat. You went through! So it’s Discombe from Britain, Eoghan Pearsons from Ireland, Babcock and you in the finals. It’ll start soon. Eat! Eat! And drink, too. You want an injection?” .

Eric smiled wanly. He slid another hunk of candy into his mouth and gulped it down with water. “Looks tough,” he said. “Babcock’s only lost once in this contest. Pearsons pulls great enders, and Discombe’s good at snaking the critical part of the wave. But I can do roundhouse cutbacks, and they can’t. That’s my edge.” .

Eric left the car and headed for his boat. Soon, sharp lines of his Perception Sabre cut through the chaotic storm seas. Amazingly, he followed his game plan, even after one huge swell snatched him up and hurled him into the seawall. Bruised and battered, he pushed himself back out through the breakers and scored his third big ride of the heat.

It became apparent Hanscomb would win. He was letting every last scrap of his talent and drive emerge, as he displayed consummate mastery on cutbacks. He would poise his  speeding boat just below the lip of a pitching wave, then use its curling foam to knock the bow around through a fast, 180-degree course change, over and over. Yet by the heat’s end, he looked physically beaten as he paddled up to a patch of sand that lay exposed by the sea wall, in between the larger wave sets. Matty stripped to his briefs and ran into the cold water to help Eric land.

Babcock was already on shore — spare energy always seemed to course through that massive frame. Together they caught Eric’s boat. He fell out of it and rolled, kneeling on the sand, limp with fatigue. Matty helped him to high ground before the next high waves bashed into the rocks. He held Eric up, hugged him, and told him he’d done fine. Harry Babcock grinned as he approached from the rear. Then he yanked Matty’s underwear all the way down to his ankles, putting his plump buns on display to all the spectators from town.

Our final, triumphal bash for all contestants was held at Brewster’s. This was a theme pub right on the Lahinch waterfront. Named after an American bar, it featured a big screen video where old California surf movies, such as “Big Wednesday,” showed in constant rotation. We fortified ourselves with the customary pints of Guiness, then thrashed our way through the awards ceremony. There were honest cheers — especially for Eric’s heroic victory — yet also some gnashing of teeth.

The Welsh launched a swashbuckling assault on the trophy table, bashing tin bar trays against the foreheads of all comers. A special teddy bear consolation prize was given the English coach, as he’d pitched the best temper tantrum at the judge’s stand. But once all ribbons, plaques and trophies were distributed, matters having to do with victory or loss swiftly faded into the background.

Kayakers of all nationalities mingled on Brewster’s dance floor. There were impromptu conga dance lines, an Irish woman dancing with her dog, clog dances to a disco beat, dances done while sitting down on the floor. Shouts and laughter ricocheted around the room like light from a mirrored ball.

I’d expected there would be a residue of bitterness, that might stem from fights over judging, or the historic antagonism which had been the contest’s subtext. Yet something else displaced those things. I was a beat behind in my awareness of what that might be.

Noise and fatigue finally forced me off the dance floor and out into the pub stairwell, to take a breather. I found one of the Brits already out there, taking his own break from the dance floor, letting his sweat cool. I recognized him: Babcock, the lad with the physique and fire of a medieval warrior. It was a bit of a let-down to find out that he worked as a functionary in a London brokerage. As we chatted, he shared his doubts about the equities of Thatcher’s England.

“I spend my life getting other people money. Numbskulls wind up with thousands and thousands of pounds. And there you are with a degree you’ve slaved to get just so you can serve them, while you make bloody nothing!

“That’s why I’ve got to find a place to let it rip. That’s why surfing’s so important to me. When you’re on a wave, you can completely let loose, and not think of anything else. Surfing itself is a lot like traveling to Ireland. Combine surfing and Ireland, and you’ve got something! Over here, you can really let your hair down. We English are so bloody stiff. An Englishman is so reserved, anything vibrant makes him feel unsettled. Threatened, somehow.”

Tongue loosened by pints and the party’s power, Babcock vented on. “I really like the Irish,” he confessed. “Sometimes, if they’re in a group and you walk by as a Brit, they make you feel damned odd. But once the craic gets rolling, you are welcome to join. You do song after song with them, it’s an incredibly warm and human experience. Sort of thing you can’t find anyplace else in the world. You must love them, as a people, for making their land a home for that. . .”

I gazed at him, sympathetically. Perhaps he hadn’t grasped all the history, didn’t know that the English had spent centuries trying to rub the good craic out of existence. Likely, he had no clue the English team had been deliberately excluded from our foray to that rural pub, as well as our expedition to The Burren. Maybe knowing that wouldn’t have made a difference. Our risk sport, and the joy of its adherents, had already taken him a down a path leading away from ancient enmities. As I looked at Babcock, I thought, here’s one Maggie will never get to shoot at an Irishman. And none of these Irish, who’ve shared the sea and the pubs with him, shall ever be able to raise a hand against him.

Eventually, I left Babcock and got outside. Wind shrieking off the sea nearly tore the pub’s outer door from my grasp, and even tried to yank it off its hinges as I opened it. The gale plastered clothes against my body as if I’d been shrink-wrapped. As I stumbled along, I had to lean well forward into the spray that bounded over the seawall and blasted the streets of Lahinch. I felt if spread my arms, I could rise up on these gusts like a seagull.

As I gazed out on the dark and turbulent Atlantic, my thoughts began to coalesce. Like many other high-risk sports, surfing in heavy swells must bear some resemblance to combat. There’s the hiss of incoming rounds and the thunder of explosions. You teeter on a thin line between getting hammered or achieving evasion — and sometimes, even victory. It’s most like it, perhaps, because the sea can absorb every iota of your physical strength, each aggressive impulse, then invite you to reveal a little more.

Combat compels release of aggressive emotions that run as deep as tribalism, or deeper. . .  eventually attaining the sort of savagery which unites a posse of chimps, scampering through the Tai Forest of West Africa, seeking a way to tear a red colobus monkey from the trees so they can devour its flesh.

However, a risk sport — and especially competition in a risk sport — summons this energy, only to transform it. One gains catharsis in emerging from full release of ultimate aggression, only to make the charming discovery that you’ve not hurt anyone else, or even yourself.

Matty Kinsella, the third order Franciscan monk who was our team coach, was well out in front of me on this. Before we had even left the U.S., in fact., he had told me, “I’d like to see activities like surf kayaking replace sports like boxing, that pit the primal nature of men against each other.

“Humans, males in particular, seem to need intensity. But here in this crowded, modern world, we should find adventures for our bodies other than wreaking violence. Surfing contests are a great alternative. It provides an outlet, without letting aggression devolve into that tribal identification and blind rage which leads to war.”

Women tend to loathe football — at least, those who don’t play on female rugby teams themselves — without realizing the vital role it plays in sublimating, then dissipating, aggressive social urges. The true goal of the game is not found in the score, or an ostensible victory. Its ultimate achievement is the camaraderie, demonstrated when players on opposing sides pat each other after a play is whistled dead, hug or shake hands following a game.

That’s when demons of war, and elements of the military mind become sublimated. There’s a chance to grasp the light of a higher nature, a more benign style of living.

Standing out by the Lahinch seawall, I looked back at Brewster’s. Light, laughter and music spilled out from the pub windows. I noted how soon it got swallowed up by the stormy night. All the noise and warmth a hundred rowdy paddlers could make was just a hiccup between storms, a gasp between the stars. A ribbon of light, amid history’s dark cascade.

Each other, I thought. That’s all we’ve got.