Tag Archives: travel

Highway 61 Revisited

7 May

When I was a small child who wouldn’t shut up, my parents would just strap me into the car seat and take me for a drive. It worked every time, and put Baby Karl to sleep. As I learned on my whirlwind West Coast road trip last summer, a good, long drive still has the power to lull me into a satisfied place. Perhaps no road can do this better than the one lining Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior, a pathway woven through childhood memories that also looms up in vague visions of the future.

Minnesota Highway 61 runs some 150 miles from the end of Interstate 35 in Duluth to the Canadian border. It was decommissioned from federal highway status a few decades ago and is no longer the continuous highway that ran from Bob Dylan’s birthplace down through the heart of Blues Country to New Orleans, but it remains the only connection between the U.S. and Canada through Minnesota’s Arrowhead region. The highway is an engineering achievement, often blasting its way through the thick Duluth Complex and the volcanic extrusions that jumble together in the headlands on the Shore. I drive this road with some regularity; no year is complete few trips up the Shore for hikes, runs, and skis. Work takes me up this way at times as well, including a trip to Silver Bay and the old Finland airbase site just this past Wednesday. But while this voyage has a few ulterior motives, it’s primarily dedicated to the ribbon of road.

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The view from Mount Josephine toward Canada

The North Shore is a tourist playground of rocky beaches and cascading streams, rustic beauty frozen in time. Resorts and vacation homes that range from humble cabins to palatal lodges with floor-to-ceiling windows out on the lake dot the way along 61. The greatest of these is the house atop Silver Creek Cliff that was once rumored to belong to Arnold Schwarzenegger, that illustrious alumnus of the University of Wisconsin-Superior. I’ll have to dust off an unfinished short story that took place in a house modeled after this one. But that castle is just one of the retreat homes on the Shore. There are also the homes of the Encampment River People, the residents of a cloistered community north of Two Harbors whose sole purpose in life appears to be yelling at people who disturb their peace; north of Ilgen “City,” I pass a house on the market for $5.5 million that looks worth every penny on its Sotheby’s listing. Real estate now excites me. I’m getting old.

These vacation homes are a far cry from some of the Shore’s most distinctive markers: the ore docks of Two Harbors, the taconite plant in Silver Bay, and the ghost town of Taconite Harbor, home to a now-idled power plant. These and the occasional logging truck are the only vestiges of the industry that led people to first settle on the Shore. While doing my homework before my visit to the Finland airbase, I stumbled across a forum devoted to these shuttered military installations, where a few aging former servicemen and their children who lived their early years on the base at the height of the Cold War reminisced on their time atop a hill in rural Lake County. Despite the desolation and cold—many of them were not native Minnesotans—they almost universally called it the best years of their lives. Now, the base sits vacant aside from a few apparent squatters, a superfund site at the end of a crumbling, precarious road. In place of the solidarity of years on the base, the Shore has now often become a playground for people who live somewhere else.

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Intermingling rocks at a wayside south of Grand Marais

I’m guilty as charged today. This road trip emerged from a plan to test out a new pair of trail running shoes, and their maiden voyage commences at Oberg and LeVeaux Mountains, two peaks that flank the Onion River and its eponymous road just south of the Lutsen ski resort. I start with LeVeaux, the longer hike up an oblong bluff rising 900 feet above the lake. I don’t see anyone else on this 3.5-mile loop, which features some muddy slop to mar my new shoes, a bridge over the rushing Onion, and a climb up the north face, some lingering drifts of snow tucked in at its base. The stark solitude here exudes both a complete rightness and a wistful loneliness, two peaks twinned in my first eight months back home. The trail that circles the summit doesn’t offer nearly as many views as other hilltops in the Sawtooths, but there is a superb look back to the south and west at its far end, as clear as one will ever see it with no leaves on the trees quite yet.

Oberg, meanwhile, is bustling with hikers, including a father who, when asked by his young daughter why that guy was running, immediately replies that “he’s being chased by bears.” The run here is easier than on LeVeaux, so it’s easy to bounce along and repeat those old clichés about climbs and endless pursuit. Yes, I need more of this. The views fan out in each direction as I make the circuit, with long looks down at both Superior and inland Oberg Lake. I do, however, opt to skip the overlook at which a man with his significant other appears to be pulling down his pants. I careen back into the parking lot, both tired and wishing I’d found myself a longer route.

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Oberg Lake

I stop for a spell at a wayside to put some thoughts on paper at a bend in the highway where I can enjoy views all the way north to the breakwater in Grand Marais. I press on to that town whose name is better left untranslated, which stirs to life at the start of another tourist season. Downtown bustles with the precise pace of a place that knows what it is and makes it work. I’m tempted to stop in a gallery to find some local art to check off one of the boxes on my ever-expanding apartment decoration checklist, but restrain myself and settle for a sandwich from the Java Moose. (Alas, the tamale cart is nowhere to be seen.) It’s been a good five years since I was last in Grand Marais, and that last visit mostly involved the hospital after a friend separated his shoulder on a Boundary Waters trip, but it’s just as vibrant and quirky as I remember.

My plan had been to turn around at the Devil’s Kettle at Magney State Park a short ways north of Grand Marais, but then I decide, what the hell, I’ll go to the border. I’ve only crossed here once before, on a childhood vacation to Thunder Bay most memorable for the words my mother uttered when faced with the hike up Sleeping Giant. I have a vague memory of Mount Josephine, which towers over the last settlement in Minnesota, Grand Portage; I’d forgotten how much the highway climbs to cross this final rampart before the Pigeon River. If we ever decide to build a wall with Canada, this portion of the border is already covered. I’m rewarded with a stellar view from the wayside, with Pigeon Point and a few islands at the mouth of the river dotting the azure lake.

The last stop on Highway 61 is a few hundred feet from the customs booth at Grand Portage State Park. A paved path traces its way along the Pigeon, which bursts its banks with spring rains. I am spattered with spray long before I see High Falls, a torrent down into the ravine that separates two nations. When the sun emerges, rainbows proliferate, and the torrents thunder with such power that water rockets back upward in fountains off the rocks below. It’s the most impressive waterfall in the Midwest (even if half of it is in Canada), and it’s not hard to imagine the misery of the Voyageurs as they struggled to find a way around it. This is the end of the road.

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The gateway to Canada

After one last glance at the land of maple leaves, Tim Hortons, and Justin Trudeau, I turn around and head south, past the signs telling me how to translate kilometers into miles. I swing off 61 in Grand Portage and search for a hiking trail up Mount Josephine, but its parking lot has spawned a sixth Great Lake, and with some clouds rolling in, I’m not too disappointed to head on my way. I meander through the heart of the Grand Portage Reservation, which boasts a shiny new school whose playground teems with children, alive on this otherwise desolate stretch of shore. Much more alive, at least, than the old Voyageur fort at the Grand Portage National Monument. It sits in sad in repose, still closed for the season; in one part, orange construction fencing stands in place of the wooden palisade.

I get another dose of the Shore’s limited brushes with history beyond this little corner of the planet when I stop in the hamlet of Colvill to wander along the beach. This was the old summer home of Col. William Colvill, the commander of the First Minnesota regiment whose suicidal charge at Gettysburg ranks among the most crucial military maneuvers in American history. The First Minnesota suffered an 80 percent casualty rate, but stuffed the Rebel advance and may just have saved the nation as we know it. Shot twice and left with a wrecked ankle, Colvill found solitude here as he gimped down this rocky beach, recovering from the horror of war. I follow in his footsteps, any of my more plaintive musings paling in comparison to what weighed on the old Union hero.

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Nowadays, elsewhere in northern Minnesota, I’ve seen a surge in the number of Confederate flags flying from pickup trucks. History is rarely as decisive as we’d like to imagine. What endures a century and a half later is the sense of duty of a man like Colvill, who was the first Minnesotan to enlist when the War Between the States broke out. That sense of compunction, unfathomable until we realize there are things that we, too, would fancy to think we’d drive to the end of the earth to achieve. It’s all somewhere in the pursuit, I muse as I brush a little mud off my leg.

The return trip drags more than the venture northward, as I’m repeatedly stuck in columns of slow-moving traffic. Tourist season is indeed upon us. By the time I’m passing Gooseberry Falls I decide I deserve a beer, and swing down to the Castle Danger brewery in Two Harbors. I sit at the bar and unwind, even as I remind myself how much I have to do to align dreams and reality. Along one road, however, they already blend, and I head home with little doubt that I could just drive this highway into eternity.

West Coast Road Trip 2016

21 Jun

Tomorrow morning, a friend and I are setting out on a road trip west. Now that I’m out of school and will be settling into a life of 9-to-5 in short order, this is the time to go. As much as I love travel, timing and student budgets have tended to leave me with nothing but short meanders through convenient woods unless I’m traveling on business or on someone else’s dime. In reality, this is the first trip I’ve ever taken out of Minnesota that is spontaneous travel for travel’s sake, and not at least vaguely tied to family or school or some volunteer activity. I’ve had some great journeys of those varieties, but at times we need things that are more profoundly our own.

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This isn’t to say it’s unstructured travel; that’s not really how I operate. I have each day’s driving itinerary carefully scheduled out, and have spent the past week and a half obsessing over plans. But there’s room for some bounded spontaneity within it, and while I’m a rigid scheduler, I’m also ready to take any shake-ups in good humor. My favorite part about the trip we’ve designed is the sheer variety: there will be nights with relatives and old friends, and nights alone in cities I do not know; there will be nights in some of America’s great cities, and nights in some of the less tamed expanses of this massive country. Some nights I’ll stay in comfortable beds; some nights I’ll be in a tent. I’ll cross plains and climb mountains, traverse deserts and come to oceans. There will be some fine dining with old friends and a day in wine country, and there will be a fair number of bland meals of car food.

The West is an ongoing source of allure for so many Americans, and I’m no exception. The open plains and towering peaks just stir something in that frontier mentality, and remind us of how incomplete this great American project to tame this giant nation is. The West offers up incredible vastness and variety, both in people and in land. The promise of San Francisco the Pacific Northwest is especially alluring after three long days of driving. I’ve traveled west just once before, on a hilariously tumultuous Amtrak journey back when I was fourteen that remains vivid to this day. Even as I strike out on new roads, the cycle continues: the son of the friends who hosted my mother and me in Utah on that trip will host me in Portland this coming week.

The travel clichés will come easily. This won’t quite be anything on the scale of On the Road or Y tu mama también, but it’s certainly a much-needed stab outward. I’m prone to cynicism about journeys of intentional self-discovery—I think the things that tend to define us usually are in reaction to things that happen to us, not in things we self-consciously seek out—so I won’t force that angle, but would hardly be disappointed to find something. As the scattered list of expectations shows, there’s no unifying theme, and while I may be able to catch snapshots of America (or its West, at the very least), I hardly aspire to anything so grandiose. It’s just an adventure, a chance to live fully, and perhaps a chance to put the rat race of my past two years, and whatever is to come, in perspective.

I’ll try to write about this trip every step of the way, though activities, exhaustion, and internet access will dictate whether this means live-blogging or merely the occasional check-in and a lot of notes that appear here when it’s all over. Even with two drivers, there won’t be a whole lot of time to linger anywhere. That, I suppose, is what the writing is for. Feel free to travel along with me.

(Part I)

Reverie by Rail

31 May

I took my first Amtrak adventure when I was fourteen, a largely miserable affair that should have led me to swear off trains for all eternity. My mother and I went west to visit some family friends who had decided to give themselves a little culture shock by moving from Madison, Wisconsin to Ogden, Utah. We made a national tour out of it, from Minneapolis to Chicago to Salt Lake, and then on out to Sacramento and up the West Coast before heading back to Minnesota. It included obnoxious people, five near-sleepless nights, and a newfound hatred for freight trains. And yet, in spite of it all, it won a convert.

The first leg was a fairly quick jaunt from Minneapolis down to Chicago, though even that start was inauspicious, with the train rolling in a few hours late to the dismal station in St. Paul, one that has thankfully been put to rest since. The route follows the Mississippi and visits Wisconsin Dells, and there are docents on board to enlighten riders in the glass-encased observation car. It went smoothly enough, and after a night with relatives in Chicago, we were ready for the westward leg of our adventure.

The next day we set out on the California Zephyr, plowing across the prairie and readying for our first night on the rails. Unenthused by my seat, I tried to relax and sleep in the observation car, a window-filled car where one can stretch out across several chairs in a feeble imitation of a bed. That night is etched in my mind thanks to a loud teenage girl holding a deep, meaningful cell phone conversation with some distant friend. “Hello? What? Hello? What?” she bellowed for several hours on end, desperately seeking service as we wove across Iowa and Nebraska.

I woke the next morning in the gloom of eastern Colorado, a desolate stretch of factory farms and cattle ranches. There was a chance to get out and wander a bit in Denver, where the sun poured down through a high-ceilinged station. The train then began its steady meander into the Rockies, and before long, it snaked in and out of tunnels and clung to the side of the Colorado River gorge, us and I-70 and the moon-happy river rafters all flowing along. I ate the best peach I’ve ever had in Grand Junction, Colorado, and in time we were closing in on the State of Deseret. We spent a week in the Beehive State, climbing mountains east of Ogden and venturing down to do some August desert hikes in Capitol Reef National Park.

The adventure really got going on the way west from Salt Lake. We’d planned to meet some friends from the Bay Area in Sacramento when the train arrived in the early afternoon, but the freight train-induced delays began somewhere in the dusty wastes of Nevada. We sat on the tracks in the town of Sparks for eons, but that did little to prepare us for an endless wait atop the Donner Pass just across the California border. To be fair, it was a beautiful spot to get stuck, but as the delays mounted and the obnoxious guy further down the car got progressively more drunk, I began to find a little sympathy for the Donner Party and their decision to sink their teeth into the more useless members of their party.

We finally came to Sacramento just before midnight, over nine hours past the scheduled arrival time, and with just forty-five minutes to make our connection north to Portland. But no, it couldn’t be that easy: there had been a tunnel fire somewhere up the route, and the train wouldn’t be going through. My mother said some words I’d never heard her say before, and we were bundled on to a bus headed for Eugene, Oregon. It was a miserable ride made even more miserable by the need to stop in all the small towns along the Amtrak route north into Oregon, many of which are not along a convenient major highway. Still, it was a sight to awake from my fitful night’s sleep to Mount Shasta looming over us in the morning sunlight, and the coach rolled on through Klamath Falls and past Crater Lake through the endless forests, and once we finally got back on the train to Portland, I managed to catch a Yankees-Mariners game on a travel radio. (Remember those things?)

The last leg of the trip, on the Empire Builder back to St. Paul, was a blur; I have only vague memories of the Columbia River gorge, Glacier, and Havre, Montana. We mercifully slept through North Dakota before bringing our odyssey to an end. One would think I would have learned my lesson after that one. Yet as time passed the absurdity of the story became an object of laughs rather than misery, and when I was going to school in DC, an idea wormed its way into my head:  Amtrak is the perfect way to cart a lot of cargo across the country without a car or excessive airplane baggage fees, isn’t it?

That bright idea would take a little fine-tuning, as my freshman year roommate can attest. At the end of the year, I was somehow compelled to try to pack my entire life into two monstrously heavy boxes for the ride back to Minneapolis. The terrified taxi driver helped me get them out of the trunk, but the Union Station porters refused to even touch them, so I somehow managed to heft the two of them—well over two hundred pounds in total—on to a decidedly inadequate cart and get them to the counter, where a sympathetic ticket agent waited patiently through one of the less dignified moments of my life, full of sweat and panic and miserable pleas. My two large boxes, battered by their adventure from one end of Union Station to the other and hopelessly over the weight limit, were summarily broken down into ten Amtrak baggage boxes. I spent another unexpected night in DC and went out on the train the next day.

Years later, I’m still using those same Amtrak boxes to cart my junk around when I move. And once I got it down, the train ride between DC and Minneapolis became a delight. Amtrak’s schedulers wisely time sleep for the Indiana and Ohio bits of the trip. Head east, and one wakes to the mists of the Ohio River and the steel mills of Pittsburgh; head west, and the lights of the Steel City are the last thing one sees before nodding off. The Maryland-West Virginia leg is especially pretty as one heads west, snaking along the Potomac and through historic Harpers Ferry before coming to picturesque Cumberland, Maryland for sunset. The western route always dumped me in Chicago early in the morning, and sometimes I’d meet up with family or old friends during my layover; other times, I’d just wander the canyons between the skyscrapers, maybe foray down to Buckingham Fountain, and, in one memorable instance, pass out on a stone bench in a garden next to the Art Institute. One other memorable journey had me on an alternate route out east that wound through the hills of West Virginia, a frighteningly slow race between the train and Hurricane Irene to DC. My boxes and I all made it ahead of the storm, and my roommate had some hurricanes and dark-and-stormys waiting for me as we bunkered down at the start of my senior year.

Amtrak’s greatest romance comes in its people, who all come together in a place where time matters little. We’re all stuck together, we have nowhere to be, and talk flows freely. Yes, there’s the occasional clod, but they’re cause for commiseration for the rest of us, free to roll our eyes and laugh at the shrieking self-righteous homeschooler or the Mexicans who fail to understand that the coach is meant for sleeping after midnight. I paid the price for the dining car dinner once every trip, and it never disappointed. My best seatmates were a British couple on holiday in the U.S., and we talked for hours on matters great and small as we climbed into the Appalachians. There was also the personal trainer for former New York Giant and Philadelphia Eagle Steve Smith, who rearranged his medicine balls to let me into a seat and joined me in watching some old Duluth East hockey DVDs, marveling at the spectacle.

The observation car brings out even more conversation. I once sat with a Canadian guy on a month-long train journey with his son, and a couple traveling back along routes they’d visited as kids, with vague memories of the parks along the way. One lady shared her love for Jane Jacobs, and an eccentric grandmother gushed about some flower festival that I—the horror!—had never heard of. There are often Amish, using the lone long-distance form of travel available to them, always showing a delicate mix of reserve and curiosity when confronted by us moderns. I had a number of drinks bought for me—a debt I’ll have to pay forward someday—and whiled away many nights with people I’d never seen before and will never see again before settling in my seat, scrawling a few meditative lines in a notebook (interspersed with stream-of-consciousness curses directed at anyone in the car who wouldn’t shut up) before the train’s steady rumble lulled me to sleep. For days after each ride, I feel that gentle rocking when I settle in to bed at night.

It was only fitting that Georgetown’s senior ball took place at Union Station, giving us a chance to waltz about its grandiose halls, dressed in the opulent costumes its riders might have worn in a bygone era. Or maybe it was all just a dream after all? A few days later I was on the train home one last time, slamming beers with a jolly man from South Bend and penning one last reverie by rail. Amtrak has its share of ills, as recent crashes and funding crises show all too well. But its allure lingers, that escape from time into a shared journey past so many of this country’s marvels, and the timelessness should keep the dream going for years to come. Anyone else ready to climb aboard?

Why We Travel

9 Feb

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, my winter reading in Duluth often involves adventure stories set in places that are not currently buried in snow. As this winter has been a particularly harsh one, my impulse for vicarious travel has only grown stronger. And so the three works of non-fiction I’ve read over the past month (plus a work of fiction, though I’ll leave that out for now) take place nowhere near an iced-over Lake Superior.

The first book was The Lost City of Z by David Grann, and it’s the sort of book that made me think I was born a hundred years too late. It’s the story of a British explorer who fulfills many of my childhood fantasies in his explorations of the Amazon for the Royal Geographic Society. It was an era of glamour in mapping and exploration, with genteel Brits trotting about the globe to its empty spaces and painstakingly mapping them, risking life and limb to do ethnographies on previously uncontacted tribes. Nowadays, geographers sit fly over things in planes or around in front of computers, and we’re rather lacking in untouched earthly frontiers. Even as we read the words, it’s hard to process the fact that it isn’t one great big romantic adventure: the hero of the book, Colonel Percy H. Fawcett, became consumed by his search for the mythical city of Z, and vanished without a trace into the jungle. We all want to be adventurers, but we also want to be the ones who came back, and it would be nice if we got a book deal out of it, too.

Next, I read a book by the closest thing to a modern-day Fawcett out there: Shadow of the Silk Road, a mid-00s travelogue by Colin Thubron, a Brit who set out to trace the old trade route from China west to the shores of the Mediterranean. It is perhaps the best travel book I’ve ever read, beautifully crafted and overflowing with sharp insights about the people the author meets on his adventures through Central Asia. Like his predecessors, Thubron aims to see the world as it is, but for entirely different reasons: he has no aspersions of fame and riches, nor does he see himself as the vanguard of the civilized world, venturing into the backlands to establish contact and pave the way for future discovery (or perhaps colonization). While there are a few moments of self-examination, with Thubron speaking to an imagined Sythian trader trying to understand why he has undertaken his journey, his story takes a back seat to his exquisite observation skills.

And so his readers are given windows into the souls of the nations he visits. Central China, modernized in stunning fashion over the previous two decades, with questions emerging as to what comes next. The ethnic Uighur Chinese province of Xinjiang, its people clinging to a fading identity as waves of Han Chinese migrants pour in, with only a few outposts of culture left. The former Soviet Stans, populated by people without a history, their ethnicity invented by the Soviets and new national myths manufactured to hold it all together, uniting all on the surface but failing to pull at the nomadic core beneath. Afghanistan, crippled by war, thus rendered even more fractured and tribal. The Iranians, so fearful of Western smut yet disdainful of their authoritarian regime, the myths of the mullahs long dead. The Kurds, brashly proclaiming their identity at one moment, but beaten into submission when among their Turkish overlords. In the end, Thubron finally comes to the Mediterranean coast near Antioch, alone, and his return to the West is no homecoming: instead, the dark clouds remind him only of his restlessness, his reality as a wandering soul unable to find home in any single place. He can dabble in any place, visit old friends in China or Uzbekistan, share in a delightful night of vodka and yogurt in Kyrgyzstan, but he is still some other, forever the solitary soul on his lonely path.

The lonely path is a theme in my last book as well, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. Bryson’s infectious humor dominates every page, and as an out-of-shape recent returnee to the United States, he’s among the least likely hikers of the Appalachian Trail. Yet he endures long marches up and down mountains through brutal weather, mocking his fellow hikers and Americans in general with his delicious snark. He celebrates the environment preserved along the route, yet maintains a certain distance from the solitude of the Trail, and he captures the contradictory relationship so many wilderness adventurers have with their surroundings. I can relate completely. I go hiking or canoeing just about every summer, and the actual experience usually involves a lot of grumbling about why we’re abandoning our comfy beds to exert ourselves and do all these chores in the woods. I’ll admit it, I’m hardly an outdoorsman; my trips are rarely more than a long weekend, and I possess an unfortunate talent for staying awake all night for no good reason when sequestered in a tent. But yet, somehow, the trips are always a delight in retrospect, and memories of blissful afternoons in a hammock or staring at the stars through a tent screen always overpower those of the sleepless nights.

That’s how travel works. Every now and then, we have moments where we become truly aware of our surroundings—moments when we realize that This Is Water—but for the most part, our perceptions of things are either formed in anticipation or in memory, not in the moment. I’ve read that the process of planning a trip is often more pleasurable than the trip itself; it’s the idea of what is going to happen that captures our minds. After the trip is over, our memories pull out the most distinct moments and give them extra meaning. That’s what makes travel so powerful, for good or ill: it is so obviously a break from the monotony of daily life that it can’t help but be significant, especially for those of us whose minds are often racing into the future or lingering on the past.

There’s an underlying theme in all of these books: a sense of loss, a fear that these places are slowly being stripped of their novelty. Fawcett-esque adventurers would be laughable nowadays, and much of the Amazon he once explored is now open farmland. Thubron watches any number of people try to square their past with the march of modernity and development, whether in Chinese or Western form; most everyone thinks something is being lost, but the material gains are so great and often so necessary that no one is going to stop the process. Despite his love-hate relationship with the wilderness, Bryson fears its destruction at every turn, and is careful to educate his readers about environmental policy decisions on and around the Appalachian Trail. On the most basic level, they all fear the same thing: sameness. They worry that the world will lose some of those contours that interrupt an often numbing plain, a repetition of events that one cannot rise above—or sink below—in order to gain perspective.

That perspective is essential, and it’s why I’ll continue to go on journeys, either on my own or through the words of other people. Some journeys must be undertaken alone, and no two travel companions will come away from an adventure with the exact same conclusions. As the old cliché goes, life is a journey, and there is freedom and power to be found in taking up the mantel of the adventurer: one sets one’s own pace, keeps a record of the sights, and charts a course through the unknown.

It isn’t that easy, though. The best example of that might come from one of the most famous adventurers of all time, Don Quixote. The popular image of Don Quixote celebrates him as a knight errant, boldly going off and chasing the impossible dream. It’s admirable, to an extent. But at the end of the book, the protagonist comes home from his journey, and concedes that he never was the hero he claimed to be. We can only invent so much, and if travel becomes routine, then it too becomes a lie, a false reality from which we cannot see the contours. Life is not a progression from point A to point B; it is a cycle, in and out, forward and back, requiring both spontaneity in the moment and the cold remove of distance. This is why travel stories make such good books: they allow for plenty of both. But it can’t all be vicarious. We need to go live it too, if only for a little while. That little spark makes all the difference.

Thanksgiving with the Zapatistas

27 Nov

It’s late November 2010, and for the first time in my memory, Thanksgiving week doesn’t involve that drive south across Wisconsin, south to family and football and gluttony and sneaking a beer from the basement fridge, that sense of rightness taking hold. No; instead I’m far to the south, sprawled in a hammock on a beach in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, writing idly in a little red notebook, nodding off, and then waking with a sudden start, at first unsure of where I am before the delight of paradise takes control. What bliss.

Truth is, though, I’ve never been very good at staying in the realm of bliss for very long. I’m too restless. I need action, I need meaning. And so I’ve deigned to drag my eclectic traveling party on to another destination, one that will require a bit more thought. Our grand tour across southern Mexico won’t just stop at the beach; instead, it has to go back up into the turbulent heart of this nation, as far away from any façade of Mexican serenity. We’re going to spend Thanksgiving with the Zapatistas.

We leave Puerto Escondido on an overnight bus, the road hugging the coast, and we wake somewhere near the crossing point into Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. It shares a long border with Guatemala, and its twisting mountain ranges and jungles are near-impenetrable: this is as far as one can get from the borderland Mexico so many Americans know, the last frontier of a nation trying to convince the rest of the world it belongs in modernity. A state whose people trace their roots back to the Mayan empires of past millennia. The coach rolls through the dismal state capital before scaling the ramparts of the Sierra Los Altos. Base camp for Thanksgiving weekend is the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, a city whose name pays homage to Bartolomé de las Casas, the friar who convinced the Spanish monarchs to have mercy on the natives. In the heart of indigenous Mexico, some things never change: after the Zapatista revolt in 1994, the one man who managed to tried to bring the rebels and the government to the table for dialogue was the bishop of San Cristóbal, Samuel Ruiz.

Our first day in San Cristóbal is a tame one, as we wander the sprawling markets and sample the most real coffee we’ve ever encountered. The sky is grey, the air cool up here in the hills, and though the city bustles with tourists and boasts restaurants from every corner of the globe, it still has a sense of quiet, a sense of reverence. We dine at a Lebanese place and find a colonial hall that shows a documentary on the Zapatista revolt, brush up on the details of their unexpected 1994 uprising against the Mexican state after the ratification of NAFTA. A group of peasants in ski masks stood no chance against the Mexican army, but the Zapatistas captured the hearts of many in Mexico and beyond, a native group that knows the power of a symbol and stays true to its roots. The fighting stopped years ago, but the Zapatista caracoles remain autonomous, carrying on life at their own pace.

We wake early the next morning and begin our Thanksgiving Day pilgrimage. We board a van that rises up from San Cristóbal de las Casas on a newly-built road, winding its way even further up into the sierra. I marvel at the sheer vastness of mountains, those barriers that no free trade agreement could flatten. Pictures cannot do it justice, the verdant green hills and the towering cliffs, the homes clinging to their sides, perched so precariously that they seem vulnerable to any great wave of change, yet sitting on plots of land that have barely changed over the past thousand years. We come to San Andrés Larrainzar, where the government and the rebels met in a church atop a mountain, reachable only by a long stair marching straight up its side. Here, the parties negotiated their peace accords some fifteen years prior. They answered no questions, resolved no disputes. There are no signs of that now, though: life goes on.

The driver pulls to the side of the road and announces Oventic. The four of us clamber from the van and make our way over to a gate that blocks off a side road. A man in a ski mask awaits; he scarcely reaches my chest, but he still has an air of control. We deliberate, and he asks us our reasons for visiting. We answer as respectfully as possible. A few other masked men mill about, murmuring in Tzotzil. We wait. Are they suspicious? No; this is merely the pace of life in Oventic. Explosions echo further down the road. Has the fighting resumed, on this day of all days? No; a religious procession is climbing the way, shooting off fireworks as it goes. Before it arrives, we are summoned inside.

The cement street cascades down the mountainside, wooden buildings lining both sides. Shops, meeting halls, a women’s center, a school, a clinic with an ambulance. Another masked man, this one somewhat older, guides us downward with a few declarative statements. We may photograph the murals along the walls, but not the people. The street empties into a level clearing, a schoolyard with a basketball hoop. The children tear about the schoolyard, all save one, a boy settled beneath a tree, plugging away at his schoolwork with contented poise. The two of us steal a quick grin. No, they don’t have much; most everything is made of wood, and the public restroom is little more than a trough. But it is no failure, either: behind the gate, there is an ease to life not visible in the poor Mexican communities on the outside, a difference most obvious in the children of Oventic.

Our guide, warming to us, takes us to a pair of stores filled with Zapatista swag. The shopkeepers know just enough Spanish to conduct a sale. Foreign capital in action, even in a commune. The mess of modernity, the impossibility of true isolation: they try to build an autonomous community, but if it were not for their international allure that draws in us tourists of revolution, history would have forgotten the Zapatistas. The Mexican government would have crushed them in short order. They may not exactly be a model for other struggling villages; few others can match their PR savvy. But they’ve succeeded, and even if they do not have much wealth, they certainly have their pride. We are shown the gate and flag down the next pickup truck to head down the highway, offering the driver a few pesos for a ride in the bed.

The truck dumps us in San Juan de Chamula, a dusty town of 50,000 that serves as the gateway to Zapatista country. The feel couldn’t be any more different: the poverty is immediate and anything but idyllic, the vendors aggressive even by Mexican standards, with one little girl dropping her wares on our lunch table at a restaurant and refusing to leave. It is a different world, but yet another world awaits: the inside of the town church is something wholly alien for all of us. The nave is dark, lit only by thousands of small candles, its floor covered in pine needles. The worshippers kneel before countless altars to saints, chanting in Tzotzil, the aroma of incense lulling everyone into a trance. Christian and pagan faith, blurred together in the haze. We stumble out and wander the square in shock for some time before coming back to our senses.

A van takes us the rest of the way back to San Cristobal de las Casas, the heart of indigenous Mexico somehow reborn as a cosmopolitan magnet for adventure-seekers. We meander its streets, sit in the placid zócalo and try to imagine an army of invading masked men. We visit an Irish pub, climb a hill to a church, fool around on a curiously placed exercise course. Then, Thanksgiving dinner. No turkey, just pizza in a colorful Italian place, with the Tuscan countryside painted on its yellow walls. A bit of wine, a beer run to the Oxxo, and a night of drink and debate.

What’s it all worth, this rebellion in the backlands? An assertion of identity that transcends any losses, makes all the costs worthwhile? A noble but failed effort, doomed by the march of progress? Delusion on the part of a bunch of uneducated natives? It’s nearly seventeen years since the Zapatistas first took up arms. Seventeen years of fitful fights and useless treaties, of paramilitary incursions and aggressive government responses. Surges of interest, with the tales of Subcomandante Marcos circulating the internet, the foreign support flowing into San Cristóbal. Claims of a new left, a postmodern revolution, the birth of indigenous rights in the Americas. Moments when it seemed like it would all go wrong, when the obstacles blocking the Zapatistas seemed more imposing than the mountains of Chiapas: the brutal massacres and that image of Marcos, shrunk down to size by the austerity of a Mexico City plaza, desperately trying to rally the revolt into a broader movement with his “other campaign” during the 2006 presidential race. It wasn’t to be: whatever its gains in Chiapas, the EZLN has not changed life for the vast majority of Mexicans. It never did quite know if it was a localized revolt or a national movement, and the question of scale kept it from taking off. The paradox of the modern left: it understands the importance of unique identities and is happy to harness the power of the state, but there is no bridge between the two.

Most of those trappings are gone now, as are the forceful rejoinders from the Mexican state. Forget the leftist rhetoric, the development theories, the ideals of efficient economics and what a modern nation should look like. There are only people, trying to make do. Maybe someday the government will finally be able to provide for Mexican peasants high in Chiapas; it’s certainly made some progress on that front, however haltingly. Maybe someday free enterprise will open up those mountain passes, or they might fade into irrelevance as globalization’s losers empty the land. Consider me a pessimist on both fronts.

“Utopia is a disease of the intellectuals, not the people,” said Octavio Paz. It was a disease that afflicted even him, a critic of the revolt that destabilized the treaty that was supposed to welcome Mexico into the modern world. For the children of Chiapas, there is no economic theory, no national liberation, no grand vision of a changed world: simply life as it has been, and their daily struggle to make it all work. Culture may shift and erode, but its shadow is long, and its loss drains the world of some of its wonder. It will endure, and with it the people of Chiapas, trying to carve out some stability in a world increasingly wont to discard any sense of order and tradition.

The next day is a quiet one, all in San Cristóbal. And then another van, this one north, past more Zapatista art and a few military installations, winding through the mountains to a pair of waterfalls and the ruins at Palenque. The Mayan city in all its splendor, then its drab modern counterpart, a mercifully short stay. Then another overnight bus ride, once again putting pen to paper as I try to give it all some order. Mexico defies order, of course, and that may be its greatest lesson: even in its turbulence, it holds together, pulsing with life, a life I’ve found during my four months south of the border.

It is a pulse that is, blessedly, alive and well in my own family, and it’s time to make that drive south across Wisconsin again. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Deep in the Heart of Mexico

16 Sep

Today is the 203rd anniversary of Mexican independence. Not a particularly significant milestone, but not far removed from the Bicentennial of the nation so aptly described by its former dictator, Porfirio Díaz: “so close to the United States, so far from God.” Over one long weekend in 2010, one American kid got to see the whole paradox of a nation summed up in one little road trip. This is the story of my Mexican Bicentennial.

The semester I spent in Mexico City wound up being four of the more important months in my young life, and I could easily turn this blog strictly into a string of reminiscences and have plenty of content to keep it going. I was enrolled in the Universidad Iberoamericana, a Catholic university on the west side of the city, safely perched in a glitzy new neighborhood up in the mountains, far above the bedlam below. I didn’t live on campus, though; instead, I was down along the dried-up lake floor in the heart of the Valley of Mexico, living with a superb host family and a kindly but rather mute roommate. Every day, I pushed myself in through the back doors of a green-and-orange bus and gave my four pesos to the person wedged in next to me; the fifty standing passengers between me and the driver would pass my fare forward, and five minutes later, someone would hand me an utterly useless ticket proving that my fare had made it to the driver. It was a fascinating, and rather heartening, insight into the human condition: it would have been absurdly easy to not pay a single bus fare while crammed onto those buses, yet every single person aboard would pass their fare forward and clutch their stupid little ticket when it finally made it back to them.

Even so, Mexico City is not for the faint of heart, and it takes a certain type of foreigner to be crazy enough to stay for four months amid that teeming mass of humanity. There were only six Americans in my program, and plenty of people back home expressed their worries about my chosen location, though telling them that Washington DC’s murder rate (at the time) was nearly quadruple that of Mexico City did get their attention. Indeed, reality suggested Americans have been conditioned to panic over Mexico by grisly news reports from across the border: Europeans still came to the Iberoamericana in droves, and I can’t remember a single story of even minor theft among the friends I met. The terror of drug-related violence is largely confined to a handful of border and Pacific coast states.

Still, Mexico City isn’t somewhere you go because it’s a default fun study abroad location; it’s somewhere you go because something pulls you there. And so I was thrown in with a group of people who, despite some very disparate backgrounds and personalities, shared a desire to be right in the middle of everything, and the wherewithal to be able to reflect on the meaning of the leap we’d taken. It was no surprise, then, that four of us (one fellow Georgetown Hoya, another American, an Australian, and myself) decided we were going to do the Mexican Bicentennial the only way it could be done.

We knew where we had to be for the Bicentenario, and planned a road trip accordingly. Our destination: Dolores Hidalgo, a city that has officially taken on the rather pretentious name of Dolores Hidalgo cuna de la independencia nacional (Dolores Hidalgo: the Cradle of National Independence; the “Hidalgo” is also an add-on to the city’s original name of Dolores.) It was in this city that, at dawn on September 16th of 1810, Father Miguel Hidalgo rang the bell at the church to rally the first revolt against the Spanish Empire. The revolt fell flat, but inspired the independence movement, and has the distinction of being one of the few moments of popular rebellion in the Latin American independence movement. (Most other countries gained it amidst political intrigue and/or invasions following Napoleon’s invasion of Spain.)

We set out from the university on Wednesday the 15th, and sailed our way up a Mexican interstate north out of Mexico City. As is my wont, I had an atlas open, noting every little town and crossroads we passed in the scrubby, mountainous country high in the central Mexican plateau. Before long we were shooting down a two-lane road toward Dolores Hidalgo, and a suddenly we passed a torch runner flanked by a bunch of slow-moving cars. An Independence Day torch relay, we assumed. How lucky that we’d chosen that route!

The novelty wore off the fourth time we passed one of these torch relays, which we now realized were not remotely official. Trailing behind each group of runners was a pickup truck with a whole bunch of people in the back, happily downing beers and getting an early start on the festivities. Oh, Mexico: what a delightful mix of tackiness and transcendence you are. We snapped up some pictures of the runners, and in time, a giant Mexican flag alongside the road greeted us to Dolores Hidalgo.

This being Mexico, our arrival was anything but smooth. First, we learned that the Mexican Army, on hand to provide a massive security presence lest any drug cartel grow ambitious, had shut down the entire center of the town. We eventually found our hostel, but there was nowhere to park, and, of course, the hostel had found some way to lose our reservations. They were apologetic, but there was only one open bed. We snapped up that one bed, and some hostel employee’s family member offered us parking at some spot on the outskirts of town. Two of our party went to park the car, and the other two of us, wondering vaguely if we’d ever see our friends again, set out in search of lunch. We found a lovely colonial-style hotel with a buffet right off the main Zócalo (plaza), which, to our chagrin, would later prove the culprit for a case of diarrhea.

Once the car was successfully stowed in some mysterious garage, the four of us spent the day wandering the city center, maneuvering our way through bored soldiers on buses and the obligatory army of vendors hawking every piece of Mexico swag imaginable. I snapped up a Mexican flag (later forgotten in a port-o-potty during the diarrhea outburst) and a silly Christmas ornament, both of which complemented my overpriced Mexican soccer jersey superbly. We struck up a conversation with a Mexican-American about our age, a kid who’d grown up in the States but was back in Mexico due to immigration limbo, and watched the less-than-stellar Guanajuato Orchestra. After that, we drifted back to the hostel, where the Mexicans were throwing a party as only Mexicans can. Given our lack of beds, our plan for the night was a simple one: don’t bother with sleep, and crash when beds open up in the morning. Traditionally, Mexicans celebrate Independence Day the night of the fifteenth, as Porfirio Diaz didn’t want to bother with getting up to lead the ceremonies at 7:00 AM, when Father Hidalgo had called his countrymen to arms. On this occasion, however, they decided to go back to the old way in Dolores. We’d have to be back in the Zócalo by 4:00 AM anyway if we wanted to watch the main event, so why bother?

Needless to say, much of the rest of the night was a blur. My vague memories involve dancing about the hostel rooftop-turned-bar, some German girl offering me scotch, a rap battle between our Australian and our new Mexican friend, catching some of the festivities from Mexico City on television, and a fireworks display over Dolores Hidalgo. One of our number got the diarrhea and retreated to our sole bed, but the rest of us made it through the night. We kept to our 4:00 departure time, staked out an excellent spot in the Zócalo, and awaited President Felipe Calderón’s arrival.

My diarrhea hit around six.

I made a few desperate trips to the 5-pesos-per-use port-o-potties, but couldn’t make it. I passed off my camera and retreated to the overbooked hostel, where I made the intimate acquaintance of a seatless rooftop toilet and then tried to rest on a couple of couch cushions lain across the concrete patio. I joined a herd dazed and/or passed-out guests lying on benches or under tables to escape the cool mountain air, desperately trying to block out the norteño music still blasting from the speakers at the bar.

One miserable hour later, five helicopters went screaming directly overhead, maybe twenty feet above the roof. They landed a block away, and in time I could hear President Calderón in the distance, giving the famed Grito de Dolores: “Viva Hidalgo! Viva Morelos! Viva Allende! Viva la independncia nacional! Viva México!” The bells on the cathedral peeled, and the crowd roared. In spite of my sickness and my sleepless delirium, I grinned in awe.

After a fitful morning of sleep we set out for San Miguel de Allende, a colonial beauty of a city popular among American expatriates. Once again, parking was a chore, but we found a quiet churchyard down a hill from the city center and spent an evening wandering the streets and admiring the architecture and the abnormally high concentration of attractive women. Dinner proved something of an ordeal, as we sat for nearly two hours awaiting our pizza as the tables around us were served; our waiter, who simply could not understand our frustration, patiently explained that we could not get a refund because our pizza came with salsa.

I took over the driving duties that night down the desolate road back to Dolores Hidalgo. The next morning it was barely recognizable, back to being a sleepy central Mexican town, all the revelers and vendors and soldiers long-gone. After a delicious meal, we were on the road for Guanajuato, winding through the mountains en route to the old silver mining city.

After dumping one of our number at the airport, we proceeded to spend the next four hours driving in a loop around downtown Guanajuato in search of parking. We soon learned every last detail of the city’s meandering underground tunnels, tight one-way colonial streets, and bustling cafés. Eventually we found a near-empty parking ramp that had been hiding just off the main drag, and, having seen the entire city center during our parking odyssey, were content to spend a leisurely evening dining and drinking wine at a restaurant on an open-air, second-story bridge over a street. After two straight days of madness, we could watch the revelry down below from a contemplative distance, laughing with delight as some of the same characters from that first night in Dolores went by. So many things had gone wrong for us in the past few days, I mused, and yet we were still having the time of our lives. Mexico in a nutshell.

Before heading home the next morning, we hit up the Guanajuato Mummy Museum (a bit overrated, but sufficiently gruesome, and worthwhile if only for the ridiculous souvenirs available at the end) and a preserved silver mine with several areas that had not been closed off to the public nearly well enough to keep out intrepid Australians. Then we got back on the Mexican freeway and drove back to Mexico City, through the remnants of Hurricane Karl and past a bevy of roadside stands, all of which specialized in strawberries and cream. (Economic diversification hasn’t quite caught on among Mexican vendors quite yet.) After that, it was back to the university, where our dear leftist professors would sigh and wonder what the point of all of that merriment was, there in a nation with rampant poverty and corruption and brutal violence brought about by the drug cartels. The promise of Father Hidalgo’s revolt, they said, had never come to fruition, and some of them thought it never would. We were celebrating a checkered past with mindless debauchery in the present, doomed to the same cycles of mistakes.

So much of my time in Mexico was devoted to that study abroad cliché of “broadening horizons,” and I really needed that push into the unknown. But, perhaps more importantly, it also cycled back, and made me look inwards, to ponder what is worth our time and love in such a vast and complex world. At the beginning of my trip, my writings were grandiose and political; a few days before I set out on the Bicentennial trip, I wrote a little reflection on my first 9/11 outside of the United States. In it, I reaffirmed my American identity, not out of any respect for traditions of the past or the delights of the present, but out of a commitment to its dream for the future. The American Dream. It was an understandable stance for a kid who’d spent his entire life trying to live it. By the time I got to the beach town Puerto Escondido in November of that year, my writing had drifted into meditations on love and place in the face of the absurdities of modernity.

It took me a while to understand what was going on—perhaps a year, I’d say—but in time, I learned Mexico’s greatest lesson for an ambitious college kid, both for himself and how he thought of his own country. My Mexican professors were missing something in their worldview, as was I, when I thought only of what the future might bring. Instead, we have to embrace that past, in all its messiness, and do what we can to make sense of it. That wave at the top of this blog is not on Lake Superior; it is rolling up out of the Pacific Ocean near Puerto Escondido. They are those waves that, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, bear us ceaselessly back to the past.

Mexico will always take me back to the past, whether that means those four months of madness or a deeper reflection on how Aztecs and Mayans and Spaniards came together to form a troubled yet vibrant nation. But it will also push me outward, and it’s important to remember that, as I settle into this city that represents my own past, and bury myself in the vagaries of local politics. It requires constant balance; a cycle, you might say, as I try to make sense of my dreams, my memories, and the immediacy of the here and now. Thanks to Mexico, that won’t ever be too difficult.