Summer of Expeditions

get-attachment-1Imagine a small house, crammed with all three kids and various friends/partners, and the gear-up for two, 40-day wilderness expeditions going on simultaneously. That’s the scene here, while MP and I get ready to take on our first big expedition as a couple since 1991, and Ruby and Sawyer prepare for their 40/50-day trek in the Northwest Territories. Add in the demands of work, my mom’s memorial, and all the loose ends that need tying up before a summer of travel, and you get pandemonium with a tenuous lid on it. Right now, all of us are enduring the frenzy, asking ourselves whether it is really worth all this, and anticipating the relief that comes when the umbilical cord to home is finally cut, and we set off for the horizon.

For Ruby and Sawyer, their cousin Quinn, and friend Kelly, it will be their first serious wilderness expedition without parental oversight. They will paddle two folding canoes from Yellowknife to Baker Lake, NWT – more than 900 miles featuring Great Slave Lake, the Hanbury River, and the Thelon River. It is a classic route full of tundra, wildlife, open water, fast current, Inuit artifacts, all the elements of the Far North we’ve come to love. Their hope is to leave around June 10 (depending on ice-out).

MP and I are doing something very different. We’re heading for New England, where we will take on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. It’s a 740-mile route from Old Forge, NY to Ft. Kent, ME, a system of loosely-cobbled together traditional water routes through the Adirondacks, up into Canada, and angling for about half its length through Maine. Along the way, a whopping 60 portages. It is different because it will be far more civilized than we’re used to, more like a European canal boat trip than an immersion in remote wilderness. We’ll have to wrap our minds/hearts around that reality. We’re hoping to complete the route in 40 days, but it may take a bit more (we’re not 25 anymore!!). So, the plan is to pull out of Bozeman on June 9 (garden planted, bills paid, kids hugged, house cleaned), and drive east.

Stay tuned for adventure reports, whacky stories, and whatever else might come from these twin expeditions. We should all reconvene in Bozeman by early August, just in time to gear up for the next school/work cycle. Meantime, Eli and his girlfriend, Sam, will be taking care of the house and working. Eli has a sweet job at the Marlboro Ranch in Clyde Park, MT, as part of the zip-line crew. An adventure in its own right.

 

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In Memory of Chelsea Kesselheim

Al_ChelSO I TURNED AROUND

Twenty miles south of Meeteetse, Wyoming, going seventy miles an hour, I top a rise and see the hitchhiker. Middle of nowhere. Empty two-lane. Gray, fall day – clouds clipping along, sandstone bluffs pocked with juniper, a raven sailing the updrafts, a skiff of snow in the hollows. A full backpack leans against his thigh. Thumb high. Nice smile. Some road wear, but presentable enough. Reminds me of me – forty years ago. I haven’t picked up a hitchhiker in decades. All of this ticks across the mental screen, then he is in my rear view mirror.

In October my mother died. It happened suddenly, at home, without violence. She was there, then not.

Nothing prepares you for losing your mother. It’s like having children. No test drive available.

Ever since, I have been yo-yoing the 14 hours back and forth from Montana to spend time with dad, who is alone now in the house he shared with Chelsea for a quarter-century. He is not ready to leave. He may never be. My sense is that, much as he appreciates visitors, the condolences, the demonstrations of community, he is also keen for his own company, and for the tart solitude of grief. When he says goodbye, and turns back inside, it is with relief.

My cousin happened to be visiting on the day mom died. He said that Chelsea had been disoriented for a day or so, had dizzy spells, lost track of things. He sat with her after breakfast the last morning of her life. The night before she had woken my dad and asked him to take her to the kitchen so she could reorient herself to the house. That morning there were birds at the feeder outside. Sun pooled in the room. She had come to the point where so much about life was burdensome. She hated her mind, her looks, her fragile skin, the pills in weekly trays, her dependence. The nagging about using her cane, the fact that we took the car keys from her. She kept apologizing for her halting speech, her search for simple words. But she was lucid.

“I believe there is good in everyone,” she said to my cousin. “I have always believed that.”

Chelsea was famous for picking up hitchhikers, even into her 70s. An old lady, alone in her car, on some desolate Wyoming road, she would pull over and pick disheveled strangers up. Drove us crazy to think of her doing that. More than that, she would take people in, inviting them home for a meal, letting them stay a few days, giving them odd jobs, paying them wages worthy of the oil patch.  Did they take advantage? Sure, some of them, sometimes.

“So what?” she would say.

The hitchhiker is still there in the rear view, his silhouette tiny, shimmering slightly in the windy distance. No cars in sight. I find myself downshifting, looking for a wide spot on the shoulder, then swinging an abrupt arc across the highway, heading back.

I clear junk off of the passenger seat while he wrestles his pack into the back. We shake hands, start talking. He is from Montreal, a college student. He was tired of endless school, decided to take six months and travel until his money ran out. He bought a plane ticket to Seattle and started hitching from there, stringing together a web of geographic highlights he’d researched online. The usual suspects – Yellowstone National Park, Devil’s Tower, the Black Hills, but also some off-the-radar nuggets even I wasn’t familiar with.

“Hell’s Half Acre,” he says, when I ask where he’s going. “It’s a little park halfway between Shoshoni and Casper that sounds really cool.”

“I can get you to Shoshoni,” I say.

We talk about hitchhiking. I tell him I used to hitch when I was his age, that it was commonplace back in the 60s and 70s. People did it all the time. Now it seems more desperate, the people generally pretty sketchy.

“I want to keep the tradition alive,” he says.

He speaks with a slight French accent. I look over at him. I think what I would be feeling if he were my son saying that. Honestly, I don’t know, but I like him a great deal for the sentiment. And I think back to the gritty roads I waited on at his age, with the heft of my pack resting against my thigh, with the frontier of pavement and unscripted encounters gaping ahead across Arizona, or California, or Pennsylvania.

He is unabashedly excited at the sight of pronghorn. I pull over so he can get a photo to send home. Half a dozen graze in the sagebrush across a line of fence. In the distance, the swell of peaks, the piles of cloud, the roll of space. “I told them I was seeing antelope,” he says, “but I don’t know if they believed me.”

Fifteen years before my mother died, she wrote her epitaph.

It was an exercise at a writing retreat. She had been thinking about energy. When her own mother was dying, Chelsea stayed with her so she could be at home. In the last weeks, her mother traveled. You never knew where she’d come up. France in the 30s. New Orleans. Puerto Rico. Mid conversation with someone on 42nd Street, New York.

One day my mother asked her about God, what she made of it all. She was quiet a long time, barely breathing. She had come to the point where she hardly ate or drank. Already half gone. Hard to say whether she had heard, whether she was sleeping, where she’d slipped off to. Chelsea was used to waiting.

Then, abruptly, her mother said, “It’s all energy. That’s what I think about God. Energy.”

In the years since, Chelsea often referred to that notion, a web of nebulous, unfathomable, but quite real forces mingling and transforming and intersecting throughout the universe. And so, her epitaph, scrawled on a white page of lined paper.

Nothing is lost, only transformed.

Look for me in your memories,
In the generations past and to come.
See me in the blowing grasses,
The flowing rivers,
The spring mud and winter snows.
See me in the sage and the grazing antelope.
Nothing is lost, only transformed.”

We slow down for Thermopolis, then enter Wind River Canyon. My passenger, whose name I never learn, takes movies through the windshield. The canyon walls rise in craggy ramparts. The river, low now, feels through the bends.

I know he is thinking about what’s next, when I leave him again on the side of the road. What time of day it is, how much light he has, whether he’ll have to walk out of town to find a good spot, what he’ll have for dinner. Hitchhiking requires uncommon faith, the belief that needs will be met, that you will survive the bad spots and accept the good ones.

Shoshoni is visible from ten miles out. I think about rides I had, a generation back. Drunks in ramshackle vehicles that needed oil more often than gas. A semi hauling 65,000 pounds of popcorn. A band of hippies in a day-glow micro bus in Glacier National Park. I remember the day-to-day of it, the yearning, the edge of mishap sheer and close, the sweet and heady loneliness.

In her last morning my mother kept talking, apologizing as she searched for words, but clear enough. My cousin sat with her.

“Inside everyone there is a pure jewel of light,” she said. “Everyone is born with that. Our job, through the years, is to keep that light clear. Things happen to obscure and hide it. Scars and wounds cover it up. Our work is to keep it clear so that it shines out on the world.”

She got up then, my cousin told me. She made her way to the couch where she lay down to prop up her swollen legs. She rested against pillows.

“Five minutes later, she was gone,” he said.

We stop in Shoshoni. I turn toward Casper, drive to the edge of town, drop him off at a rest area. It’s a good spot. We shake hands. He heads for the bathroom before resuming his journey. I wish him luck. He waves.

So I turn around, head back west, toward my father, who is waiting for me in the house still so full of her. And all the way to him it is full of her. In the wind burring across the reservoir. In the late sun firing the Wind River Range. In the fleet antelope standing watchful in the twilight, preparing for night.

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Breaking News – High Plains Book Awards

On a recent October weekend in Billings, Montana, two of my books – Let Them Paddle and Montana: Real Place, Real People were finalists for awards. There were more than 200 books entered in the various award categories, which ranged from poetry to cookbooks, and I was honored to find that both of my books made the top three in their categories (non-fiction and art-and-photography). The high plains region covers half a dozen western states and several Canadian provinces and the event culminates in a celebratory weekend featuring readings, performances and discussions. Thomas Lee and I gave a reading/slide presentation from Montana: Real Place, Real People on Friday, and I read from Let Them Paddle  on Saturday. At the Saturday night dinner all the finalists were honored and the winners were announced.

The event is a community affair, marked by its generosity and an atmosphere of respect and good-will, a real testament to the organizers. Corby Skinner, Director of the Writer’s Voice, in Billings, has been an instigator and driving force behind the event since its inception, a dozen years ago, and his energy infuses the celebration. The party at Corby’s historic home in Billings caps the weekend.

It is an award I cherish, and an honor I am very proud of.

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Ruby’s Graduation Expedition – June/July 2013

Ruby riding bow on the Marias River in Montana, a few years before high school.

Waiting for high tide on Hudson Bay

A few years ago Ruby made it very clear that she had no interest in the usual high school celebrations or gifts. What she wanted, more than anything, was a return to the Far North, on an expedition worthy of the occasion. Ever since Eli’s coming of age expedition on the Kazan River, when Ruby was barely 10, she has held an abiding flame for the tundra lands and the exhilarating environment north of civilization.

Who were we to resist? So, this June, we’re heading north to Yellowknife, NWT, and will take off for a month in the boreal/tundra wilderness north of Great Slave Lake. At this point it looks like we’ll paddle up the Yellowknife River roughly 150 miles, and spend whatever time we have exploring the tundra near the head of that drainage. We’re still weighing options for the return route to Great Slave – back down the Yellowknife, down the Snare, or one of several other possibilities. All depends on time, ambition, preferences, and which way the wind blows.

The big thing is that we will be there reveling in that great beyond Ruby fell in love with as a young girl. Stay tuned for more reports.

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Don’t Wait!

Kazan River lunch during Eli's coming-of-age expedition.

 

Call it parental revelation.

The three of them range out in front, dots of colorful energy bushwhacking across the tundra above 10,000’, deep in the Washakie Wilderness of northern Wyoming. Ruby, 11, Sawyer, 13, and Eli, 14. They look so small. At the same time, they exude confidence and zeal. We can hear them calling to each other, urging each other on, eager for the next corner. Their exuberance and independence is absolute, obvious at 100 yards.

We are 25 miles from the trailhead, on our way to the summit of Younts Peak, which overlooks the forks of the Yellowstone River from better than 12,000’. The ramparts of the blocky summit rise above the valley, intimidating and enticing. First, though, and more important, we seek the literal headwaters of the Yellowstone, that first drip of river off of the snout of snowfield, the river we have come to know intimately as a family. A month earlier we finished canoeing its entire 550-mile navigable length, from the Yellowstone Park boundary to the confluence with the Missouri in North Dakota.

To get here the kids carried full packs up the trail, up thousands of feet, over several days. Hiking ten miles a day with a few thousand vertical thrown in has been routine. They have earned this unburdened ramble to the summit, and this quest for the source of the river so fresh in our collective experience.

I watch them, savoring their energy, the distant snatches of their banter; savoring how at home they all are here. And I think, what if we had waited?

What if we had followed that cliché of American conventional wisdom to ‘Wait until they’re old enough’? If we had, we might just now be ramping up the first outing, pulling them away from their other commitments – soccer, friends, the city pool. We might be lucky or persuasive enough to wrench them out of their comfort zones and lure them down the trail, into a canoe, up a mountainside, but it would be a struggle. And once there, we would only now be starting the education in how to live comfortably in the wilds, how to pace yourself with a pack on, how to detect and take care of a budding blister, how to set camp and pack up in the morning and cook food and start a fire. The learning curve would be steep, the discomforts problematic, the competing distractions compelling. We might not pull it off at all.

And what we would have missed! All the places we have been with them, already. All the adventures they have woven into the synapses of their beings, that have made them who they are. The collage starts up in the theater of my memory.

Sawyer losing an appalling number of baby teeth on a two-week trip down the flooding Yukon River, in Alaska. Eli pulling lake trout the size of his leg out of an eddy along the Kazan River in Nunavut. Ruby cajoling the boys into swimming in each frosty lake on a 40-day tundra expedition. The summer Marypat instituted a peak-bagging club with the kids and their friends, and became a Pied Piper leading packs of short people up the craggy slopes of southwestern Montana . . . bike rides, desert blooms, ski trails, whitewater runs, Forest Service cabins.

The memories are a wealth — gratifying, full of heart and drama — but what comes with those memories matters more. How the kids, each in their way, learned the bigger lessons by being in wild places since birth. How to endure through difficulty. How to support each other. How to put one foot in front of the other, or plant another paddle stroke in a day of thousands, to get to camp. How to appreciate the other creatures who live with us on the planet. How to make a fire with wet wood. How to hunker down in the face of a storm and be patient and secure.

I remember talking to Sawyer after a long expedition in the subarctic. He was still in middle school. “I can’t talk to my friends about the trip,” he said. “Whenever I start to tell them about it, they say, ‘oh yeah, I went to a hunting camp with my dad last fall’, like it’s the same thing. It’s not their fault, but they just don’t get it.” When he said that, I ran the image of my son, barely 100 pounds, toiling across a two-mile long, muskeg portage, dwarfed by his load, waving black flies out of his face, twenty days into an expedition that was only half over.

“Yeah,” I said to him. “It isn’t their fault, but you’re right, there’s no way they can relate.”

That’s the other thing — what these three young children have brought me. Sure, we’ve taken them on some big trips. Yes, we started them young, literally at birth. Eli went with us the first time down the entire Yellowstone River at nine months. Sawyer joined a trip down the Green River in Utah at three months. Ruby went on a horsepack trip into the Spanish Peaks of Montana as a one-year old. But what stands out from those experiences, and continues to this day, are the lessons and insights they teach me.

Watching Eli explore the texture of warm sand for the first time before he was one. Sawyer finding a mud wallow in a river bank and going full-body immersion, and getting everyone else to join him. Ruby playing air guitar by a sputtering fire on a drizzly, hypothermic day in the Far North. The games they invent, the treasures they find, the questions they ask, the observations they make, the fortitude and joy with which they embrace the experience. More than anything, the take-home lesson is that, from the get go, they have been absolutely unfazed by being in wild places. They never for a second questioned it. In fact, as they have gotten older, they keep raising the bar.

Here, in this alpine day, Ruby forges out ahead of the pack, disappears around the shoulder of a ridge, hiking fast. The boys scramble to catch her. Marypat and I pick up the pace. There is something ineffable, enticing, mysterious about the source of a great river. The lure is primal, universal. It has to be close. Around the corner the low, gentle divide separates the flow. A small snowfield is pasted against the steep talus slope. At the base, water drips off in the summer warmth, filling a shallow basin, trickling across a bedrock sill.

Then I see Ruby.

She is sprawled on her belly, her face over the icy water as if studying her reflection. Her lips are pursed, she drinks deep, filling her belly with the first drops of this storied river. We all follow her lead, one after another, lining up prone on the sun-warmed rock in this high country that is so thick with bears, drinking the river that carried our boats across the plains of Montana. It is absolutely the right thing to do. Ruby may be barely out of elementary school, but she knows unerringly what is called for in this wild moment.

The day at the headwaters, and scaling Younts Peak, is long. It is twilight before we are back to camp, eating dinner, perched near a small lake around the corner from Marston Pass. The kids discovered glissading on our descent from the lofty perch on Younts. The same snowfields we had carefully kick-stepped up, they schussed down on their boots, whooping and giggling. And all the way back around the headwall, they scampered up every little snow bank for more. Fatigue? What fatigue?

After dinner, they all head to the far side of the lake to another small snow patch. They strip to their undies and camp shoes, then start yo-yoing up and down the slope, each run ending with a bracing splashdown in the shallow lake. Then, in the gloaming, Sawyer and Marypat walk together to a nearby knoll to study the peaks and ridges that seam the horizon, with the Tetons floating in the purple distance.

A full moon rises. It is absolutely silent. Only the hum of the earth, the hum of summer, and the grace of pale light pooling in our high camp. I think what our adventures used to be like, without them, what they might again be after they leave. And I see, clear as the moonlit beauty of this evening, that it has never been about what we have provided for the three of them, but rather, about everything that they have led us to.

A slightly different version of this appeared recently in High Country News.

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Montana Quarterly Lives!!

I suppose it isn’t all that unique. Many people, especially since 2008, have had that kick in the gut moment when they show up at the office and the office is no longer. For me, it was a few months back when I came to the quarterly editorial pizza lunch to help invent the next issue of Montana Quarterly Magazine. Maybe I should have known something was in the wind when they went from gourmet to franchise-style pizza, a few meetings earlier. But I’m not that subtle. So I was ambushed by the news that the powers that be, a distant publishing entity, had decided in their wisdom (made up of doses of bottom line logic and shareholder sway and when-in-doubt, double down on austerity measures) to dump the magazine.

No after-the-next-issue. No notice. You’re done. Today.

It didn’t take long for that “Fuck those fuckin’ fuckers!” sentiment to kick in. About a day, in fact. A bunch of us met. Editors, writers, photographers, graphic designers, the ad sales guy. We pissed and moaned for a time, cursed the lack of vision of corporate boardrooms, ratcheted up the defiance, brainstormed potential investors, bandied big numbers, imagined how we would run things. When that ran out we started actually talking about how this magazine we’d all come to love and value might soldier on.

The biggest come-to-Jesus moment came when Bob, the ad guy, said that it would pretty much be the kiss of death to miss an issue. Which meant that the next issue would be due out in roughly two months. Two months to wangle a deal for the magazine, fashion a business plan, write the editiorial, design the layout, line up the printing, all while putting together the transition logistics and getting out the winter issue like nothing was amiss. Right. I don’t know about everyone else at that first meeting, but I know I was skeptical.

I’m happy to say that I was wrong. New owner (former Senior Editor) Scott McMillion, not only made the deal happen with Darth Vader, he also pulled together the website (which had never been the magazine’s strong suit), contacted subscribers, lined up editorial, got the issue written, photographed, edited, printed, including ad sales, and had it in subscriber mailboxes on time. It was an unbelievable feat under intense pressure and against ungodly odds. It was my honor to be able to contribute a story about the rather amazing Constitutional Convention of 1972, a watershed event in Montana’s history.

Here’s the thing. The second issue under new and liberated management is underway. I’m working on a series of profiles from the oilfields out east this time around. “Adventures in Frackland” is my working title. I’m really happy to still have a niche at a western regional magazine that isn’t all hook & bullet or trendy home remodeling. A magazine with stories about real people, issues with weight, a compilation based on a place worth extolling not for the latest trend, but for the qualities of landscape and character that endure long after the fad fades.

If you liked MQ before, you’ll like it better now that we’re out from under the bootheel of corporate. If you haven’t read MQ yet, you should give it a try, and if you enjoy, sign up for a subscription, or give a subscription to someone who deserves it, or both. You’ll feel good. You’ll be supporting actual journalism. And you’ll be part of the team that responded to the kick in the gut by getting the next damn issue out the door on time and with the same high standards of quality readers have come to anticipate . . . . plus a little edge of attitude. You’ll also help keep MQ alive, because unlike many publications out there, we actually depend on the loyalty and issue-to-issue support of our public, readers like you.

So go to the MQ website and sign up for the ride. You won’t regret it. And thanks.

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Dangerous Parents

Al and Ruby, fall 2012, Mill Creek, Montana

It began even before the kids were born . . . On the shores of Lake Athabasca, more than twenty years ago, Marypat finally got pregnant after years of miscarriages and infertility. We were halfway through a dark winter in a cabin hundreds of miles from the nearest pavement; halfway through a 14-month canoe expedition, alone and vulnerable and perfectly content. The advice we got, from family, from friends, was to come home. Don’t risk the pregnancy, everyone said. It’s not worth it.

We questioned ourselves. Were we being selfish? Were the risks too high? What if? What if? The scenarios were endless and terrifying. After months of angst, still teetering on the brink of pulling the plug, we decided to give it a trial run. After spring breakup, we would paddle the forty miles to the nearest town, from which we would leap into the final remote summer of travel across the wild tundra of northeastern Canada, and then make our decision.

Here’s the strange thing. Fifty strokes into that trial run, still in sight of our winter cabin and five months along in a pregnancy, we were both absolutely convinced that we could do it. More than that – we were both convinced that we should do it.

We were right. Some would say we were more lucky than right, and sure, luck is a player, but being pregnant in the Far North, traveling our “pregnancy pace”, nurturing life through the wild exhilaration of vast, unpopulated space, was precisely the right thing

Since then, there have been a number of those moments. Moments when friends and families and complete strangers weigh in to question taking our children into risky places. When we loaded up the canoe and took off down the entire Yellowstone River, across Montana, when Eli was nine months old and Sawyer was a fetal bud ticking away inside Marypat. You’re crazy, people said. We went. We took the precautions we deemed necessary. We had a lovely, empowering time, and I’m quite convinced that Eli formed some essential character qualities from those weeks under the wide skies.

Or when we took Sawyer, at three months of age, and Eli at two years, down the Green and Colorado Rivers. When we took on the Big Bend section of the Rio Grande with Marypat seven-moths huge with Ruby and the boys at an uncontainable two and three years of age, in one overburdened, 17’ canoe. What are you thinking? people asked.

What we think is that this is what we do. This is the legacy we want to share with our children. Are there risks? Of course. Might something go badly wrong? Sure. Would we feel terrible if it did? Yes. Should we stay home and play it safe? Hell no.

Because here’s the other thing. Playing it safe is a state of mind, a matter of perspective.

The mainstream, safe environment people counsel us to anchor our children in brims with dangers we discount because they are commonplace. More dangers, I submit, than we encounter in the wilds. In the safety of society, we routinely pile our children into cars and drive around at lethal speeds. We pile them in even when the roads are glazed with ice. Sure we might have good tires, we strap everyone in, but we take the chance, routinely. We litter our homes with toxic substances, spray our yards with pesticides, keep firearms, eat food full of chemicals, breathe polluted air, let our kids drive, put them in social contexts where a great many bad things happen all the time.

We think little of the dangers because they are routine. Everyone does it. Nobody questions it. We take precautions, just as we do on a wilderness expedition when we wear life vests and carry a first aid kit and practice our skills and weigh the itinerary.

So, of course there are moments. The polar bear along the shores of Hudson Bay comes to mind. The meadow full of bear and wolf tracks high in the Washakie Wilderness of Wyoming. The evening Sawyer fell from a tree along the Marias River in Montana, and slashed his neck open on a stick. Ruby’s capsize against a rock in one of the canyons of the Rio Grande. Over the decades there have been a handful of incidents where I catch myself thinking, that could have gone badly. Those ‘what if’ reels start up in the theater of my imagination.

Precisely the way they play on the mental screen when the car starts skidding on the ice, or when a toddler falls down the stairs, or when I find out that I’ve been living next to a superfund site for years and drinking the well water, or when I look at a food label full of incomprehensible ingredients, or when I send a teenager off on prom night.

Actually, at those commonplace, civilized junctions with risk, I find myself wishing I were deep in the embrace of a wild place, feeling the pulse of Mother Earth, with my children close by and the exhilaration of adventure coursing through our bodies.

 

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Rafter ‘V’

Velma McMeekin died of a heart attack on July 4, 2012, getting ready to go on the river. What else would she be doing? When she was late to the rendezvous, a friend came to the house and found her in the upstairs gear room, lying in the midst of river equipment.

Some thought it would have been even more fitting for her to have died on her boat, until they realized what a massive bummer that would have been for whoever she was with. That she was preparing for a day on the current is no surprise. Rafter ‘V’, as she was known among boaters, gave the full measure of her life’s energy to rivers.

In her 60 years, she floated the Grand Canyon thirty-some times, sometimes back-to-back, and including a ride down with “The Spike” dam release of 1996. She rowed Cataract, Gray’s and Desolation, the Smith, the Yellowstone, the Yampa, Lodore, the Snake, the Salmon, the San Juan many times each. Her typical river calendar might read – Lodore/Split Mountain – two days with friends in Moab – Cataract – back to Bozeman for a week – a permit on the Smith – a month at home – followed by a late season permit on Deso/Gray – after which she might chill for a few weeks before prepping for a winter run down the Grand. Weekend and day trips spiced up the interludes.

When she celebrated her one-year anniversary of breast cancer remission, she did it by putting in below Flaming Gorge and heading towards the Grand, solo. She tailored her job, working part-time for the telephone company and eschewing full-time benefits, to stay flexible enough to take extended river expeditions every year. She took early retirement to float more.

‘V’ had boat-rigging down to rocket science. Every strap, every buckle placement, her bimini shade, her sleeping platform, her shower rig; the 14’ raft, literally her home away from home, oozed precision, efficiency, security, comfort. She had spares of everything imaginable and could get to whatever it was in less than 30 seconds. And she was the one who would serve gin and tonics on ice when the temperature was 100 and fire smoke was thick as LA smog.

Every few weeks, at her home in Bozeman, Montana, someone, often a complete stranger, would call to ask if she wanted to join a Grand Canyon trip. Her expedition value was legendary. Not only did she have the gear – from firepans to shade tarps to the ‘blaster’ stove – she was a fount of river knowledge. She knew every rapid at every water level, where to find fresh water, where the bugs were bad, and where the emergency pocket camps could be found.  More important, her generous spirit, her humor, her compassion and competence made her a companion to cherish.

She routinely invited passengers to go along with her, often people who wouldn’t have a chance at river trips of that caliber. For twenty years she held an annual, very popular, Ladies In Paradise summer trip through Paradise Valley of the upper Yellowstone. She hosted ‘permit parties’ to brainstorm trips and send in the appropriate applications.

I was a recipient of her generosity. She invited Marypat and me on a hiking-filled, 30-day winter Grand Canyon trip in 1998, despite the fact that we had three young children. Who were we to resist? We split the trip, Marypat going to Phantom Ranch, then switching with me for the remaining weeks down to Diamond Creek. Those days spent in the vast depths, running rapids, hiking up side canyons, playing cribbage by headlamp, sharing stories, were both an education and a gift – a rich legacy, courtesy of Rafter ‘V’, the same gift she gave to many over the decades.

McMeekin’s most romantic, unequivocal, long-lasting love affair was with the river, but she was wealthy with friends. At the spontaneous, pot-luck gathering held at her house two days after her death, the yard was crammed with ski folks, river folks, handicapped folks, elders, youth, families – lawyers, water-aerobic instructors, ski patrollers, artists, contractors, school administrators, physical therapists, telephone linemen, doctors, politicians. I remember looking around and thinking, absolutely the only thing everyone here has in common is Velma.

Velma’s diverse community is partly explained by her involvement with outfits like Ski for Light, a program devoted to the blind for which she traveled overseas and throughout North America, volunteer work with the handicapped through Eagle Mount in Bozeman, years on the pro patrol at Bridger Bowl, water aerobics cronies, and her commitment to political causes. To each of these endeavors she brought her steady, capable talents and engaging personality.

Every river trip since her death – on the Salmon, the Yellowstone, the Smith, the Boulder – Velma stories have come out. Velma has been toasted at launches and take-outs, around fires, with tears, with humor. It is the same for everyone who knew her, on rivers all over the continent. Vials of her ashes will be spread on the restless waters of western rivers over years to come, in eclectic ceremonial fashion by her eclectic assortment of comrades, scenes full of reverence and love, and in honor of her great, flowing spirit.

"V is for Velma" - A tribute by fellow river-runner, friend, and artist, Serena Supplee

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Last Day in Nairobi

I

Sunday morning, so the traffic is light, by Nairobi standards. Which is to say that it might only take 45 minutes to drive from Ronald’s apartment, on the airport side of town, to visit Wilberforce’s family, on the other side. Kenya is a country full of archaic English names. Wilberforce, for example. Humphrey, Ignatius, Wycliff, Heathcoate – and it is jarring to meet a man on a dirt village track with a name out of Downton Abbey.

This day, our last in a stint almost six weeks long, has been dedicated to visiting and saying goodbye to the people who have embraced us and enabled our plans in east Africa. People like Wilberforce, who has driven us across the country on potholed roads worthy of war zones, who has left us his car and endured overnight bus rides from western Kenya so we could have easy transport, who has sat patiently with us through three-hour traffic jams that are a matter of course for Nairobi drivers, but which, by any other standard, are appalling. Completely unacceptable. “People sometimes have to sleep in their cars,” Wilberforce told us, in one of the early jams we survived together. “Or they stay at their office all night. At least this one is moving.” Every time traffics slows, vendors appear. People hawking roasted peanuts wrapped in cones of recycled office paper, or bananas, or out of date magazines, or a plant root known for its restorative qualities (also a reputed aphrodisiac), or hedge clippers. Where do they get this stuff? We are counseled to roll up our windows whenever we slow. People tell of having their cell phones or purses grabbed from their hands through the window.

What was appalling our first few days in Nairobi has become mundane. Not comfortable, not easy, but what passes for normal. Men squatting around a fire of scrap lumber and trash in the median strip, boiling up tea, with two lanes of blaring, exhaust belching, vigilante traffic on either side. Youth pulling the two-wheeled flatbed carts that are the urban delivery trucks, piled high with sacks of charcoal, rebar, mounds of bananas, five-gallon water jugs, and navigating roundabouts crammed with jostling buses. Streams of humanity moving – on foot, on one-speed bicycles, on motor scooters, hanging off of buses – and all of them dressed to the hilt. Women with exquisitely braided hairdos, high heels, full length dresses. Men in suits and ties. All of this presentability achieved without hot running water, without washers and dryers, often without electricity. Herculean daily effort just to look good.

Garbage is everywhere, ground into the dirt underfoot, piled against stone walls, swept to the side of the street, reeking, fly covered waste. There are goats grazing through the refuse, roosters pecking at food scraps. No sidewalks, no shoulders on roadways, just beaten, uneven dirt and rocks and mud. Rows of ramshackle stalls line the roads, selling the complete spectrum of goods – blue school trunks, bed frames, pots and pans, produce, shoes, haircuts, internet access, photo copies, dress slacks, fruit, roasted peanuts, highway hazard markers, jumper cables, magazines, phone cards. Miles of it, things for sale, anything you can imagine, and someone sitting in the shadows waiting to make the dollar that will sustain them another day. Behind the stalls, squalid rows of slum dwellings, tin roofs, dirt walls, no services. As we approach Wilberforce’s neighborhood, I notice a disheveled figure lying on the side of the road, motionless. Sleeping, sick, hungover, dead? Impossible to tell.

Wilberforce’s apartment block is gated. “My car would be vandalized if I left it out.” Across the street, garbage piles, a tethered goat, shanties, kids kicking a soccer ball made of wadded up plastic bags. Through the gate, parking gridlock. Cars stacked in like one of those brain-teaser puzzles, “Unsnarl the Jam”. “People have to park very strategically,” W explains. “Sometimes you have to bang on the neighbor’s door at 6 in the morning to get them to move. You remember if they ignore you. Next time, when they need you to move, you don’t answer the door.” It may be a gated compound, but it is anything but fancy. The apartments are concrete block, barred windows, tiny rooms with sporadic running water and electricity that goes off almost daily. The sitting room is crammed with bulky furniture, a television, lacy doilies, photos of the kids. His children come in, beautiful kids, dressed for church. They shake our white hands. They are shy and curious. We have brought school supplies, some earrings. They divvy things up, hold tight to the box of new pencils, sit with their heads bent, listening intently. W works as an insurance salesman. He went to the best high school in Kenya, is among the elite in terms of employability. He speaks rapidly, with confidence and intelligence. One of his mottoes is to “move with absolute confidence”. It applies to border crossings, Nairobi roundabouts, security checkpoints. We look through a tattered photo album – wedding pictures, baby photos. The “house girl” goes out and returns with packaged instant coffee, premixed with creamer and sugar, which we sip. Labor is cheap. Even families of modest means can afford a housekeeper. W’s wife comes and goes. The kids disappear, getting ready for church. It feels awkward. We’ve made liberal use of W’s time and resources, and when he backs us carefully out of the jammed parking lot at the end of our visit, it doesn’t feel like we’ve been able to adequately express our gratitude.

II

Mt. Kilimanjaro at sunrise, seen from the top of Mt. Meru (Socialist Peak)

W drops us back at Ronald and Sheila’s apartment. R and S have been our hosts during our time in Kenya. They were married a month before we arrived. Ronald is the social entrepreneur I am working on a book with, and the motivation for this Kenyan immersion. They have generously shared their small apartment with us, three floors up a somewhat decrepit apartment block, located on a rough dirt side street crammed with little shops, street vendors, bars. We sleep under a mosquito net by a window overlooking the street scene, where bar noise keeps us up late. Over the month we became part of the neighborhood, shopping at the local grocer, using the ATM machine, hiring taxis, buying tomatoes and fruit from street stalls. I shake hands a lot. By staying here, we gain an ‘embedded’ status; this is not the tourist beat. The apartment is typical – a livingroom, a tiny kitchen, a bathroom, two small bedrooms. No closets, no shower, no running hot water, certainly no dishwasher, clothes washer, ironing board. R’s internet is accessed through a flash drive, but is on the slow side, and works best if you take it to the bedroom. For about half of our visit, no running water. They had 5-gallon jugs delivered up three flights of stairs. The electricity went out almost daily, commonly enough that people barely paused in the conversation. Cell phones are the critical technology. “Kenya runs on cell phones,” R said. “I don’t know how anything got done before cell phones.” Everyone has one. Coverage is close to universal. We had cell coverage in the mud/dung hut in R’s mother’s compound in a remote village in western Kenya. She cooks on three rocks over an open fire. She lights a paraffin lamp at night. For several months every year, between corn crops, she lives on one meal a day. But she can call anywhere in the world for a few Kenyan shillings a minute.

Sheila has insisted that we meet her mother. A mid-afternoon meal has been planned. Sheila is in her late twenties. She is a stunning woman with a dazzling smile, intricately braided hair, always dressed to the nines. She, too, grew up in village Kenya. Her rural life was devoted to hauling water, washing laundry by hand, cooking, cleaning the compound, cutting grass to feed the cows, and oh yes, to school work. She has ambitions. She would like to write screen plays. She has thought about interior design. For now she is stuck working for a shipping company. She gets up before six, makes breakfast, takes a ‘shower’, irons her clothes on the couch, takes a crowded ‘metatu’ bus to work in a cubicle all day. She often gets home after seven, and then pitches in to make dinner, which, routinely, is served up around 10 pm.

We leave at 2 o’clock to make it by 3. It isn’t far, but R and S do not own a car. Only about 10% of Kenyans own a vehicle. Hard to imagine the gridlock that would result from a bump in the percentage of car ownership, but the upshot is that people get around by other means. While the country may operate by cell phone, it travels by metatu. These buses are the Toyota equivalent of a Ford Econoline van – 14 passengers, a sliding door, people stuffed into travel worn seats, paying .25 or .50 to bump through dense traffic to their destination. Metatu vans are beat up, dented, broken down vehicles that nevertheless service the travelers throughout Kenya. Fleets of them compete fiercely for passengers. Each has a hawker who cajoles people aboard, hangs precariously from the doorway, and collects fares. Drivers are ruthlessly competitive, passing three abreast, pulling around each other in heavy traffic, cutting vehicles off, jouncing down shortcuts. Metatu territories are managed by a Mafia-like underworld of extortionists who extract protection payments from drivers and assign routes, and who beat or kill the uncooperative.

Sheila studies several possible metatu options at the nearby bus stop, ignoring the pleadings of hawkers, assessing them for comfort and safety, rejecting two or three, before nodding towards a white Toyota with available seats. I end up crammed in the back corner, my neck crimped at 45 degrees, thigh to thigh with other passengers, hoping I escape permanent spinal injury. Rock music throbs through the vehicle. We make frequent stops, offloading, picking up, making deals, then rocketing off again. Finally Sheila nods for us to get out and I squirm my way towards the door. It is liberation to stand straight, to escape.

From the stop, it’s still a pretty good hike to Sheila’s mother’s place. Winding alleys through tin-roofed hovels. Kids playing in the dirt. People selling, constantly selling. It doesn’t matter the day of the week, the time of day, the weather. Everyone out to make a buck. Garbage wafts in the breeze. Vehicles zoom past, bicycles, men pulling carts. Doorways open on shadowed lives, stories, ambitions, loves, feuds. We are curiosities, white faces in a sea of black. Everyone turns to look. Kids jog alongside, looking up at our alien complexions, smiling.

These neighborhoods, part of an urban sprawl housing more than five million people, are absolute warrens. I pride myself on my navigational ability, but I would be utterly incapable of finding my way out. Turn after turn, rows of shanties, alleyways, no street signs or landmarks. How would a kid find the way home, I wonder. How would a newcomer to Nairobi, arrived from the villages, seeking some kind of work, shelterless, poor, starving, barefoot, find the resources to make their way?

Finally, we turn into a doorway that looks like all the rest, down a narrow aisle through apartments. We push through a curtain into a front room filled with a low table and comfortable chairs. “Sit,” we are told. A television drones. In a back room a radio plays. Kenyans crave background noise. One night in the villages we were invited to a goat roast at one of Ronald’s relatives. We sat outside by a fire while a haunch of goat roasted in the coals. It was a lovely, dark night full of stars and evening birds and our conversation, until another guest did everyone the favor of finding a radio station he could pick up on his cell phone and blaring the static-filled music, rendering conversation impossible. Sheila goes back to help in the kitchen. We are left on the couch, idly watching a bad Nigerian soap opera in Swahili. People come and go, popping in through the curtain, sitting for a time, making self-conscious introductions, then leaving. Sisters, friends, brothers, neighbors. We wash our hands in a bowl of warm water. A dinner of rice and chicken and steamed kale is served. We are brought forks, although most Kenyans eat with their hands.

“We moved here after the political violence in 2007,” Sheila’s mother tells us. “Neighbors were killed, houses burned down. It wasn’t safe to stay there.” That political violence shocked Kenyans. It remains a cultural scar, a forbidden blemish on their character, a thing they never dreamed themselves capable of. The upcoming election cycle is a very nervous topic.

Sheila and her mother have an easy comfort together. I think about the world our kids are raised in back home, the certainties they take for granted, and about the fearsome unknowns in a life here. Security may be an illusion, but here, in Africa, that illusion is stark and inescapable. In each world, the goals are the same, the passions, the grief, the ambitions – the context is what is so dramatically different. Dishes of food keep coming from the kitchen. This feast is a major undertaking, a significant expense. Chicken, here, is like a holiday ham or turkey. We wash hands again, talk about our families, our different seasons, our foods. They smile at the idea of snow six months of every year.

When it is time to leave Sheila’s mother sees us off, another Kenyan tradition. In this case, seeing us off entails a stroll of half a mile or more. One of S’s sisters comes along with her active young son, who occupies himself tossing a ‘D’ cell battery down the roadway. The battery splits apart. He keeps picking it up, throwing it ahead. I think about what is inside a battery. And then, I think that the innards of a battery is the least of this young boy’s worries.

At the metatu stop we say goodbye, do the two cheek embrace, give thanks for our meal. S scrutinizes a metatu with a front seat available for me, and nods. I hop in next to the driver and get to observe the operation close up and in relative comfort. The driver is young, lean, quiet. His eyes flick from the road to the rearview mirror, to the side mirror. The hawker pounds on the roof to stop, hops into the roadway to seek riders, hops back on through the maw of the door. The driver is deadpan, flatline, his only expression is leaning on the horn, eyes darting. The gas gauge is on empty. It occurs to me that I haven’t seen a single gas gauge register above a quarter tank in a month. “The roads are relatively quiet around the third week of the month,” W told us once. “Nobody has any money to buy gas then.” Generally, people pull in to a pump, hand over 1,000 shillings (roughly $12), enough to buy a couple of gallons, then off they go, the needle barely rising. In this van the oil light is on, as is the check engine light. Rock and roll blares from the radio. Another passenger, a large woman, squeezes in next to me, and I’m pressed up against the stick shift. On we go.

At one point a young man comes running alongside and shouts something in Swahili to the driver. The driver gives him 1,000 shillings and a cell phone and the man sprints off across the street to a gas station. We crawl along in the traffic. The driver keeps looking back as the van moves past the station and his friend doesn’t reappear. He blares the horn. Traffic picks up. Half a mile later, across a bridge, when I have forgotten about him, the young man reappears at the passenger window, hands in a wad of bills and the cell phone. The driver, expressionless, takes it back. The young man drops away on the roadside.

It is dusk now. Nairobi shimmers in the late light, layered under smog, a cacophony of human dysfunction finishing another day. I now recognize the landmarks – a billboard advertising underarm deodorant that won’t stain clothing, a green pedestrian bridge over four lanes of traffic – enough to know where to extricate myself, dismount, and try not to get killed crossing the road.

III

Elephants in the Masai Mara

Ronald’s place is packed when we return. Wilberforce is there, wearing his Leopards soccer jersey and a jaunty ball cap. Ignatius, another of R’s high school friends, who works at the Nairobi GM plant. Peter, one of R’s technical team on a water kiosk project. I had said something about interviewing Peter before I left, and here he is, final night, ready to talk. Only the television is going, everyone is commenting, and dinner is the burning topic.

Before dinner, Ronald holds forth on one of his theories. He believes that the demographic trend of people leaving the villages and farms for the big city is over. “When you identify a trend,” he says, “it’s already done. Everyone talks about millions of people flooding the cities of the world, and Nairobi is a good example. But I think it’s about to go back the other way. We need to take the city to the village,” he insists. Here’s the thing, he believes. People came to cities because there were no options in the country. There wasn’t enough land, people were starving, and there weren’t other avenues for making a living. So people came to Nairobi and struggled to find a niche, make do, get a job, any job, and put up with the traffic, the pollution, the lack of community, the day-to-day fight to hold on. Everyone agrees that it is insane. No one likes it, but it’s what they have to do. Only now there is enough infrastructure available in the villages to make other options available. “My work,” he says, “depends almost entirely on the computer, on the internet, on the telephone.” All of that, now, is potentially available in the village, where I am much more at home and would much rather live. Besides, he asserts, half of the time the infrastructure I depend on isn’t even available in the city. Here in Nairobi I can’t count on running water, on electricity. The traffic is so bad I can’t get to meetings on time. “The tide of people moving to the city is coming to an end. The new trend will be people moving back to the village, and I want to be one of them.”

The men in the room nod and agree. Sheila is less convinced. Partly, I think, because she is young and the pace and potential of the city is still heady. The possibilities and excitement outweigh the price she pays each day to survive. Also, I can’t help thinking, her memories of village life are not as rosy and bucolic as those of the men. Girls and women in rural Kenya are beasts of burden, literally, and bear the brunt of household labor and child-rearing. Maybe a return to village life isn’t as romantic a notion, given that backdrop.

But it is dinner time. Early in our visit, Ronald helped us make a pizza dinner. Hardly anyone eats cheese in Kenya. Pizza is a known food, but no one cooks it at home, in part because few people have working ovens. Almost all food is steamed, boiled, or fried. Nevertheless, on an evening we sought to save Sheila from cooking another late dinner after her work day, we created what resembled a pizza by making chapati (fry bread) for the crust, finding a bottled tomato sauce that was essentially ketchup with extra corn starch, and cutting up peppers, onion, and breakfast sausage for toppings. For cheese, that time, we finished up a hunk of cheddar we had stowed in our luggage from Amsterdam. It turned out surprisingly well, and ever since, Ronald had been crowing about being a Pizza Maestro. His friends, tonight, clamored to put his claim to the test. Wilberforce especially, who kept pounding the chair armrest and chanting, “We want pizza! We want pizza!”, and insisting that no one help Ronald in the process.

Earlier that day, on the way back from visiting Wilberforce, we stopped at an ex-pat grocery store and picked up mozzerella cheese and another bottle of tomato sauce, in anticipation of a pizza finale. To his credit, R was game, and he blustered his way into the cramped kitchen, hounded by W’s chanting and a general hubbub. “The Maestro needs peace,” he called. “The Maestro needs time.”

“We want pizza! We want pizza!”

Inadequate ingredients was only the start of the challenges facing the Maestro. In truth, the first pizza effort was largely orchestrated by Marypat. R’s main contribution was to mix up a batch of chapati dough for the crust. MP took it from there. Now he was being heckled by the peanut gallery and any attempt at consultation was shouted down. Marypat managed to pass a few hints via sign language and lip reading while R struggled to press out the crust on a pan and cook up the sauce and ingredients. The other problem was that the oven, a wedding gift (before that R had cooked on a two-burner camp stove), was rudimentary. It had a burner light, but no temperature control. The first time, the pizza took quite a long time to brown, but there had been no pressure. This time, the sauce was more soupy than necessary, the crust a bit thick, and the baking took almost two hours. Even then, it wasn’t quite done. R managed the presentation with a flourish. W kept up the ridicule, but managed to choke down several large slices of the doughy, soupy entree. Ignatius left to return his family via late-night metatu (just because you work at GM doesn’t mean you own a car). Peter gulped a slice of pizza and made his excuses. Our interview was a forgotten sideshow.

Wilberforce stayed on. He had agreed to take us to the airport for our middle of the night flight. Marypat stumbled off under the mosquito netting for a couple of hours sleep. I stayed up to watch world cup soccer. Mosquitoes buzzed in the apartment, tormenting me until I put on long pants. Around 1 am, we stood in a circle and Sheila prayed for our safe return with evangelical fervor. We embraced. Then, down the dark stairs, dragging luggage, and out into the deeply dark African night street, accompanied by our new friends, feeling that Montana, and our lives there, were as remote and impossible as Nairobi had been when we had dropped out of the thunderclouds six weeks earlier.

 

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Deep Into Kenya

Internet has been spotty and intermittent, so we haven’t had much opportunity to add posts. Besides, it’s been busy and exotic, enough so that’s it’s hard to get in the frame of mind to sit at a computer.

It’s Saturday here. The rainy season is waning. MP is doing some shopping at the Masai Market, braving the metatu rides (taxi buses from hell), this morning. We’re hoping to attend the Kenya-Malawi soccer game tonight. Another day in a trip almost a month old already.

Some highlights:

- a week spent in the villages of Khwisero, in western Kenya, where Ronald grew up – staying in his mother’s compound in a mud hut and meeting his friends and relatives, touring the sites of water projects he instigated, and being introduced to authentic village life in a way few tourists get to experience.

- a day in the Kakamega Forest, which is a bittersweet remnant of what once was a vast equatorial forest filling most of central Africa. Even the remnant is staggering, and being there makes one think of Conrad . . . Full of birds and monkeys and unbelievable vegetation, not to mention outstanding birds.

- L. Nakuru National P., where we got close to lions, giraffes, black and white rhinos, hippos, and tons of birds – from flamingos to crested eagles . . .

- Three days in the Masai Mara, which seemed like the western US, only bigger. Maybe a glimpse of what the American west once was like in terms of the scale of the environment and populations of wildlife. Elephants, tons of lions, more hippos, jackals and hyenas, the usual gamut of ungulates, and again, some very exotic birds – think lilac-breasted rollers, black bellied bustards, secretary birds, ostriches . . .

Next week we’ll meet a friend and head for Tanzania, where we hope to climb Mt. Meru, shop for fabric, and get a dose of life, Tanzania style.

We head back to Montana early on the 18th, hope to be home by around the 20th of June.

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