September 15, 2020
It is weird how you can live in a place for a long time but still not know answers to basic questions that come up about things you saw, heard, and felt on a daily basis. This point was made all the more clear to me this past week while I made a more-than-sweet trip back to the island of Puerto Rico, my home between 2002 and 2010.
Instead of getting embarrassed when my travel mate flummoxed me with extremely reasonable questions, we took the opportunity to have fun finally getting some answers. Here are a few:
Why are the cobblestones of Old San Juan blue?
It’s not a chamber of commerce tourism ploy or even an intentional result that the cobblestones—los adoquines azules—of Old San Juan are blue. These gorgeous old weathered bricks shimmer like sapphires purely out of circumstance.
Old San Juan was first paved during the era when the Spanish were finding uses for the mountains of slag they’d built up alongside their iron smelting blast furnaces in northern Spain. Here the slag, i.e. the impurities that float to the top of molten ore and get discharged separately from the metal, was a glassy substance comprised mainly of silica, calcia, and magnesia. Minor components included manganese and sulfur compounds. In the later 1700s, Spaniards started casting this slag into blocks for use as ballast in ships sailing to the Americas. Plenty of other, more valuable stuff served as ballast coming back, so the slag blocks got left behind. Some were fashioned into the paving stones used on the grid of narrow streets that is Old San Juan.
Seventeenth century Spanish slag wasn’t the only smelter waste to exhibit a bluish hue. The Swedes have a name for it: Bergslagen, or “Swedish blue,” and they now make bracelets and earrings out of it. Same goes for Tennessee Blue slag fragments, which resulted when iron was smelted in the Hog and Hominy State in the 1800s, as well as Leland Blue, from the town of Leland, in northern Michigan along the shore of Lake Superior. Leland’s iron smelting was particularly short-lived. It lasted only from 1870 to 1885, but this was long enough to build up some big piles of slag which were dumped into the pristine lake. An enduring pastime in Leland is to walk along the shoreline in search for beautiful blue stones, and make jewelry and other art out of it.
And then we have mesmerizing Old San Juan, where the streets are literally paved in jewels.
But why are they blue?
I assumed it had to be copper. This is from my chemical background; whenever a material is blue, there’s a good chance some copper oxides are present.
But this isn’t the case with the Old San Juan, Swedish, Tennessee, or Leland Blues. Rather it’s likely trace amounts of sulfur, present in a compound called trisulfur radical anion. This highly reactive species can exhibit an ultramarine blue chromophore when it becomes trapped in a framework such as glassy slag.
Why do the coquis do that?
The smaller-then-a-penny frogs that start chirping at dusk and continue into the night are practically synonymous with Puerto Rico. They’re difficult to see, but impossible not to hear.
Co-KEE! Co-KEE! Co-KEE!
Each male is capable of doing this at 73 decibels, which approaches an ear-damaging level if he is doing it right outside your bedroom window. Here in their native land, coquis can achieve population densities as high as 20,000 per hectare, which means that a fifty square foot plot of garden can contain up to ten frogs.
It’s not that bad of a noise, and central to Boricua identity. The coquis are nearly universally regarded here with strong affection. It’s not nighttime in Puerto Rico if the coquis aren’t chirping. The same is not true, however, in Hawaii, where peaceful quiet nights started getting seriously interrupted in the late-1980s when some coquis hitched rides on house plants. In short order, the tiny frogs invaded all of the major Hawaiian Islands, where they proceeded to reach densities more than four times those in their native land thanks to abundant food and no predators. Outside of Puerto Rico, coquis make the list of the “100 Worst Invasive Alien Species.” Their conservation status is listed as “LC,” which stands for “least concern.”
But why do they chirp, “Co-KEE”? You’d think I’d have asked myself that before now.
It’s a combo fighting-mating call. Being a prolific species, coquis naturally mate a lot. On any given night, many, many coquis are going at it. It’s the males who chirp, and the auditory systems of the different genders respond to the different notes. The “Co” is to tell other males to go away, and the “KEE” is to attract females. So the combined “Co-KEE” is saying, “Go away men, come women!” Often you will hear two males hollering in a form of duel, with one yelling “Co-KEE” and the other shrieking, “Co-KEE-RE-KEE.” This means they’re competing for territory. The first frog that is unable to keep up this screaming match is deemed the loser, and has to leave the area. But they don’t always observe this protocol, and sometimes they resort to blows and even to eating each other.
I don’t look at coquis as such adorable, innocent creatures anymore. Rather they are kind of vicious.
By the way, they begin their chirping extravaganzas in response not to darkness but to humidity. We heard coquis as early as one o-clock in the afternoon, while hiking high in the Toro Negro rainforest.
What is the little island that you see off the west coast, from Rincon?
Even when you live in a tropical paradise, you need to take a vacation sometimes. This was true for me when I lived here between 2002 and 2010. The west coast town of Rincon was THE spot for me, and specifically, the venerable Coconut Palms Inn on the Beach.
More than the lighthouse, more than the surfer’s beach, more than the decommissioned experimental nuclear reactor, more than the “Highway to Happiness” hilltop bus stop, the most iconic feature of utterly charming Rincon is the sunset. You know a Rincon sunset from the beauty, the colors (especially after an afternoon rainstorm), the feel of the bathwater-warm ocean, and the entrancing hump of little island that rises a dozen miles out on the horizon.
“What island is that?”
You’d think I’d have known this, after well over two dozen stays in Rincon. Perhaps up to now I’d assumed it was Mona. But Mona is a larger island located farther south, which isn’t visible from Rincon.
Actually this is Desecheo, a 153 hectare (0.6 square mile) island with no permanent surface water and no archaeological record of human habitation. Since 1983 it has been a National Wildlife Refuge, administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Of course it served as a pirate and smuggler base back in the day, and later on, in the mid-1900s, a USA bombing practice and survival training site. The island remains closed to the public, not least because of all the unexploded ordnance. But its surrounding waters offer great diving.
Prior to the bombing and the human-caused introduction of rats and goats, Desecheo was one of the most significant seabird nesting sites in the region. It now has a chance of becoming one again, thanks to the recent eradication of rats (accomplished in 2016 and 2017). Word is the birds are coming back. This is good news also for other endemic endangered species. Desecheo, which has been isolated land since at least the Pliocene, possesses plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth. A mini-Galapagos, if you will. It boasts two endemic lizards, as well as the Desecheo Dwarf Gecko. Two types of spider are also native only to Desecheo, and also a whip scorpion that likes to crawl among its rare and threatened species of cactus.
Chris Columbus sailed past this island during his second voyage, after he paused in Añasco Bay, near Rincon, but he didn’t name it. A subsequent Spanish explorer assigned the name Desecheo. This moniker is undoubtedly related to the Spanish word desecho, which “means waste, rubbish, scrap; a castoff.” Other forms of the word are desechable, meaning “disposable,” and desechar, “to throw away.”
Where did Hurricane Maria make landfall?
This one I knew the answer to. This was one of the most emotional reasons I had for returning to Puerto Rico.
I had to see it again.
Three years ago this coming Sunday, at 6:30 am, on September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall at Guayanes Beach, on the southeast coast of Puerto Rico. Guayanes was my personal private beach. I came here maybe a hundred times to go for a run and a swim, while AWOL from my workday as a pharmaceutical engineer in the town of Juncos, about twenty minutes away.
The entire island of Puerto Rico was raked and ravaged by Maria, but there is a specific spot where the high-end category 4 cyclone made landfall, and where the center of the eye first passed over. And that spot is the low-profile beach and community of Guayanes. Not a mile to the east. Not a mile to the west. It was exactly at Guayanes.
Visiting again, running again, swimming here again; it was a hugely emotional and powerful experience for me.
Yolanda’s beach shack bar had long been dismantled pre-Maria, as it was simply too close to the surf. I assumed that all the palm trees rising a few feet from the waves would now be gone too.
Not the case. The palm trees are all still there. All of them. They rode out Maria expertly, just like they rode out so many other storms. The cement buildings of the small community seem to all be there too, and moreover, look by and large to be in decent shape. Many sport fresh coats of paint.
The waves tumble and splash in, gently, as ever, like they have for millions of years. The coconut palms rise and sway.
La vida continua.
Life goes on.
Racist? Of Course
August 15, 2020
This past month the executive director of the Sierra Club, Michael Brune, posted an essay titled, “Pulling Down Our Monuments.” In it, he says it’s time for the 128-year-old conservation organization to do some truth-telling about its history, and to “reexamine our past and our substantial role in perpetuating white supremacy.”
Mr. Brune is not just talking about the fact that for most of its history, the Sierra Club has been a club for middle and upper-class white people, its racial near-purity perpetuated by exclusive membership granted only through sponsorship from existing members. Along with the other Big Green Groups such as The Nature Conservancy, The Union of Concerned Scientists, and The Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club remains overwhelmingly white and male, and together these organizations suck up nearly all the green donor dollars.
No, here Mr. Brune delves into the fact that American environmentalism itself was founded in reverence for nature and racism. And of course it was. How could it not have been? How could the conservation movement not have been intimately tied to the USA’s founding and most enduring principle, which was, is, and remains, white supremacy?
By his third paragraph Mr. Brune is talking about John Muir specifically, the Sierra Club’s hugely-revered founder. In addition to being the “patron saint of the American wilderness,” “father of the national parks,” and “wilderness prophet,” John Muir was also racist.
OMG, John Muir a racist? Of course he was. Look at when he lived: 1838 to 1914. Then, and for decades following, folks didn’t quibble, obfuscate, or evade on this topic. Overt racism by American whites toward ‘others’ was the norm, the expectation, the official policy; backed up by the leading “science” of the day.
“(Muir) made derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply racist stereotypes,” Brune writes. That’s not all Muir did. He kept close company with other hardcore racists, and brought them along to help him found the Sierra Club and the American conservation movement at large. Take, for example:
*Close friend and Sierra Club cofounder Joseph LeConte, Berkeley professor, hater of Blacks, who used his position and academic standing to tirelessly advocate for the disenfranchisement and repression of Black people. “Race-prejudice, or race-repulsion, to use a stronger term, is itself not a wholly irrational feeling. It is probably an instinct necessary to preserve the blood purity of the higher race,” LeConte wrote in his 1892 book, The Race Problem in the South.
*Sierra Club colleague and Board of Directors member David Starr Jordan, ichthyologist, founding president of Stanford, and longtime advocate of eugenics and forced sterilization of nonwhite people. Jordan helped start the Human Betterment Foundation, which pushed for compulsory sterilization legislation in the United States. Its research and model laws served as blueprints for Nazi Germany’s eugenics legislation.
*Close Muir friend and associate Henry Fairfield Osborn, geologist, paleontologist, and president of the New York Zoological Society and the American Museum of Natural History. Osborn was also a cofounder of the American Eugenics Society, whose mission was to promote eugenics education in the US and the study of improving the composition of humans through controlled reproduction of different races and classes (i.e. forced sterilization).
Wait, isn’t this Nazism? Didn’t we fight the good fight, against the Nazis?
Yes we did, but that was for other reasons. Genetic research post-Word-War-II has, of course, debunked evolutionary humanism. But these conclusions are pretty damn new.
In his illuminating book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari writes: “In 1933, Nazi beliefs were hardly outside the pale. The existence of different human races, the superiority of the white race, and the need to protect and cultivate this superior race were widely held beliefs among most Western elites. Scholars in the most prestigious Western universities, using orthodox scientific methods of the day, published studies that allegedly proved that members of the white race were more intelligent, more ethical and more skilled than Africans or Indians. Politicians in Washington, London, and Canberra took it for granted that it was their job to prevent the adulteration and degeneration of the white race, by, for example, restricting immigration from China or even Italy to “Aryan” countries such as the USA and Australia.”
This was the environment that my grandparents came up in, and this was the racism that was imparted, pretty much unavoidably, to my parents. I, born in the 1960s, of course grew up in an overtly racist environment where eugenics was still official government policy. For example, in the decade of my birth, it was illegal for Blacks and Whites to intermarry in 22 states.
So I found it quite interesting in the 1990s and 2000s when I experienced an undercurrent among White people that racism was something that we “didn’t really have anymore” (though few Black people, I imagine, ever agreed). Racism was all of the sudden this very uncool, passé thing, and we were just so over it. I remember conversations with White friends in the 2000s, where they would get indignant and even angry at the suggestion that racism was still a thing. I wanted to ask them, “When was the last time you were Black?” And I wanted to say to others, especially to older Americans, “So you’re no longer racist/white supremist. What made you quit? On what morning in the 1990s, say, did you wake up and were no longer racist, and why? Because I was there before, and you were.” I didn’t do this of course because nothing makes a racist madder than being called a racist.
Now, in 2020, at least we can stop kidding ourselves and call it like we see it. Racism is more than alive and well; white supremacy remains this country’s foremost founding principle. And as Michael Brune correctly writes in his Sierra Club post, “What’s needed is fundamental transformation, not reform.”
Now, in 2020, some governments are finally designating racism as a public health crisis (Michigan and Nevada most recently, on August 5).
Because racism affects people’s income and wealth, where they live, go to school, the quality of the air they breathe, their access to food, healthcare, justice, etc, etc, and etc.
Because racism kills people.
The Jewel Days
July 16, 2020
It’s July, and all I’ve really wanted to do is go hiking in the high summer Rockies. So that’s what I’ve been doing. These days are like precious jewels.
When it came time to write this month, I considered doing a piece on my hero Ira Spring, the legendary hiking book author and photographer who died in 2003. Without Ira, where would I be?
But instead I’ll re-run a bit I wrote in 2018 for the Base Camp Guides blogsite, about one of my favorite Front Range adventures for July.
Tragedy at 12,950 Feet
If you know where to look, you can spot it from miles away: a glittery speck near the ridgetop leading to Navajo Peak. But you could easily mistake it for a tiny patch of snow.
Whether or not you are prepared for it, the ascent of Navajo Peak takes an emotional turn as you cross a high basin and begin climbing toward a gully through talus and scree. Depending on your approach, you might see a fragment or two of aluminum lying among the rocks. Or a tail beam. Or one of the two propellers, its blades bent but still gleaming 70-plus years later.
It was a blustery winter afternoon, 4:02 pm on January 21, 1948, when the Douglas DC-3 took off from Denver. On board the 32-seater were three crewmen only, on a patrol mission for the Civil Aeronautics Administration. The flight plan called for a 14,500-foot-elevation crossing of the Rockies to Grand Junction. Twenty-two minutes after takeoff, the pilot reported via radio that they had achieved cruising altitude and were flying 500 feet above the clouds. He added that the turbulence was either “severe” or “unexpected” (accounts differ). Then the radio cut out.
From the edge of the basin, the continuing ascent of Navajo Peak returns to feeling like a standard steep mountain scramble for a while. Then, as you near the top of the gully, you come to it. You can’t miss it. It’s right in the middle of the path of the most standard route up Navajo Peak, bucket-list beauty of the Front Range Continental Divide. Above the main wreckage is the impact site: on a slanted wall only 50 feet beneath the ridgetop. If you look carefully you can still see oil stains and scars in the rocks.
This was not a small airplane, in both size and stature. It had a 95-foot wingspan and a robust design that revolutionized commercial air travel in the 1930s and 1940s. In it you could get from New York to L.A. in about 15 hours, with three refueling stops. Before that you had to settle for shorter day hops coupled with overnight rail travel. Though commercial DC-3 production ended in 1942, hundreds are still flying today in numerous niche markets. A common saying was and still is, “The only replacement for a DC-3 is another DC-3.”
Yes, this plane was a good one. But it was not powerful enough to overcome the fierce downdraft that afternoon, a common feature of winter storms here, which likely forced it from its cruising altitude to meet this rock wall at 12,950 feet. Fifty feet less of a drop, and the plane would have cleared the ridge and gotten across the Divide.
Whether or not I’m tired, I always have to pause my climb and pay homage to the three men who lost their lives. The pilot was Fred Snavely, age 38. Copilot Warren Lungstrom was 28, and had a wife and two baby sons, ages 1 month and 13 months. Also on board was aircraft inspector Ross Brown, age 40, father of a 4 year-old girl and an infant boy. Their bodies lay frozen here for months; heavy snowfall in the days following the crash thwarted search and rescue efforts and covered up the site. It wasn’t until May 23 of that spring that a continuing air search spotted the silver pieces sticking out of the snow.
It is difficult to describe the experience of being up here. Sad, yes; and beautiful, and spiritual all at the same time. The mangled wreckage sits in a breathtaking location amidst dazzling, soaring alpine wonderlands. The most remarkable thing, to me, is how clean the wreckage looks all these 70 years later. This is not a horror site, to me. The aluminum gleams brightly in the high altitude sunshine, and the rest of the pieces are mostly silver and shiny, not dirty or rusty. Look closely and you’ll see an ultra-polished steel rod of a hydraulic mechanism that can positively blind you in the sunlight. It looks like it was manufactured yesterday!
As I sat with the wreckage a few days ago, a faint breeze began to blow. With the breeze, an unfamiliar rustling sound emerged out of the usual alpine silence. I figured it was wind passing through metal pieces: a pretty, gentle, metallic whistle; definitely something you don’t normally hear in a place up high like this.
I stood and went closer, and discovered the source of the sound. It was a small hinged piece of fuselage, waving back and forth in the breeze. A hinge! And not a rusty hinge either. It was functioning perfectly well, moving cleanly in its attachment. It had been waving back and forth in the breeze for 70 years, and it looked set to keep on waving for at least 70 more.
BLACK LIVES MATTER.
June 12, 2020
Last week began the month of June: time once again to put the butter in the fridge, ice cubes in the coffee, and log onto the American Hiking Society website and find out where I would volunteer to work on a hiking trail on National Trails Day, which falls on the first Saturday each June.
I figured this year would be different, and suspected the event might get postponed due to COVID-19 concerns.
I got to the AHS website, and found a black background with the following message:
In its quest to be an ever-stronger ally, so as not to take space from the very important discussions and protests around racism in America and, in particular, around police brutality of Black bodies, American Hiking Society will suspend its promotion of National Trails Day this year. Instead, we will be taking allyship actions…
“Aha,” I thought. Various thoughts flowed through my mind.
I thought of something a Black female friend said recently: “Before I go for a walk in an unfamiliar neighborhood, I google it to check if it is an all-white neighborhood.”
I thought about my son, who is Black, coming home recently from university, over the back fence and in through the back door. Five minutes later, there’s a knock on the front door. It’s the police. Yes, this was simply the result of a call from a concerned motorist, but the fact remains that I’ve come over that fence more than 1,200 times on my way in from my run, and never once received a police knock.
“I don’t come home that way after dark, Baba,” my son said. Instead he makes a five block detour from the bus stop, and enters through our front door.
I thought of the Black women and men I met on the trail while researching Base Camp Denver: 101 Hikes in Colorado’s Front Range, and at my book tour hiking talks. There’s a personal safety item we never addressed in those talks, one that uniquely applies to Black people. The rules go something like this (adapted from “Nine Rules for a Black Birder,” by Drew Lanham): Carry water, extra clothes, and three forms of identification. Don’t hike in a hoodie. Sunset hiking and starwatching are no-nos…
I read about Rue Mapp, who, while leading a group of kids to a park in Oakland, CA in 2011, was followed and harassed by a white woman. “You’re bringing invasive species into this park!” the woman accused, when they were deep into the park and the kids began playing in nature. Instead of getting discouraged by this experience, Rue was inspired to launch Outdoor Afro, a nonprofit that connects Black people with outdoor experiences and conservation in nearly 30 states.
I read about how, just a few days ago, a multiracial family was harassed while attempting to camp near Forks, WA. They stopped in town to buy a few things and, as they were leaving, were confronted by locals who repeatedly asked them if they were Antifa. Later that evening, while at their campsite off a logging road nearby, they heard gunshots and chainsaws. They decided to pack up and leave, but trees had been felled across the road and they couldn’t get out. They called 911.
I read about how, prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, many Blacks were legally barred from or segregated at public recreational sites, including national and state parks. The United States has a long history of rules and situations preventing Black people from accessing public lands. Today, for a variety of reasons, Blacks still comprise less than 2% of national parks visitors, according to recent data collected by the National Park Service.
I thought about how I could volunteer to work on a trail any time, and I appreciated the AHS for directing me to their resources in allyship of Black Lives Matter. For giving me some things to DO. Here’s the remainder of the AHS message:
Instead, we will be taking allyship actions, including: amplifying Black voices in the outdoor community; sharing resources on racism in the outdoors that will link back to publications and content authored by people of color; and urging our supporters to call on Congress to pass legislation that provides equitable access to quality natural spaces for ALL. We thank our partners who have supported this decision to re-focus our efforts where we feel they are needed most at this time.
There’s plenty we can do to help. One slam dunk is to go to AHS website and sign a petition urging Congress to pass three bills, which it already has, which will increase equitable access the outdoors:
*Great American Outdoors Act (S.3422) to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) which will expand access to parks, trails, and open spaces across the country and address the maintenance needs that are closing off access to our public lands.
*Outdoors for All Act (S.1458/H.R.4512) to create open spaces in local communities that need them most, who have historically not had access.
*Transit to Trails Act (S. 3333/H.R. 4273) to connect transit hubs to trail heads to increase access to public lands for those without reliable transportation and reduce congestion at trail heads.
May 15, 2020
The red-winged blackbirds made it back from Mexico in time for May Day. I was getting a little worried when I didn’t see them all through April, and glad to hear their familiar “oak-a-ree” and see the flash of red and yellow on black wings along irrigation canals in the nearby wheat and cornfields. And it was fun to once again watch a group of them mob a red-tailed hawk, their would-be predator.
“Mayday mayday mayday!” I called to the hawk, as the flock of little blackbirds dive-bombed and harassed it.
This international distress signal is not to be confused, of course, with May Day, the ancient festival of spring. To signal distress you’re supposed to say “mayday” three times in a row. This practice purportedly originated in the 1920s at an airport in London, when much of the air traffic went to Paris. A worker there came up with the idea of using m’aider for the distress call, which is the French term for “help me.” By 1927 it was adopted in the USA as a radiotelephone distress call, supplanting the telegraphed Morse-coded “SOS.”
Which isn’t to say May Day has never been associated with distress. The first day of May has been International Workers’ Day since 1889, when it was designated as such by Second International, an organization of USA labor parties. This was to commemorate the Haymarket Affair, also known as the Haymarket Massacre, of 1886. What began as a peaceful May labor demonstration in support of an eight-hour work week went haywire when police killed a demonstrator and injured several others, after which someone lit a stick of dynamite.
In much of the world, May 1 is a public “Labor Day” holiday, including in my adopted home country of Ghana.
Not in the USA however, since we do our Labor Day in September. In fact we barely acknowledge May Day in the USA anymore. I remember the day being much bigger when I was a kid in the 1970s in Seattle. Back then it was a time to create special baskets of flowers and goodies (which we made in school) and leave them, anonymously, on people’s doorsteps. I don’t understand why we stopped doing this. Flowers are far cheaper and more available now than they were back then, and who doesn’t like flowers?
I had fun resurrecting this ritual a few years ago. On a May 1 I drove to Safeway, bought some daffodils, and then had fun sneaking onto a neighbor’s porch, dropping them, and running away. I knew they’d never guess it was me because we kind of hate each other.
In Europe folks still enjoy their maypoles and bonfires, here and there, which makes the day a lot more fun than it is in the USA. Furthermore:
*In Bulgaria they celebrate Irminden by lighting fires and jumping over them while making lots of noise. This is to scare away snakes and lizards.
*In Finland, the Walpurgis night of April 30-May 1 is one of the four biggest holidays of the year. This is a night to drink a lot of sima, especially if you’re a university student.
*In Poland the public holiday of May 1 is considered the start of barbecue season, and is often lumped together with another holiday, May 3, to make one big long party weekend.
*In Serbia, this is a good night to camp out around a fire.
*In Romania they love them some May Day. Arminden, the beginning of summer, is a day to roast AND eat a lamb while quaffing mugwort-flavored wine or red wine, in order to refresh the blood. People also wash their faces with the morning dew. Work is momentarily shunned; country women do not work in the house or the field lest they bring on terrible hailstorms. Oxen get the day off too. They are idled so that they don’t die and their owners don’t get sick.
In Colorado, I contented myself with the sight of the few flowers that always come up in the front yard, and the return of the red-winged blackbirds.
I also enjoyed a visit with someone who never left: the Elk of Oxford Road!
It’s now been more than two years since this dame, who presumably became separated from her herd during a winter migration in 2018, and moved in with two bulls in a field at the Shultz Family Farm on the corner of Highway 287 and Oxford Road. I wrote about her then (click here and scroll halfway down to “July”).
She now firmly considers herself a cow.
She refuses to share the field with the sheep and goats, which she chases away. She is deferential, however, to Chester and Calvin, her field mates. In fact they’re the Three Musketeers.
April 14, 2020
Greetings from Colorado, where we are enjoying classic April snow showers. That’s standard springtime along the Front Range!
It’s beautiful, but it can make this a challenging season for a Front Range hiker. I love walking the winter lowlands, but when the snow begins its spring retreat, I start to ache anew for the high country. Then things stall. The high peaks look alluring, but continued cool moist weather keeps them caked in white, and foothills trails that were clear by March return to needing snowshoes! This can continue well into May before—boom—the glorious high country opens up over just a manner of weeks.
During this shoulder season, it is important to know where to hike. And it’s heartening to know that Base Camp Denver: 101 Hikes in Colorado’s Front Range is helping people do that. My hiking guide celebrated its first birthday on April 2, in the top position on several Amazon lists: #1 in Denver Colorado Travel Books, #1 in Boulder Colorado Travel Books, #1 in Colorado Springs Travel Books (which never ceases to amaze me, for a book that has “Denver” in the title), et cetera. That’s not too shabby, considering that Amazon is one of the only places where people are buying books these days while on lockdown.
My goal since the inception of Base Camp Denver has been to make it the “go-to” book for day hiking along the Front Range. This is becoming a reality. If anyone has “Done the 101” yet, I’d love to know.
Happy anniversary, Base Camp Denver!
Another anniversary occurred recently that I want to commemorate. It happened last month, while I was visiting my old Peace Corps hometown of Navrongo, in Ghana.
It was my next to last day in Navrongo. I decided to make a trip, by myself, to the neighboring town of Sandema. It was Sunday, and a market day in Sandema; a good day to visit. I didn’t want anyone to feel like they needed to come with me, so I told my Navrongo friends that I was going there to visit the family house of my friend Florence. I said I wanted to see who was there, and reconvene with them.
In the arid, heating-up morning—March is the hottest month in northern Ghana—I loaded myself into a tro tro and made the 30-kilometer trip through the rolling dry landscape. As we came into town, I was glad to see Sandema had retained its trademark towering shady trees. And as we passed Florence’s family house on the right, I smiled at it through the tro tro window. But I did not say, “Bus, stop,” and I did not get down and go there. I had already decided that this was going to be a different type of reconvening day: a private, more personal one.
I got down at Sandema’s town center, and strolled beneath the massive trees to the market.
Written in 2008 in Navrongo, Ghana
I had no doubt I would hook up with Florence. I was certain I would find her; it would just take a little work.
Sometimes a friendship comes to you that is so natural, so gradual, you don’t even realize it is happening. The person becomes a constant in your life, someone who seems like they’ve always been there, someone who you always find yourself needing to talk to before too many days go by. And then you might move away, and not see this person anymore. Only then do you finally begin to understand just how important it all was.
I met Florence early on during my first year in Navrongo. In November of 1989, a friend and I rode our bikes to Sandema to observe the classic Feok Festival that is celebrated there each year. Sandema is a decent-sized town out in the bush, thirty kilometers southwest of Navrongo. It forms a squat equilateral triangle with Bolgatanga to the east, Navrongo the apex. It is the Sandema-Navrongo-Bolga triangle which results in market day occurring in each town once every three days.
My friend and I parked our bikes beneath Sandema’s massive shady trees and ducked into a pito house.
“Buy me some!” said a short, pleasant, 30’s-ish woman with a beaming, round face.
Florence became one of my best buddies over those years. We’d frequently hook up in the Navrongo market to drink pito. Florence was a middle-woman in the market who supplied the small dried fish used to flavor soups, which we jokingly called “Keta schoolboys.” I’d walk over to where she organized her trade with the local women. She’d see me coming, nod, and stand up.
“Okay, let’s go,” she’d say.
Sometimes when there was a disco dance at Navrongo’s Cinema Palace on the night of a market day, Florence would bring an evening dress to change into and we’d go and party. When we Navrongo teachers played soccer against the Sandema teachers, it was Florence by my side in the Sandema Secondary School banquet hall. It was Florence who taught me how to open a beer bottle with my teeth.
If I didn’t see Florence in a while, I’d find myself cycling to Sandema to visit her. I’d get into town in the morning and ride beneath the massive shady trees, and see her bright smile from a block away, riding a bike toward me.
“Let’s take pito,” I’d call.
“Okay, let’s go,” she’d call back. I’d look up to see she’d already done a 180-degree turn and was riding back to the pito house.
“Here have some of mine,” she’d say later, pouring part of her calabash into mine. “I’ve already been here this morning.”
It was Florence and her family with whom I stayed in Accra, for the week or so back in 1991 when I was preparing to leave Ghana the first time. Her brother Johnson (a military man who now sadly is late) had a family quarters in the barracks at 37 Military Hospital. They didn’t hesitate to make room for me there. I think there must have been eight or nine of us sleeping there most nights, in one partitioned room.
And Florence and I just had a ball roaming Accra.
There was one particularly loony afternoon when we all got dressed up and went to the Achimota Brewery. I had assumed we were going there for a tour. But when they opened the main gate to admit us we marched straight into the drinking hall, where pints of ABC lager sold for five cents. You can imagine the time we had.
I remember my last day in Accra, in September of 1991.
Florence and I were shopping for supplies for our farewell feast. We reached the train tracks down near Osu in the slanting afternoon sun. Florence bargained for the live chicken. Then we put the hen in a plastic bag with its head sticking out and boarded a tro-tro back to 37.
I sat in a middle seat with the chicken in my lap. Suddenly the bird began stretching its neck, pushing its feet out against the plastic bag, and going into convulsions.
“Florence, what is happening?” I asked, alarmed.
She glanced over and waved her hand. “Oh, the chicken, it is dying,” she explained, and went back to looking out the window.
The hen convulsed a few more times and then went limp, its head drooping in my lap.
We reached 37 and got down from the tro-tro. I handed the dead chicken over to Florence. She took it from there.
Now it was November 20, 2008, and my son Baraka and I were walking through the Navrongo market.
“Hello, Pee!” called Sweet Mother, waving.
Sweet Mother stood at the table of a woman who was selling small dried fish. I recognized her as Mary, one of the women with whom Florence used to trade. Mary told me that Florence was still living in Accra, but that if I went to Sandema I could get her cell phone number from someone in her family house.
Later Sweet Mother phoned and told me that someone had spotted Florence. She was in Sandema, and was planning to return to Accra the next day. If I went to Sandema the next morning, I’d meet her.
The next morning Baraka and I had a heck of a time getting transport to Sandema. The minivans and pickup trucks just didn’t seem to be running. It got later and later. I became edgier and edgier. I felt such a strong pull, such a need to get to Sandema. Finally we walked over to Sweet Mother’s office and she came and helped us negotiate a shared taxi. At last we were off.
The taxi dropped us at Florence’s family house. We spoke with a woman there. She said that Florence was in the lorry park, and then she turned and led us there, walking at a fast pace.
We reached the lorry park and rounded a corner. There was Florence! She stood next to a bus which was loading. She was all dressed up in a blue and white print dress, and wearing a tidy wig.
Florence was completely, utterly surprised to see us. With our voices whooping, we ran to each other and hugged. She hugged Baraka too, whom she had met five years previously, the last time we had talked.
“Florence, you can’t go!” I said.
“I have to go!” she said. She had only come to Sandema to buy guinea fowls at the request of her church elders, for a function they were planning. Her fare was paid and her birds were loaded.
“Well,” I said. “Let’s take pito.”
She looked sideways. “The bus is still loading,” she murmured.
Then her famous smile appeared.
“Okay let’s go!” she said.
We reached the pito house and got 30 pesewas each.
“Here, have some more,” she said, pouring part of her calabash into mine.
I asked Florence how was life. And in her characteristic, blessed frankness, she looked at the ground and shook her head.
“Oh! Life is very, very difficult for me, Pete.”
She looked over at me. The bus honked. We needed to finish our pito and get back there.
I looked into her eyes and nodded.
“We’ll talk more about it,” I said. “When we meet in Accra.”
Written in March, 2013, in Colorado
Florence and I did get together a couple of times in Accra a few weeks later. On our last night we made a classic “retro” roam of old Accra haunts, where at each stop we sat, drank, talked, laughed, and chewed kebabs. We did it up proud with Baraka in tow.
Toward the end of the evening I said, “Oh Florence, let’s take one more beer. After all, when will we see each other again?”
She turned to the guy sitting next to her. “I should have married him,” she told him. “Had I known he liked black women, I would have.”
Finally Florence’s son Prince came in his car to take me and Baraka back to where we were staying. But first we had to drop Florence in a busy section of town where she had an errand to attend to.
After Florence got out, we sat in traffic. Florence went one way, and then crossed the street in front of us a few minutes later, her eyes lit up in our headlights. She didn’t see us; didn’t notice it was us she was crossing in front of.
I looked into her beautiful face, her eyes bright and focused on where she needed to go. And I felt the strangest sensation come over me:
Oh my goodness. This is the last time I am going to see her.
I don’t often get these types of feelings. I didn’t feel this way about anyone else during that whole 2008 visit in Ghana.
Florence Akansugba passed away on March 4, 2012. She was at church and did not feel well. They put her in a taxi to the hospital and she collapsed along the way. She was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.
Though I know Florence is gone, to this day I still see her in my mind from time to time. I still talk to her. A few weeks ago, I came home from my run out in the cornfields near our house here in Colorado. I climbed over my back fence, and there was Florence: all decked out in a colorful print dress with matching head wrap, sitting on a bench beneath the maple tree. She was pouring a big bottle of Star beer into two glasses.
She looked up at me as I came over the fence, and gave me her famous, radiant smile.
May my precious friend rest in peace.
* * *
Fast forward to a month ago, March 8, 2020:
There I was, walking through the Sandema market. Taking it all in: the sights, the smells, the sounds. I called in at Paloma, the venerable chop bar located near the market’s center, and had a lunch of rice and stew washed down by a chilly Star beer. Then I continued my saunter through the market.
I made a right turn, and another. The aroma hit me before the visual: the rich, smoky smell of tiny dried fish. I had reached the dried fish section of the market.
Among the ladies sitting and selling their little piles of fish, which they arranged onto mats in front of them, a woman materialized. She wore a blue and white print dress and a tidy wig. She was bending down, negotiating with one of the women.
It was Florence. She finished her negotiation, handed off a basket of dried fish to the woman, and pocketed a small wad of cedis.
Then she stood, turned, and gave me her radiant smile.
And then, just as quickly as she’d appeared, she vanished. Gone these eight years, her image dematerialized into the backdrop of tall shady Sandema trees.
I smiled and wiped my eyes. “Ah, Florence. How I miss you.”
(Don't Move the Fire, Part II)
March 14, 2020
Don’t move the fire. Keep on living deeply, no matter what. Keep on feeling it.
This can be a challenge in daily life! But it hasn’t been for me this past month. Who/what do I have to thank? Ghana, of course. And a person who catalyzed a visit.
Ghana has long been a primary source of “the fire” for me. When I lived there, from 1989 to 1991, I always felt intensely, incredibly ALIVE. The same has been true of my visits over the past three decades. And whether I was there or not, Ghana has always protected me. Looked after me. Nurtured me. It’s been a good place to be physically, whether during a 1991 Gulf War or a 2020 virus pandemic. And it’s been a great place to go, in my mind, anytime I’ve needed sustenance.
In short, Ghana has always had my back. And it still does.
I hadn’t been there since 2016, when I went on the writing trip that resulted in Black Volta. And I didn’t have any clear plans to go this year, until just a few months ago. Had I forgotten that I needed to GO? Had I begun doing what is so easy to do: begun sleepwalking through life?
Luckily, my friend Dewey swooped in and saved me. “Pete, we should go to Ghana,” he said in a text last November. For shits and grins, I checked the prices. Round trip Denver to Accra: $751. We booked it immediately and got another friend, Gabby, to come with us.
In 31 years, no one has ever before asked me to take them to Ghana. I leapt at this chance to show Dewey and Gabby my homeland, the place that lit a fire in me that still burns and smolders in the center of my chest.
They both had to return to their jobs in the USA after ten days. I’ve stayed on. Ghana is not a place to visit quickly, and I am grateful to have taken some extra weeks and do a few things. One has been to travel back to Wa—the main setting of Black Volta—and close a circle of gratitude with a few certain people. Revisiting Wa was exquisite and surreal, like walking around on a three-years-ago movie set, with all of the actors staying in character!
And of course, I went back home to Navrongo. I’d taken Dewey and Gabby there earlier, but it had only been enough time to say “hello.” Now I was able to go back and spend more time, and say “au revoir.”
Last Saturday was a market day in Navrongo. I met up on a shaded market lane with my old friend and neighbor, Victoria. We went and sat with another friend, Margaret, who I jokingly refer to as “Ajjigapena” (you can click on the links for more stories pertaining to these people).
Victoria’s voice, I feel I have always known. A chord reverberates in the center of my chest when she speaks, something as familiar to me as my own soul. This helps me know that I have not moved the fire too far. Other people also have this effect on me: Alasko, Sweet Mother, Henry, Abuyama, and Mama Fat, to name a few. (Again, click on the links to read more.)
As we sat in the Navrongo market last Saturday, Victoria said to me, “On Monday you should come for your Bambara beans.” Then she chuckled.
Thirty one years later, and people still remember and are amused by my love of Bambara beans. I ate them almost every morning during the years I taught chemistry at Navrongo Secondary School, running from the lab to some tables outdoors where ladies sold cooked food. I’d get 50 cedis worth in a blue plastic bowl (people still remember the blue plastic bowl). The hearty beans, with a spoonful of oil and a pinch of salt on top, where the epitome of food for the soul. Ghana soul food.
I think it was amusing to people because Bambara beans don’t get a lot of respect here. This can happen, I think, whenever a food is cheap and easy to grow. Bambara beans love sandy soil, warm temperatures, and sparse rainfall (they only need about 300 mm of rain per cycle). In short, they love Navrongo. But Navrongo doesn’t necessarily love them back, even though the beans are protein-rich and (in my opinion) delicious. And their plants fix nitrogen to the soil to boot.
“You should come in mid-day,” Victoria continued. “That is heavy food, which should be eaten in the middle of the day.”
Henry and Alasko came with me. Henry picked me on his moto, and we met up with Alasko, who came on his bike.
Victoria greeted us at the entrance to her compound, and led us to a table she’d set up behind it in the shade of a neem tree. She disappeared for a few minutes, and returned with a big pot of warm boiled beans. She also brought a second, smaller pot containing the necessary condiment oil to which she’d added fried onion slices.
And so, on March 9, 2020, we ate a lunch of Bambara beans.
And in this manner, I feel such a deep gratitude for not having moved the fire. For keeping it alive.
Don't Move the Fire
February 14, 2020
I always knew my novel Black Volta needed to be narrated by a woman. How lucky could I possibly get?
Here’s how lucky: For this audiobook, I teamed up with the acclaimed Nigeria-born actress Nene Nwoko. Nene has completed her work, and the audiobook is now available at Audible/Amazon. To hear a sample of Nene’s performance, please click here.
Where the text brought words and images of Ghana, now you can plug in your earbuds and let Nene take you there!
A warm, expressive voice is one thing; Nene’s magnetic screen presence is something else. Her work has been recognized by the Africa Movie Academy Awards (AMAA), Peachtree Village International Film Festival, and the Lone Star Chapter of The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Her award-winning films include “The Okra Principle” (2009), “Mystery of Birds” (2011), “Take The Spotlight” (2014), and the documentary “I Am More” (2014). Recently she completed riveting performances in the TV miniseries “The Chosen,” and an episode of CBS’s “S.W.A.T.”
As I listened to the final masters of Black Volta chapters last month, I became warmed by Nene’s voice all over again. But there was more to it than that—much more. In addition, I felt the fire of deeply-held memories of a life richly lived.
When I completed my Peace Corps time in Ghana in 1991, I was determined to keep the fire alive and never let it go out. If there was one thing I always felt while living in Ghana, each and every day, it was of being intensely, incredibly ALIVE. Never did I want to lose this feeling and begin sleepwalking through life.
Of course, over these subsequent decades this has taken some effort! And I have not always been successful. My long-gone corporate career offered continuous challenges to feeling vibrant and alive. But it also occasionally helped me, especially when it sent me to Colorado, to Puerto Rico, to India.
Daily life continues to challenge me. So when my longtime friend Marissa invited me to join her on a January visit to her home province in the Philippines, I said, “Yes!”
Marissa and I dated back in the nineteen nineties. Then and since, I have been lucky to be infused by her generous and kind essence, her friendship, and her stories (and stories, and stories!): of a fascinating life growing up in a rural Luzon barrio, heading onward to Santiago Chile, and still onward to the USA, where she is a dentist focused on community health and wellness.
To say that Marissa hasn’t forgotten where she came from is an understatement. Her life is a vast and rich canvas, filled with epic stories and a massive cast of characters. And it all began in the barrio. Now, I was finally taking the opportunity to go with her there.
We began with massages in Manila, which more than prepped us for the journey north to the mountains of Baguio and onward around the lush northern shore of Luzon, visiting friends and family along the way. We marveled at an Imelda palace, night-drove through wet country roads still recovering from the recent super typhoon, and survived a wild crazy pontoon canoe trip through the swells and crashing surf off the isle of Palaui (the setting of “Survivor” seasons 27 and 28).
And, of course, we went to the barrio.
“Are you connecting the dots now, Pete?” Marissa asked me one evening, referring to the stories of her life for which I was grateful to now have mental pictures to go with and keep forever.
We were getting down from a horse-drawn calesa in the northern city of Tuguegarao, and preparing to load ourselves into the rear of a rustic jeepney for the ride back to the barrio. Gently, I patted the heated nostrils of the pony that had clip-clopped us through the busy streets. As moto-tricycle rickshaws buzzed past, I followed Marissa toward the back of a chugging tricked-out silver jeepney. Then I paused to look at all the rich, teeming life all around me, and enjoyed for just one more moment soaking it all in.
“But this city, Tuguegarao,” I asked her, as we settled into our seats on the jeepney bench. “What does the name mean?”
“It comes from legend,” she replied. “Apparently there was once a fire here. Someone yelled, ‘Fire!’ in Ibanad, which is tugi. Someone else yelled, ‘Don’t move!” in Ilocano, a phrase which became shortened to garao. Put the two together and there you have it: Tuguegarao.”
“Aha!” I said, smiling. “Fire…Don’t move!”
Or put another way: “Don’t move the fire.” YES!
Don’t move the fire. Keep on living, deeply. Keep on feeling it. Keep on letting it burn, hot, in the center of your chest.
January 15, 2020
“Ahhh,” I said to my friend as we basked in the warmth of the burning piñon logs on the sidewalk of the plaza. There we were, huddled in the 7,000-foot chill of Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was New Year’s Eve, a few minutes before midnight. We were there not to watch a ball drop, but a sun rise.
As the sweet aromatic smoke washed over us, I looked around at the crowds and the lights. Nearby, the Kiwanis Club doled out free hot chocolate and bizcochitos (New Mexico’s state cookie) to happy holiday makers. Who knew, that Santa Fe was such a groovy place to be on New Year’s Eve? The third oldest European-founded city in the USA was at its character-filled best (only St. Augustine, Florida, and Jamestown, Virginia are older).
And here came the sun! Rising above La Fonda Hotel to meet at big lit-up 2020.
But is this okay, I wondered? After all, this wasn’t a sun at all, but a symbol—a sacred symbol of the Zia people.
The Zia are believed to have settled at the base of the nearby Nacimiento Mountains, where the Jemez River peters out, in the 1200s. They were thriving in the mid-1500s when Spaniards encountered them and proceeded to subjugate them and outlaw their religious ceremonies. The Zia successfully rose up against the Spanish in 1680, only to be crushed and massacred nine years later. When two ethnologists from the Smithsonian arrived at Zia Pueblo in 1890, they counted less than 100 people. This husband and wife team proceeded to collect as many artifacts as they could from the believed-to-be-dying pueblo.
Around this time, a sacred clay pot of the tribe’s Fire Society went missing from its kiva. It showed up later in an artist’s home in Santa Fe, and was transferred to a museum (it has since been returned to Zia Pueblo). This pot bears the symbol of a round sun with stylized eyes and a mouth, and groups of three rays emanating in four directions.
Fast forward to 1923. The Daughters of the American Revolution were holding a contest to design New Mexico’s State flag, and physician Harry Mera recalled seeing the symbol on the Zia pot. He and his wife Reba worked up a design. They omitted the eyes and mouth, and increased the number of rays in each direction from three to four. This won them the 25 dollar prize, and the Zia symbol went onto the flag. No one asked the Zia for permission of course; at the time the Zia weren’t allowed to vote and weren’t considered citizens.
Thus the sacred symbol went into the public domain without the Zia being able to do anything about it. It also went onto license plates, coffee cups, the state quarter, football helmets, et cetera. Schoolchildren were forced to stand before the symbol each morning and say, “I salute the flag of the state of New Mexico and the Zia symbol of perfect friendship among united cultures.”
Perfect friendship? I asked myself, watching the sun symbol rise, shaking off the chill. For reasons we don’t need to get into, the word ‘perfect’ has taken on a sinister aspect for me.
And this symbol was a sacred symbol—a sacred, stolen symbol.
But what does it mean? Or what did it mean, to the Zia, before it became common property?
Perhaps it represents four compass directions, or four times of day, or four seasons, or four stages of life, as some propaganda would have you believe. This preoccupation with the number four seems to detract from the importance of the sun-circle itself, a geometric figure that neither begins nor ends…one that had eyes and a mouth in the original version. The original symbol’s human features seem significant, being that it came from a culture rich in kachinas, or powerful spirit-personifications of things we see in the real world. If given veneration and respect, kachinas can use their power for human good.
“Respect,” I whispered, as the symbol continued to rise and the crowd counted down the seconds to the new year.
By the time the Zia people mustered the legal resources to challenge their symbol’s misappropriation, it was firmly ensconced in the public domain and there was nothing they could do other than request to be asked for permission for its use, and request that it be used with respect. Wear it proudly on a tee shirt, for example, but please don’t engrave it on the bottom of an ashtray or emblazon it on the side of a porta-potty.
The clock struck midnight. Fireworks exploded off the roof of La Fonda Hotel. The crowd roared at the risen sun.
“Respect,” I whispered.
Happy New Year. Let this one be one of kindness: kindness and respect.