Category Archives: America

Borderland

The drone hung low in the sky as the road curved back to Fort Davis. It hung in the sky on a faint line tethered to the ground somewhere out in the desert. A mile away…fifty? It’s hard to judge distances in Texas.

It was white and metallic. It was a lurking thing and a lonely-looking one, too, in an odd way — this man-made bird up there with the kestrels and an occasional passing cloud.

High desert plains

High desert plains looking back at Marfa, TX

Lonely road outside of Fort Davis

Lonely road outside of Fort Davis

Famed and desolate Pinto Canyon road outside of Presidio

Famed and desolate Pinto Canyon road outside of Presidio

I first saw it a week earlier as we drove north from the U.S. border town of Presidio. We climbed over the mountains and into the high desert plateau on our way to the bustling railroad town of Marfa. It was further off then but still waiting in the air, hovering high above the purple mountains that frame the town.

This isn’t quite like the killing drones we’ve been hearing about lately. It’s for surveillance along our border with Mexico and is officially called an “aerostat” or “drug blimp,” as locals dub it. During the day, this faceless bird stays motionless. At night, it combs the border with its infrared sensors for body heat, tracking suspicious cars with its eyes above the clouds.

It’s pretty spooky.

Marfa's old courthouse

Marfa’s old courthouse

Old theatre

Old theatre

Old hotel

Old hotel

Local flavor

Local flavor

Of course the weirdness has worn off on locals. Now the drone is just a part of the landscape; a new cloud in the sky that formed soon after 9/11 to make us safer.

Maybe it has, maybe it hasn’t.

What’s more certain is that things in West Texas are different now. Continue reading

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Thanking The Turkey

Yesterday was one of my favorite days. I don’t think I’m unique in loving Thanksgiving — there’s just something about the ritual of sitting around a table with people, be they friends or strangers, sharing food together. I like passing the potatoes. I like the community. I like the idea of us collectively taking a big breath in as a nation and thinking about what makes life truly rich.

Nothing says thanksgiving like a homemade sign

A great looking table for fifteen

After-dinner fiddle and folk songs

The most beautiful pie

Last year, I spent Thanksgiving fresh off the trail, having spent two weeks camping in Utah’s canyon land, and was amazed to wake up to warm toes and hashbrowns in Prescott, Arizona.

This year, I was just at the bottom of the hill at a friends’ house here in Tamworth, New Hampshire. They have a wonderful bond with their neighbors and so all were over for the good meal. Most of the food, in fact, was all grown by them in their shared garden — potatoes, beets, celeriac, squash, brussell sprouts, kale, onions. The cranberry sauce was made from berries harvested up the road (in the local bog!) and even the turkey had been raised and butchered by them.

Taking down this season’s turkey pen with gratitude and some relief

Farm stand all boarded up for winter

Cows earlier in September watching me watch them

New eating technique: get inside the trough

We’ve even got locally-grown mushrooms (these are “blue oysters”)

And locally-made biodiesel to run our farms! 

The funny thing is how normal this has become to me — to be eating what you grow and raise. I knew nothing of plants and animals when I lived in Chicago. I couldn’t tell you growing seasons for vegetables. I paid no attention to how far my blueberries had traveled to my table. I didn’t know that cucumbers are sort of spiky and I certainly had no clue how to kill a pig.

More poignantly, I can recognize a change in my relation to meat. I see what I eat as animal now — not just as a strange, never-living protein object. The fine bones in a salmon’s muscles remind me that he once fought his way upstream. The chicken once tucked her head into those buffalo wings. The fatty bacon strips were once a pig’s belly, laying lazily in the mud. Continue reading

Birthday Climb

Last Sunday I rang in 27 years with a 5am wake up call and that nervous, whooshing, happy feeling you get in your stomach when you’re bound for an adventure.

I’ve come full circle back to New Hampshire and have been working on a farm around the corner from my Gramma’s house for the past month. When I lived here last August, I spent hours pouring over maps of the White Mountains, and even more hours hiking them, but somehow didn’t quite end up doing the big one.

Climbing up Huntington Ravine looking southeast at the White Mountains

Looking up at the top of the ravine

Going up some steep stuff

At an elevation of 6288 ft, Mt. Washington gets to brag about two things. It’s the highest in New England (“second highest east of the Mississippi” — but who’s counting?) and has some of the most unpredictable weather (“fastest wind speed ever recorded” — 231 mph if you are into counting). I honestly didn’t know how wowed I’d be by it. Not to be a total alpine snob, but hiking in Alaska can kind of ruin you for, well, anything that’s not Alaska. I was glad to be wrong.

I met my new farm friends at the end of the driveway and we bopped our way down the dirt roads, our morning sleepiness burning off slowly with the sun. After whittling down to one car, we pointed north, grabbed a quick breakfast, and were on the trail in an hour.

Great way to celebrate with new friends and a new challenge

Time for a snack and view break

Alpine meadow with cairns leading to Lion’s Head (coming back for that route sometime!)

Heading up to the Ball Crag

Even though we’ve all grown up in the area (and I can barely claim this having just spent summers visiting here), none of us have climbed Mt. Washington before. We dodged the crowds and headed up Huntington Ravine. We had it all to ourselves — scree fields, thin waterfalls snaking down rocks, yellow wildflowers tucked into cracks. A couple miles into Huntington, we found our favorite (and hardest) part of the day — a slanted rock slab where we twisted our arms and feet to find footholds. Giddy at the top, we rewarded ourselves with a snack break in the sun. We laid around and watched a few rock climbers pass, towing their gear towards some granite. “Great day to be out,” one said. It was.

An hour later we were way above the trees in an alpine meadow. Tall piles of rocks marked the trail and petered off into the distant fog. Another hour and we were in the clouds on top of Ball Crag.

Finding clouds, wind, and cool 50 degrees on top of the crag

We reached the summit not long after and had that odd experience where you go from wilderness to civilization in a matter of seconds — tourists, motorcycles, cars, a cafeteria, a train, even a U.S. post office. We skipped the lunch line, put on fleeces, and hunkered down under a rock to eat lunch. (I have to say farm cucumbers make for some surprisingly good trail eatin’.)

Compadres on the summit

Back in the trees, back in the sun and, 8 hours later, almost back at the car!

We chose Tuckerman’s Ravine for our way back. It was honestly a pretty tough climb down for me (nothing will make you feel more like you’ve just turned 27 than having a pack of 16 year-olds sprint by you ever 10 minutes), and we all were pretty happy to see the car at the end, but nothing could shake that good feeling of satisfaction at a day well done.

We switched from boots to sandals, pointed the car home, and had only one key question left to answer. “Hey, what’s for dinner?”

Pele’s Island

Well, I haven’t written a word about my two months on the Big Island. I could blame it on the sparse internet and the black hole of cell reception that was my corner of the world but I’d be lying. I wanted a break; a chance to just feel out the place and see what emerged.

The issue now of course is that so much has happened, in my outer and inner life, that I’m at a bit of a loss for how to say it all. How can I describe falling asleep in my Kapoho shack, the tropical nighttime music of coqui frog, ocean, and confused rooster just outside the screen crowing at the moon? How can my words show you the dirt road twisting through the lush mango grove only to open onto the dry wasteland of a raw lava field? Can you see the tiny ‘ohia tree with its red blossoms emerging from that new rock?

I told my uncle my quandary when I made it to his house in Honolulu in April. How do I say it all, uncle? “You don’t,” he told me. He’s right, of course. You just “talk story,” as the locals call it, and let the stories go where they want to…

An active crater at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park

A Kapoho shack

A pink blossom covered road, tucked away in Waipi’o Valley

The first thing that hit me about the Big Island, stepping off the plane from cushy L.A., was its rawness. Clocking in at under a million years old, Hawai’i is the youngest of the Hawaiian islands. (The oldest, Kauai, is six million.) Both originated from volcanoes and coral polyps where a new species might be introduced once every 20,000 years. (If you want to read a really dramatized version of this creation story, check out the opening chapter to James Michener’s 1959 classic novel on the islands.)

The Big Island is still in the active volcano stage with three of its five volcanoes going strong. You drive around and get to know places by what used to be there. “Oh, here was Kapoho town,” they say, and all you see is the gray black of the 1960 lava that took out the railroad, the general store, the homes, the cemeteries, everything. “Oh, here was the Royal Gardens, the famous black sand beach of Kaimu with its shady coconut palms.” Now, where there was ocean meeting sand, there is dried a’a (Hawaiian for “stony rough lava;” pronounced “ah ah,” like the sound you would make if you had to walk barefoot on it) extending for a mile to the sea. Continue reading

Hawaiian Roots

I’m writing this while still in San Francisco on Saturday night but when you see it I’ll be flying over the Pacific on my way to Hawaii (oh, the wonders of modern technology!).

My Grandma on board the S.S. Matsonia from San Francisco to Honolulu, 1930

California has been a time to connect with good friends, wear flip flops, walk the beach, and scratch the surface of a state I’ve known very little about but always had my eye on. From surfing in San Diego to a drive up the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) to a bike ride over the Golden Gate to Sausalito, it’s been an active and wonderful two weeks.

Tide pools in San Diego

San Francisco's version of a back alley

My little Subaru headed up the PCH on a stormy but brilliant night

Evening walk around Lake Merritt, Oakland

Little Italy storefront, San Francisco

Storm and sun above Big Sur

Looking out at the Golden Gate from Coit Tower

Blue House on Francisco Street, Berkeley

But I’m on to Hawaii. A place I’ve never seen but feel, all the same, like it’s a part of me already. The birthplace of my mother. The island where my grandparents met. The island where their parents met. I’ve bought a one way ticket and am ready to dive in, explore the family history, and make some of my own.

I’m landing on the Big Island tonight (Tuesday night) and not sure when I’ll get to write again — from Mike’s fruit farm I’ll be staying at first in Kapoho? From my uncle Phil’s house in Oahu? From a tent on Kauai? We’ll see how my Hawaiian wanderings unfold. As an old Siberian Yupik saying goes, “what you do not see, do not hear, do not experience, you will never really know.” It’s time to know.

Much love and aloha.

My grandma with her dad (my great-grandfather "Foffie") under the hose in Honolulu

The grandparents as young kids in Oahu (my grandpa "Ogi" far right and grandma covering her eyes)

My grandma with her grandpa (my great-great grandfather, George P. Castle)

My grandma (the youngest) and her sister Anne with Mom and Dad in the pool near Diamond Head, 1926

Homesteader Country

One day in New Mexico Nancy and I were inside peeling garlic and she started to tell me the story about how she came to the mountains with her goats. I had asked her a little about it when I first met her over lunch in lonely Grants, NM. She hadn’t had much to say then. Now, sitting side by side, empty buckets and a couple hours work in front of us, it was easy to talk.

Fence on the long road into the farm

House and old windmill one pink morning

House and old windmill one gray morning

Nancy’s lived up in the mountains near the Continental Divide in southwestern New Mexico for about thirty years. She’s had her goats there with her the whole time. Her dairy, The Coonridge Dairy, has got to be one of the most remote places I’ve ever been. Located about a two hour drive from the nearest booming town of 200 residents (named Pie Town for — you guessed it — its ample amount of delicious homemade pies), she lives in the heart of old homesteader country.

“Texies” and “Okies” arrived in Catron County during the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. They came, as biographer Joan Myers writes in Pie Town Woman, an account of local homesteaders, “in any sort of conveyance that would roll.” The dream was to reach the fertile land of California but many couldn’t make it that far and settled instead on the open, scrubby ground beneath Alegra Mountain, or “Ol’ Legra” as its locally known.

Looking out over Catron County and the Sawtooth mountains

Abandoned steer out in a field grazing

Grab a homemade slice at either the Pie Town Cafe or the Pie-O-Neer!

“Life in such places,” Myers writes, “is not something to remember or wait for but just to live.” Most families started working the land — “proving up” — so that they could earn the title to their 160 acres (under the original Homestead Act of 1862; 640 acres if you were raising cattle thanks to a revised act in 1916). They built small 15′ by 30′ dug outs to live in, haled water by wagon to drink, and prayed that their beans and corn would grow. If they had a good season, they could sell some crops to the Pie Town general store in exchange for other necessities, but that was pretty rare.

Continue reading

I’m Transcontinental

Well, I’ve made it to California.

Five months ago I sat with my Mom on a pier overlooking the Boston harbor. Last night, I walked down the long hill to Black’s Beach in La Jolla, San Diego and touched the blue Pacific.

View from on top of the hill (photo by Stacy Williams)

Sun beams over Black's Beach (photo by SW)

Beach walkers at sunset

Surfer boy and gull

It is a beautiful and overwhelming feeling to be here. From my drive west watching the country change to my time in the four corners (Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico), I feel, as the writer Annie Fitzsimmons says, “simultaneously powerful and insignificant.” She was talking about Arizona, its landscape and mystery, but I think it captures well the transcontinental journey.

I’ve been here over a week and it still hardly feels real. I left the quiet, snowy mountains of New Mexico on a Monday, found my first palm trees outside of Tucson that night, and then saw the ocean the next day. I ran to greet it in Santa Barbara, the Channel Islands luringly visible on the horizon.

Leaving snowy New Mexico

Black and gray silhouettes and pier

Under Scripps Pier #1

Under Scripps Pier #2

I’m in San Diego now, camped at my friend Stacy’s amazing grad student apartment on the edge of the ocean that I still can’t believe qualifies as University housing. I can hear the waves as I write this.

There are lots of things that can stir my soul but nothing comes close to water. I am a fish. Before this year, the furthest I’ve lived away from something I can swim in was four miles, and even that seemed far. I completely understand the man in Big Fish whose wife finds him in the bathtub one night, soaking while still in his pajamas. “I was drying out,” he tells her. (It also is one of the most touching scenes between a husband and wife, I think, in film.)

And more than just any water, I am near The Ocean. I can smell the salt and feel the faint moisture in the air. I can watch the surfers run to the waves and start to climb them. I can end my day and watch the orange sun descend below the horizon as a dolphin, feeding close by, watches too in between its breath and dive. Continue reading