The Ups and Downs of the Red Adidas Shoes

BERKELEY, CALIF. – After a long and dedicated fight, a pair of red Adidas soccer cleats reached their final resting place on Sunday afternoon. Sources in California reported the shoes had been walking their last steps for several weeks. Their owner, overindulgent athlete, Dan Stevens, was quite thoughtful in commemorating their passing.

Those shoes have served me well for the last ten years. Whether scoring an own goal or striking out, I always knew those shoes would carry me, through the sadness, back to the sideline.

The red Adidas cleats were purchased from Olympia Sports in Middlebury, Vermont, on September 20, 2004. Mr. Stevens had signed up for his first intramural soccer team, and bought the cleats to carry him on the field. The fortuitous purchase proved to be an historic pairing.

In their youth, the cleats served Mr. Stevens well during his undistinguished years. Mr. Stevens struggled to gain traction playing soccer and softball in Vermont. The pair reached their peak, though, after moving to Washington.

On a hot, greasy summer day, the red Adidas could be found paroling the unkempt turf of the National Mall. Mr. Stevens was engaged in a great battle between his Harkin’s Heroes and the Chairmen’s dozen that belonged to archival Sen. Charles Grassley. As the Heroes took the field for the bottom of the seventh, they scrambled to hold on their three-run lead.

After just a few hits, the tying run was on second base, with only one out left. Mr. Stevens’ boyhood friend, a one Neil Ruhland stepped to the plate. He hit a shot just out of reach of the shortstop, barreling towards Mr. Stevens and his red Adiddas shoes. Mr. Stevens, dug in, used the depth of the cleats, and scooped the ball up in one motion. He twisted his body, and threw everything he could into his arm, launching the orb towards the final out.

The runner rounded third, the ball careened through the air, and Mr. Stevens tumbled to the ground. As a silence hummed over the crowd, the Heroes first basemen, who was covering home, snatched the ball out of the air, and tagged the runner out. The red Adidas cleats had won their greatest victory.

After several victories in softball and baseball, the red Adidas shoes found themselves out of favor in 2013 Mr. Stevens, on a “life-changing quest,” withdrew from organized sports for two years. In 2015, however, the cleats surged back to life for one last campaign. Mr. Stevens had taken up soccer once again.

A week before the end of the season, though, the cleats could no longer keep it together. On a cut over the middle, they suffered a mortal gash to their right lining. Not understanding the injury, Mr. Stevens played on, but only made the wound larger.

On May 3, 2015 at 4:45, the red Adidas were laid to rest in a large dumpster near the Gilman Fields in Berkeley California. Mr. Stevens and his fellow soccer players conducted the small, parabolic, ceremony without a great deal of fanfare.

Family of the red Adidas ask that in lieu of presents, you encourage Mr. Stevens to buy more shoes.


Swimming In Mexico: A Cave-Diving Experience

Cuzama“Does the horse have a name?”  I asked in Spanish.  Our mid 30s guide, who had jet black hair underneath his grey baseball hat, chuckled to himself, revealing just a few golden teeth.


A skinny six-year old named Jesus held on to Tractor’s reigns while his father, our tooth-deprived guide, hurried to lift our cart off the narrow-gauge railroad we had been following.  My immediate family, my brother, my mom and dad and I, were dressed only in swimsuits, and we waited patiently off to the side of the track as two oncoming horse drawn carriages careened by us.


After the traffic jam cleared, we continued riding along the three kilometers of railroad to an underground swimming hole, known as a cenote.  The Yucatan peninsula in southeast Mexico is littered with these natural cooling spots due to its peculiar geology.  The large landmass, as big as South Dakota, contains almost no rivers.  Instead, local inhabitants for centuries have relied on the freshwater that trickles up into these caves.  The Mayans built their massive cities like Chichen Itza next to some of the largest cenotes to ensure easy access to drinking water.

Today, the cenotes are used mostly to entertain tourists.  They range in size from just a few feet across to as big as an acre.  During our Christmas vacation to the Yucatan beach town of Progreso, my family and I decided to spend one day visiting three relatively obscure cenotes near the tiny village of Cuzama.

To get to the cenotes, though, is not as simple as driving up to the parking lot and walking into the pool.  Instead, the local authorities have installed a vigorous jobs program that requires interested parties to pay a guide to drive them to the three cenotes, located along two different sections of railroad tracks.  And this comes after driving for 30 minutes on narrow back roads.

After we figured out the logistics, and somehow got placed in front of a group of 20 French tourists, Jesus’s father whipped Tractor into action, and we flew down the track.  Earlier that day, we had visited Chichen Itza, which has a giant, open air cenote, sort of like a Midwestern farm pond.  We were expecting something similar.

Instead, once Tractor slowed to a rest, we hopped off the cart and walked to small hole in the ground, about four feet square.   Our guide, clad in sandals and jeans, rapidly descended the shoddy staircase.  We nervously followed close behind.

The cave opened into a giant cavern, as big as a large barn, with the ground sloping down at a 30 degree angle to a pool of water butting up against one side of the cave.  The stone carved staircase descended straight into the shallow water.  Beyond the staircase, the water opened into a large pool, about 50 feet long and 15 feet wide.   The Stevens gentlemen jumped in and posed for pictures by hanging from stalactites.

The next cenote tested our claustrophobia.  Instead of a shoddy staircase, we descended 24 meters on two shoddy iron ladders that extended straight down into the ground.  While climbing down the ladder, I could stretch out my arms and nearly touch the sides of the tube.


At the bottom of the silo, though, lay an undisturbed pool of deep blue water, brightly lit by a surprisingly out of place CFL light bulb.  A group of teenage girls stood on a ledge four feet above the pool as my brother, dad, and I navigated the ladders.  With a captive audience, we plunged into the 60 degree water, and swam the short length of the pool which only extended 30 feet and stretched about 5 feet wide.  Once the onlookers had departed, we took turns practicing our cannon balls off the gallery.

The final cenote proved accessible enough to welcome the entire Stevens family.  This one was much larger, the shape of a giant oval as big as an NBA court, about 20 feet below the surface.  In some more optimistic time, an aggressive entrepreneur had installed a cement staircase down to a large, stone-carved platform.  It looked like a set for the Lord of the Rings.


We whittled away the last of the daylight at this cenote, drawing the ire of the Mexican tourists by continuing our cannon ball practice and swimming into the depths of the cave.  We were the only swimmers speaking English.

As darkness threatened, we woke up Jesus and his dad, and rode peacefully as Tractor towed us back to our car.

During the entire three hour trip, the only time our guide showed any emotion was when he relayed the name of his beast of burden.  As we collected our belongings from his cart, the eldest Stevens paid him for the trip, adding a tip of about $10.  He thanked us politely, and walked away.  But when he thought we were out of earshot, he said something meant only for Jesus.

“ohhhh my wow wow.”

Book Review: Midnight in Russia By David Greene

Riding the Trans-Siberian railway is one of those bucket-list experiences that always seems better on paper than in real-life.  Why fly all the way to Russia only to sit in a cramped cabin for 8 days, with nothing to do but stare out a window?

David Greene’s new travelogue, Midnight in Siberia, provides a blueprint for how to make such a trip worth the time and money.  The book recounts Greene’s trip across the world’s largest country, including his many stops along the way.  Greene interviews a captivating variety of Russians and even chases down a meteorite.  Ostensibly, the book is about completing one of the world’s most romantic journeys.  In execution, the book paints a compelling portrait of what it’s like to live in contemporary Russia.

Before embarking on his trip, Greene worked for several years as NPR’s Moscow correspondent.  He obviously studied for the position: he sprinkles his account with both literary and popular portrayals of the ancient winterland, providing a welcome historical context to his experience.

Greene’s narrative substantially benefits from his professional experience.  He travels not by himself but with NPR’s fixer who both translates and arranges logistics.  While the translation is handy, traveling in a formerly communist country is rife with obstacles.  Sergei makes everything work, allowing Greene to zero in on his conversations with Russians.

Given his experience as a radio reporter, it’s no surprise Greene’s conversations with Russians are the strongest part of the book.  The chapter on Ivan, a young man from Chelyabinsk, on the Western edge of Siberia, is quite moving.  Ivan lost both his parents to cancer before he was eighteen, yet he still had to serve his compulsory year in the Russian army.  He now rents a small house and makes money doing odd jobs.  Despite his hardships, he is proud of his country and accepts his life.

Another conversation with a hotel owner named Nadezhada demonstrates how the stereotypical Russian drunk is tragically too true.  Nadezhada raises two kids and runs a hotel on her own after she divorced her husband for drinking too much.  Much of the chapter about Nadezhada recounts her efforts to navigate the remnants of Soviet bureaucracy.  Despite her best attempts, she never knows if she actually meets her city’s building code.

While the book’s characters make it worth reading, two shortcomings hold it back from the pantheon of outstanding travel writing.  Perhaps an obvious weakness, Greene tries too hard to paint the scene he’s used to recording with his microphone.  Early in the narrative, he complains about having to interview a subject in a bland office environment:

I wanted to meet the official in a place with rich sound.  (Yes, the stereotype is true.  We in public radio do yearn for the sounds of street musicians, chirping birds, or church bells to spice up a scene.)

Unfortunately, his attempts to spice up his writing fall flat.  Greene recounts a scene where he and some new acquaintances come together for a toast.  From the dialogue we hear them say, “Cheers,” but he then elaborates that the glasses clinked.  The book contains several passages where Greene would be better served to let his prose and dialogue tell the story instead of trying to add church bells.

Additionally, Greene is sadly zero-minded in his desire to answer the question, “Why Russia’s citizens aren’t demanding something better.”  It is an interesting question no doubt, but Greene feels compelled to ask the question of nearly everyone he meets.  Greene’s inability to understand how Russians accept their government remains a tension throughout the book.

Despite these drawbacks, the book is worth reading for its delicate sketches of Russians living far from Moscow.  Other travel books better capture the natural environment and the train itself, but few accounts provide a better depiction of what it’s like to live in contemporary Russia.

Machu Picchu

Seeking out adventure at Machu Picchu is a terrible idea.   The most visited tourist attraction in all of South America is hardly the place for thrills and uniqueness.  But there I was, standing atop a two thousand foot cliff, staring down at an eight-hundred year old city with no one but my best friend in the world standing next to me, panting with exhaustion.  Adventure, indeed. 

934607_633962437760_1477375562_n    The ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu sits on the arm of a mountain fifteen hundred feet above the Urubamba River in southeast Peru.  The nearby Incan capitol of Cusco is the gateway to the empirical outpost, from which tourists must either ride the train or walk the Inca trail.  No modern roads lead to Machu Picchu. 

Most tourists opt for the train since permits for the Inca Trail must be reserved months in advance.  The train deposits visitors at the tiny village of Aguas Calientes, a collection of restaurants and hotels that serve tourists passing through on their way to and from Machu Picchu.  From here, visitors must either take a shuttle bus up dozens of gravel switchbacks to the top of the mountain, or climb the nearby trail. 

Each day, 3,500 people enter the city, so the prospects for solitude and adventure are nonexistent.  Resigned to this conclusion, I departed for Macchu Picchu not expecting anything but an enjoyable trip to one of the most photographed destinations in the world.  My friend Jamie had flown in from Washington D.C. to visit Peru with me, so we would at least get to spend some quality time together.

 A foggy mist greeted us as we stepped on to the single track platform in Aguas Calientes on a mid-July afternoon.  Having survived a cattle car of a van ride from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, and then the 2 hour train ride, we were ready to exercise our legs.  Our reservations for Machu Picchu were for dawn the following morning, so after we found a hotel, we walked around town trying to find something to do.



The strict, elderly woman at the tourist information office glared at us and explicitly denied Aguas Calientes had any hiking trails, but she gave us a map of the town anyway.  I noticed a little line extending away from the town market next to the train tracks.  With several hours to kill, Jamie and I, both professional researchers, decided to investigate the accuracy of the map.  On the edge of town, we spotted the trail.  A chain link fence limited entrants, but a gate was open with a sign in Spanish reading something like: “Trail closed for construction.” 

 Able to turn around at any time, we started along the trail as it slowly undulated up the side of the mountain, climbing carefully constructed steps made of solid logs underneath a dense canopy.  After about an hour of easy walking, we came to another chain link fence, this time 12 feet tall.  Again the door was open, and again the sign said trail closed for construction.  But rising above that gate was a ladder attached to a 90 degree rock cliff stretching into the clouds. 


 Jamie is afraid of heights and the sun was getting low in the sky, so at this point we considered turning around.   But just as we were ready to depart, a kind-hearted Spanish girl descended out of the clouds working her way down the ladder.  She encouraged us to continue, so we took a deep breath and began climbing.  And climbing. And climbing.  That first ladder, built of logs for the vertical supports and two by fours for cross supports, consisted of 90 mind rattling steps. 

 Over the next two and a half hours, we continued to follow the trail to an unknown destination.  I had a hunch were headed for a viewpoint, but I didn’t want to spoil the destination by giving voice to that thought.  We passed a few groups of people and asked, “Is it worth it?” or “Is it much farther.”  We climbed another 150 steps on several ladders, none as scary as the first one. 

 With clouds above and humidity abundant in the mountaintop rainforest, Jamie and I broke through the last of the trees, entering a cleared out summit on top of Mount Putukusi.  The phrase “took my breath away” is almost always used hyperbolically.  Standing atop a cliff-side clearing, with Machu Picchu arrayed on the mountain before me, I was gasping for air and words.  Jamie and I didn’t speak for several minutes.


 The viewpoint we had stumbled on to is known to locals simply as “the viewpoint.”  The clearing is about 600 feet above and a mile from Machu Picchu across the Urubamba’s vast canyon.  Though I had sorted through thousands of pictures of Machu Picchu, I had never experienced this landscape view, with the river curled around the city’s base and mountain ridges radiating out behind it. 

 I became a different person that day.  Having been on the road for four months, I had nearly lost my ability to be surprised.  I had endured awful bus rides and summited beautiful mountains.  I had thought Machu Picchu would be a relaxing vacation, not provide an adventure.


 Jamie and I slowly descended from our moment of ecstasy.  The climb back was even more daunting, with the sun setting and no exciting destination awaiting us at the end.  We made it back to town as darkness set in. 


The next 24 hours played out in a daze.  We hiked up to Machu Picchu in darkness, entering the citadel as the sun rose over the nearby mountains.  We visited the Sun Gate and the famous temples following in millions of footsteps, both ancient and modern.  We were happy to visit Machu Picchu, a must-see for most people.  But the excitement and satisfaction of stumbling on to a private view of one of the world’s true wonders may just be the most stimulating moment in my life. 

Acquired Skills

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“I need a pilot program for a B 212 Helicopter.” Trinity yells into her phone as we stare at a giant military transport atop a Manhattan skyscraper in the first Matrix movie.  Ten seconds later, we are whisked away as Trinity expertly pilots the ship above the city.  Similarly, I dialed up my iPhone to figure out how to rent a “motobike” in Trinidad, Bolivia.  Though Trinity learned a year’s long process in a matter of seconds, I only learned the word for “to rent,” but the result was the same.  I hopped on the moped and rode off into the Amazonian swamp that is eastern Bolivia.

I had come to Trinidad to catch a boat up the Rio Mamore, hoping for five lazy days of jungle scenery before arriving at the Brazilian frontier.  Though I failed in that goal, I succeeded in adapting to the ways of the locals, without computer inputs.

Shortly after speeding away from the leafy town square on my newly acquired wheels, I realized I didn’t know how to start the thing once I turned it off.  The older, to overstate his position, rental agent, had showed me how to steer and change gears, but he neglected to show me out to get from off to on.  Despite this misstep, I fought the throngs of fellow riders and rode past the town’s fruit market on my way out of the city.

My first stop for the day was the riverside town of Puerto Almacen, home to dozens of fish shacks on stilts and my presumptive boat to Brazil.  As ordered by Lonely Planet and my host mother in Santa Cruz, I went straight to El Capitania, some sort of naval base for the riverboats, but that stop was useless.  The man sitting out front said I had to find a captain willing to accommodate me.  The muddy track leading to the rio looked like it would swallow a moped, so I left the bike behind.  Before walking off, I looked back apprehensively wondering just exactly how I was going to get it started again.

A collection of ten barges sat tied up along the opaque river, which was about 100 yards wide and flowing fast but level.  Over the top perched a long bridge, the only one for miles in either direction.  Most of the boats were empty, but three barges, mostly just platforms of plywood, sat at the bottom of custom rigged ramps receiving newly filled propane tanks.  Obviously leery of lounging alongside propane – Bolivian filled propane, I nonetheless trudged ahead, asking away in my broken Spanish, if I could accompany the propane to Guayaramerin.  The captain seemed amenable, but the propane wouldn’t be ready for at least four days.

Next, I found some American engineered coca cola, covering 5 barges and employing several crewmen. The captain wasn’t around, but the young men who lived on the barges said I should come back at 2:00.  The last boat in the port belonged to the Bolivian navy.  One young man, who had worked as a Mormon missionary in Illinois, told me that yes I could go along and that the boat might be leaving as early as the next day.  Ecstatic, I decided to drive around as I waited for Captain Coke to return.

After a brief lunch of some sort of fried fish, ten feet above river plane, I trudged back to the moped.  I pushed the button on the right handlebar, but it didn’t start.  I pushed every other button on the handlebars, resulting in a blinking, honking, nonstarting moped.   I looked down between my legs, and conveniently, Honda had spelled out in English how to start the bike.  After opening the choke valve, I had to kickstart the bike to life.  I had no idea where the choke was, but luckily the bike caught after jumping on the starter three times.

To fill the afternoon lull, I rode past the airport north of Trinidad, which is mostly just a collection of dirt streets and small stores, in search of a wildlife sanctuary that Lonely Planet convinced me existed.  Feeling good about the moped, I opened it up until the engine sounded spent.  Of course the gas and speed gauges had long since stopped working, so I had to drive by feel hoping I wouldn’t run out of fuel.  Supposedly the wildlife sanctuary lay 14 kilometers past cornfields and cattle yards, so I was lost in my thoughts, when an abandoned Boeing 727 leapt into view, sitting in a field no more than 100 yards from the road.

Lacking Trinity’s summoned expertise, the shock of the plane’s appearance and the one coming in for a landing above, startled me out of my daze.  I grabbed the handbrake, but I also accidentally twisted the throttle, so the bike lurched ahead.  With all the leverage on the right handlebar, the bike twisted to the left.  Just before the bike ended up on its side on the highway, I stomped on the footbrake with my right foot and braced the ground with my left.  I let go of the handle and prevented another wreck from accompanying the fuselage.

But there was a Boeing 727 sitting in a field in Bolivia.  I felt like I really was in the Matrix now.  I hopped off the bike to take some pictures of the plane, and found a path leading straight to the jet.  This time I wasn’t worried about restarting the bike.

After dodging various puddles and scanning for snakes, I hopped on the plane’s wing and peered into the abandoned transport.  The interior had been stripped of every usable part, containing only a wooden floor and holes for windows.  I hopped inside, wondering if a serpent was waiting for me in the bathroom.  When I looked out the far side of the plane, I saw nothing but Bolivian farmland just like Neo saw nothing but a sea of human bodies, wondering just what exactly was going on.

Leaving the plane, I got back to the motobike just as an aging soldier, dressed in full camouflage and wielding a machete, pulled up on a bike.  His motorcycle arrived in a hurry, and he hit the brakes just as the plane appeared in his sights.  Luckily, I was mid kickstart, so I simply nodded hello as he stopped and I pulled away.

Later I found out, in 2011 a flight was coming in for a landing at the Trinidad airport and lost power a few miles before it reached the runway.  Everyone on board, 155 people including a Bolivian senator, had survived.  But the plane had been left to rot, or perhaps become a tourist attraction.  I wonder how the arriving passengers above felt about approaching over a crash site.

Eventually, I returned to the docks and found out none of the boats would be leaving any time soon.  So I booked a bus headed for another jungle town, from where I could take a tour of the amazon.  With all my errands accomplished, I relinquished the keys to my bike.  As I walked down the dirt streets back to my hostel, I looked longingly at the dozens of motobikes in the streets, but I knew I was headed back to the real world, where my newly acquired motorcycle knowledge wouldn’t count for much.

Choose Your Own Adventure

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Lazy but craving adventure, I opted for the 1000 feet long railway bridge that was missing half its planks.

Charles Darwin was not impressed with his trek to the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere.  “The scenery thus far was very uninteresting,” he wrote of the behemoth’s outlet valley.  He was so unimpressed, that he didn’t bother to mention Mount Aconcagua in the Voyage of the Beagle, leaving his description for an appendix.

Given the “scene of desolation” as Darwin called it, was there really much to experience in the Uspallata Pass that connects Santiago, Chile, and Mendoza, Argentina?  More than anything else, the two days I spent exploring the area taught me that, sometimes you have to create your own adventure.

Not being a mountaineer, I was wondering just exactly why I should visit Aconcagua.  Eventually, my nostalgia for Mount Denali propelled me to its base.  Having spent a week in Alaska for a friend’s wedding, I extended my trip by four days to hike in the mountain’s namesake park.  The experience of creeping around a mountain pass on a gravel road in a rickety old bus, and suddenly finding America’s largest mountain radiating in sunlight, stunned me.  I was hoping to recreate that experience in South America, but I soon learned it would be impossible.

The Uspallata Pass is one of the busiest routes between Chile and Argentina, connecting the Pacific nation’s capital with Argentina’s wine center.  A two lane road rises out of the Mendoza desert, ascending canyon walls for 215 kilometers to the 12,500 feet Chilean border.  The route contains some of the most popular attractions in the country including  Argentina’s biggest ski resort, the Mountain of Seven Colors, a natural bridge, and the aforementioned Mt. Aconcagua.

The Mountain of Seven Colors lies a barren 10 miles to the east of the town of Usapallata along a hint of a dirt road.  To make viewing it an adventure, I decided to bike the route and climb on top.  And to attain the necessary level of risk, I had allowed my travel insurance to expire the day before.  Though the ride was just ten miles, the terrain required an ascent of 2000 dusty feet.  After ten or fifteen dirt bikes and dune buggies cruised around me, I finally made it to the mountain’s tiny parking lot.  Though its characterization as a “mountain” proved misleading, the setting sun behind me lit up the rock formation’s glittery layers of greens and reds.  And the perfectly level top, without easy access, attracted my climbing legs.

Locking the bike, I ran up the gravel slopes, looking for a place to climb on top.  At 10,000 feet, I was promptly exhausted.  Eventually I found a place where, if I left my backpack behind, I could scramble atop the alien landing site.  The views to the Chilean border, with Aconcagua showing its snowy tip behind a short range of closer peaks, rewarded my self-inflicted adventure.

The next day I hopped on a bus to view the ancient bridge and climbing mecca.  By this time, I knew Aconcagua wouldn’t deliver like Denali, but I was still hopeful.  The reason Denali lights up the senses is that it’s the only mountain in sight.  The peak’s giant base stretches for miles.  Standing at 3,000 feet, looking up at a 20,000 feet mountain, you contemplate existence.

In contrast, to reach Aconcagua, the road itself passes by at 8,000 feet, and the giant’s surrounding mountains nearly reach its shoulders.  Instead of four hours on a narrow gravel road, an hour long stroll through the nearly deserted valley delivers you at its feet.  By the time I had reached the park’s limit, I had barely broken a sweat.  To turn this leisurely outing into an adventure, I ran ahead of the other bus tourists and climbed the 45 degree canyon wall of loose shale to find a perch suitable for consuming my lunch.  Hanging 50 feet above the valley, with the mountain to myself, my peanut butter sandwich almost made me reminiscent of Alaska.

But the adventurer in me was hardly satiated.  Five kilometers downhill from Aconcagua sat Puente del Inca, my last potential adventure.  Though it sounds exciting, it becomes less so after learning the British built a VIP bathhouse nearby and paved over the bridge with asphalt.  Darwin was disappointed too, writing, “The Bridge of the Incas is by no means worthy of the great monarchs whose name it bears.”

With several hours to spare, and not much adventure too look forward to, I hiked down the narrow valley between the mountain and the monarchs.  Just before the landmark came into view, I was left with three choices to cross the same stream over which nature had already laid itself.  The international roadway crossed a modern bridge and carried a sidewalk.  Next to it lay a decades old railroad bridge with a leaky pipe running across it.  And hundreds of feet below, lay the ancient roadway that Darwin himself probably used to cross the stream.  Lazy but craving adventure, I opted for the 1000 feet long railway bridge that was missing half its planks.

Luckily, some industrious resident of Puente del Inca had installed a handrail across the bridge, making it easier to repair the pipe.  For the first two thirds of the bridge, which was about fifteen feet wide and sturdy against the wind, someone had laid wooden 2 x 12s atop the underlying trestle.  Holding on to the railing, I slowly tiptoed across the boards which, though new, remained unfastened.  Halfway through my tightrope, I looked back as apprehension started to build in my chest.  After another 100 feet, I remembered once again that my travel insurance had expired.  Then another 100 feet, “Isn’t it Mother’s Day?”  Finally, with the last section in site, I came to a gap in the bridge.  My reliable wooden platform had run out, and I was reduced to crawling across the steel rails and their supports with three feet of air between each one, stretched above the stream hundreds of feet below.

Though terrified, I smiled to myself, realizing I had finally found an adventure befitting the tallest peak in the Americas.  Stunned for a few seconds, I took a deep breath, and slowly stepped across the last open air between me and my destination.  Once I returned to the wooden supports , I ran off the bridge gasping for air.

Though interested in the natural bridge, I found myself agreeing with Darwin, let down by the monument.  After analyzing it from every angle, I found a comfortable café in which to spend my final hour before my bus arrived.

Standing in the windy parking lot, with the sun setting and the cold settling in, I was looking forward to heading down the mountain to my warm hostel and an Argentine steak.  Darwin, too, knew this is what really made travelers satisfied after seeing the valley:

“The extreme pleasure, I suspect, is chiefly owing to the prospect of a good fire and of a good supper, after escaping from the cold regions above: and I am sure I most heartily participated in these feelings.”  On nearly every aspect of this region, Darwin and I agreed.


In Vicuña, Chile, I woke up in a hostel run by a grandmotherly German woman named Rita and her poodle, Blancita.  Part of the enormous German breakfast she offered included fresh avocados which have never agreed with my stomach.


 After putzing around the town for a couple hours, I finally got the bus to Pisco Elqui, from where I started running through a desert river oasis.  The small desert town of Pisco marks the beginning of a long desert canyon where barren mountains descend to meet a tricking stream, the remains of Andes snowmelt.  Ten kilometers farther up the valley, an artist’s market beckoned me.  Starting out from Pisco, I had an iPhone on my arm and a large bottle of water uncomfortably passing between my hands.  The white long sleeve t-shirt beneath my red shirt, eventually became a sun blocking burka.

Pisco Valley

 After an hour of running, the market came into view.  Coming up the last hill, a voice from beneath a giant poplar tree yelled, “where are you from?”  A man, who was about three feet tall in a yellow cava shirt, repeated the question louder so I could hear him.

I turned off This American Life, and “took a shadow” as the man, who had maybe two or three teeth left, instructed.  He had lived in New Jersey for eight years but now lived in the Elqui Valley, I presume to cash in on the area’s legendary “energy.”

Enjoying the conversation, we were interrupted by a tall, long-haired drunk man.  In highly accented Chilean Spanish, he joked about my running stride and admonished me to adjust my gait.  He demonstrated how to make the change, reenacting a movement reminiscent of Roal Dahl’s BFG.


Nonplussed, I excused myself and jogged down to the market.  In search of the banos, I found their demure outpost.  Saved from paying the 200 pesos by an inattentive attendant, I perused the toilet.  Running water but no paper.

The leaves from the shady trees behind the bathroom appeared innocuous.  I tore a couple off and rubbed then on my arm, testing their proclivity for inflicting discomfort.  None resulted, so I returned to the bathroom to do my business.

Subsequently, the 6 mile run back to Pisco was perfectly pleasant.


Running the Rio Colorado

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Five feet into a fifteen foot vertical climb, I looked down past my quivering feet and contemplated why exactly I was trying to climb over the top of this nearly vertical ridge.  Clouding my thoughts, the late winter sun had long since vanished over the desert canyon wall leaving me wondering just exactly how long I had before darkness set in.  Amidst this stressful calculus, I remembered how just two hours before, I had been sitting on a cafe patio, enjoying a coke with two newly befriended Argentines.  Starting to lose my drive, the challenge laid out for me by the director I had passed on the trail rang out in my head, “You’re definitely not making it out of here before dark, there’s no question about that.”

In need of fresh air, one recent Saturday morning I jumped on a bus headed for Cafayate, Argentina, journeying four hours through a beautiful desert canyon to a mountain oasis of 10,000 people.  From the moment I woke up, things went my way.  Fighting through a pre-dawn fog on my long walk to the bus station, a car pulled alongside me, and a man in his 60s offered a ride to the terminal.  Abandoning the number one rule parents lay out for their children, I hopped in the car.  Carlos was on his way to church from his pasta factory, and decided to give me a ride.

ONE of my most prolific traits is that I put up a barrier that prevents most people from entering my world.  While its pretty strong when I’m in a comfortable setting, its thickness doubles when I travel.  As a result, I have a hard time letting down my guard enough to meet locals and enjoy a culture.  After having dinner with a fellow traveler, who had befriended folklore musicians and tango dancers, I knew this had to change.  That Saturday, apparently, was the day to open up, and also the day to make me learn Spanish.

Stepping off the bus into the deserted streets of Cafayate, I started trudging towards the town plaza in search of a place to stay.  Alejandro and Claudio spotted my indecision, and sent me in the right direction.  I heeded their advice, dropped my stuff at a hippy hostel, and I was back having a drink with them in 30 minutes.  Tranquilo was the word of the day, describing perfectly the pace of life of this small town of unpaved roads, unlocked bikes, and unassuming residents.  Tranquilo also described Claudio’s approach to life, who I came to understand, didn’t do anything quickly.  Learning I was from the U.S., Claudio, with long dark hair and few teeth, reminisced about an old girlfriend, Cassandra, who now lives in Oregon.  Alejandro, who looked like a linemen, told me he thinks the local army officers that patrol the streets look like smurfs in their blue uniforms.  After finishing Alejandro’s sandwich and Claudio’s coke, I excused myself to figure out how to hike to the Colorado River.

Thirty minutes later, I had changed into running clothes and was walking down the gravel roads in search of a canyon.  Lonely Planet had made the canyon sound, tranquilo, only mentioning a swimming hole, so I limited my supplies to running shoes, a phone, and a jug of water, figuring it’d be like a long run.

After an hour of walking, I reached the entrance to the canyon at about 4:20.  Instead of a remote outpost, the canyon climbed up from a small indigenous settlement guarded by one of its residents.  Asking where I was headed, the man looked at his watch, and shook his head.  He was not amused when I suggested I could run up the canyon.  Dispensing with subsequent conversation, he ordered me on: Go!

Well aware of the receding sun, I scampered over the riverbed’s boulders as fast as I could, trying to hold on to my jug of water as I crossed the stream again and again.  By 5:00, I still had not glimpsed the destination waterfall, and I was starting to worry about the sun.  Two men came down the trail towards me, and I fortuitously stopped to ask them how long it was to the waterfall.

The director, I call him that because he said he was in town to work on a movie, and I thought he looked like the director, spoke fluent English and described the hike to me. I had to hike up and over a ridge and then descend to a viewing point of a small waterfall.  From there I had to hike behind me around the ridge to the higher cascade.  I didn’t understand it either, but I decided to go ahead anyway.  Also fearing the setting sun, the director cut three patches of glow-in-the-dark tape from a long roll he carried.  He told me to mark my path with the tape so I wouldn’t get lost. And that’s when he put down the challenge to which I course had to respond.

After departing the film stars, I came upon a ridge with a vague trail leading up over it.  Taking it for the one described, I started climbing the vertical face.   This was the cliff, where five feet into it, I reached a point where I needed both hands and could no longer carry my water bottle.  At that point, I set down Dan’s rule number four of outdoor adventures.  If I had to climb a wall up which I could not carry a water bottle, I probably shouldn’t climb the wall at all.  I retraced my steps, found another way around the ridge, and continued up the canyon.

At 5:20, the setting sun, rising wind, and depleted water finally clued me into the situation.  I decided that at 5:30, waterfall or no, I had to turn around.  Abandoning the rule I had set earlier on the hike, I had to throw my water bottle ahead of me at one point, so I could get scramble down a rock face.  At 5:28, I reached a small ridge in the middle of canyon.  Resigned to climbing it for my last view, I got to the top and a waterfall stared me down!  Elated I ran up to a viewing point, waited for two or three seconds, and turned around to begin what I believed would be my hike down.

Instead, I had found the path to the other waterfall which is set under a ridge and only accessible from the upstream direction.  The director’s directions couldn’t have been better.  But now it was 5:45, the hike to this point had taken me over 2 hours and the sun would set soon after 7.  Taking pictures as fast as I could, I hiked back up the ridge and down the canyon, agape at the surrounding views.  The director called it National Geographic in real life.

As I reached the mountain settlement, a herd of goats shrieked to me in greeting.   Despite the director’s promise, I made it out of the park with just a few minutes of daylight to spare and began the long walk back to my hostel, covered in scratches from unforgiving cacti, darkness settling in around me.


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“No, you can’t take your bike on the bus.”  I wish I had heard such an utterance only once or maybe just twice in the last three months, but the frequency with which this crushing blow settled on my ears, constantly left me reeling.

In 2012, as I planned my bike ride through South America, the one limiting factor I didn’t even consider was the inability to bring my bike on long distance buses.  In the US, my limited experience with bus travel stems from the many revenue hungry companies that ply the northeastern seaboard with cavernous cargo compartments and agreeable drivers.  But that limited experience proved misleading for South America.

Now that, according to the Chilean Post Office, my bike is at the “SHIPPING DESTINATION ARRIVED TO PLANT” at the Santiago airport on its way to my brother in Tacoma, I can look back and evaluate my decision to bring the bike with me on the trip.

Biking Across a Continent

Thousands of bikers every year cycle across the United States.  Usually it takes between two and three months, and bikers tackle the route in the warm summer season.  Such a trip sounds predictable and enjoyable.  Instead, what I envisioned for South America would be like trying to bike to every single major tourist attraction in the United States, from the Californian coast to the Maine wilderness via Miami and Montana.  Such a trip would take months or even years, and would lose its focus along the way.  Alas, that is what happened to me in South America.

Upon arriving in Buenos Aires, I envisioned busing along the East Coast of Argentina, through Patagonia, and up to the Argentine Lakes District.  From there, I hoped to combine busing and biking, making my way north across Argentina and into the Altiplano of Chile and Bolivia.  However, I discovered a number of things along the way, which in the end, resulted in parting with my bike.

The moment I decided to mail my bike home, I was having one of the best bike adventures of my trip.  Leaving Cordoba, Argentina, I had set out on a four day tour of the mountains and Jesuit estancias surrounding Argentina’s second biggest city.  The ride could not have gone better.  After the first day finished smoothly, with blue skies an intermittent traffic accompanying me, I set off on the second day unencumbered by doubt.

Lost on my way out of the small town, two local mountain bikers stopped to give me directions.  I rode along with one for ten minutes before he rode ahead to catch up with his friends.  After an hour of cycling, I caught up to his son who was clearly struggling in the early morning hours.  After ten miles, we reached a junction where Dad threw his sun under the bus: “Too much beer last night!”

After the delightful introduction to my day, I began climbing 1000 vertical feet to a panoramic view of an enormous lake resting beneath 6000 feet mountains.   For the next hour I coasted along the lakeshore, alternating between agonizing ascents and rambling declines.  After two hours of riding, I left the lake, and followed a level, country road, with barely any traffic to interrupt the pastoral ideal.

And even in this wonderful setting, where the trips, both the macro and micro, were playing out as planned, I realized I didn’t want to bike around South America.  Here I was, ten miles and an hour from a small town in rural Argentina.  Sure, the hostel was nice, and the nearby hiking was fun, but I was thousands of miles from Machu Picchu and months away from Ecuador.  With all of the amazing sites ahead of me, why was I biking through this average scenery?

And that’s when I decided I no longer wanted to bike around South America.  For the most part, I simply wanted to see more interesting things faster.  But the annoyances of trying to carry a bike with me didn’t help either.  An American cyclist I met, who biked 8,000 kilometers in South America, said it best: “I love biking, but when you’re NOT on the bike and trying to get it around with you it’s a major PITA.”  To list just a few of those pains:

  • Every bus company charged me to take the bike along with me.  I’ve been on 30 buses in South America, and I’ve carried my bike on 10 of those.
  • For every bus ride, I had to completely dissemble my bike and pack it in a box.
  • For every hostel, I had to find somewhere to store my bike.
  • When packing my bike, I had to track down a bike shop to give me a bike box.
  • Every time I arrived in a new city, I had to reassemble my bike in the bus station while guarding everything I owned.

In the end, I’m happy my bike is on its way to Washington.  But I’m also happy I brought it with me.  Having a bike allowed me to complete some of the best parts of my trip.  Cycling through the infamous Seven Lakes in Argentina was one of the most beautiful trips I have ever done.  Biking in the Argentine highlands near Mendoza, with America’s largest peak staring out of me, is something I’ll never forget.

I’m excited to do another bike tour.  Whenever I do make it back the US, I plan to bike from Seattle to the Yukon.  But now I know to focus my path, and enjoy the ride for the ride’s sake.  That way, I’ll never have to take the bike on another bus, and risk hearing those awful words again.

El Gran Gatsby

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. Fitzgerald’s famous last line reverberated around my head after it rolled off Nick Carraway’s typewriter in his affluent sanitarium apartment. I stood up and left the theatre in a daze, contemplating the two hour glitzy rendition of The Great Gatsby that had been shoved at me through 3D glasses.

As I walked along the lonely streets of Cordoba into the Argentine night, the city itself seemed to be digesting the movie along with me. Buses stopped for passengers, taxis prowled for a richer set. No voices rose above the noise, just as Baz Luhrmann’s New York brought his epic to a close. I walked contemplatively back to my hostel, probably feeling the exact ambivalence Fitzgerald hoped he would generate. In realizing Fitzgerald’s purpose, Baz succeeded in bringing the novel to the screen.

The new version of The Great Gatsby has drawn derisive views from critics upset by Luhrmann’s, wait for it, brusqueness. The movie is obviously excessive, but the manner in which the movie delights in its use of CGI and 3D makes watching it a great pleasure.
Dana Stevens at Slate said watching Gatsby “makes for a grandiose, colorful, pleasure-drenched night at the movies.” And for the first twenty minutes, the movie is nothing but a pure joy-inducing cinematic experience like none I’ve ever experienced. As a fan of the book and of Luhrmann, I was hesitatingly optimistic that he would do justice to Fitzgerald’s work. As the book’s memorable beginning opened before me, I couldn’t have been happier.

Luhrman slowly opens the curtain to unveil his 1920s New York. Each of Fitzgerald’s iconic characters is given a Broadway entrance, i.e. enough time to get to know the audience. From Tobey Maguire’s first narrated line to Tom Buchanan’s racist platitude, Luhrman’s cast joyously brings the reader’s literary projections to life. He successfully builds a crescendo to the greatest introduction of all, when Gatsby explodes into the movie, literally stepping on to his magnificent veranda as fireworks light up the sound behind him. Everything is as it should be. To the critics too serious to enjoy the moment, I ask, “Are you not entertained?”

During the accompanying party, the jazz age glitz is at its finest with hybrid classical/contemporary dancing, Jay-Z lyrics, and limitless confetti dropping into the pool. From the moment the curtain drops, the viewer is on a sensory high like a mountain climber catching his first sight of Everest. With the camera zooming across the bay and darting along upstate country roads following Gatsby’s perilous driving, the beginning is an extended delight. Luhrmann, aware that his outsized effects are inserting themselves into the viewer’s consciousness, comes close to addressing it directly.
As Gatsby and Carraway anxiously await Daisy’s arrival for tea, the superfluous flowers in Nick’s living room light up our 3D glasses. Putting aside his nervousness for one second, Gatsby, but really Luhrmann, asks, “Are the flowers too much?”

And that heightened sense of alertness satisfactorily continues until we, like Nick Carraway, are ripped from our chemical high in a New York hotel room. When Tom Buchanan hits his low-class mistress after an alcoholic orgy, the modern effects drop away like a band silenced by a punch at a bar. Luhrmann lets us go from the CGI neverworld, and the movie becomes a standard character drama, where the effects are secondary to Fitzgerald’s prose and Luhrmann’s cast, who demonstrate why they were chosen to enliven such memorable roles.

DiCaprio is phenomenal as Gatsby, successfully playing the role of a high rolling party goer, just as Gatsby the character does. But he’s at his finest trying to woo Daisy, showing his unfettered emotional depth. Watching the courtship play out on screen, though, makes you wonder just what power Zelda had over Scott. Despite DiCaprio’s excellent performance, could a long lost love be that powerful? Perhaps the great American love story is more believable in prose than in pictures.

The movie played out on screen just as I delightedly remembered, with unnecessary details stripped away but the book’s memorable lines honored. Slowly, I grew more ambivalent about the movie. As in the book, the treachery, disgust, and sadness surrounding our leading men and women, leave us perplexed and chastened. Given the weighty emotional drama, Luhrmann rightly turns to Fitzgerald’s prose in the later scenes, letting him explain it on his own.
When Gatsby and Daisy left for Long Island, I wanted to tell them to stay, don’t let the movie end just yet. And don’t let that tragic ending arrive, just yet. But as Fitzgerald so eloquently satirizes, we can’t let ourselves be dragged into the past.

Fitzgerald’s words hit home to me, halfway through my South American adventure. When I look back at the early days of the trip, I’m already distorting my memories and overstating the pleasures of things gone by. Gatsby’s desperate attempts to relive the past, however, make me realize that ahead of me lies the fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.