On the cocaine highway

After our quetzal victory Saturday morning, Alfredo drove us for five hours south and then east to Rio Dulce. Rio Dulce doesn’t rank among Guatemala’s A List of touristic attractions, but given the extra time we gained from skipping Belize, it seemed worth a visit. It’s the starting point for a river trip that guidebooks gush over. As things turned out, we also loved our two-night Rio Dulce stop-over.

We didn’t stay in the sweltering town but rather in a lodge-cum-marina on the river. This whole area is reportedly a magnet for nomadic gringo boaters. People say during hurricane season it offers the safest berths on the western Caribbean. At the Tortugal Boutique River Lodge, the sterns of the sailboats and cruisers lined up along the docks bore place names like Oakland and Alameda, California and Houston, Texas.They looked like nice yachts, but I was happier ensconced in La Casita Elegante.Located at the farthest reach of the property, it was more rustico than elegante, but I loved the wild jungle surrounding the back of it. In the other direction, we enjoyed views of the river. And the dining room came equipped with two friendly young Guatemalan dogs.

For the river trip, my guidebook had reassured me that tour agencies as well as local sailors offered routine passage both downstream and up. Unfortunately, the pandemic has all but decimated tourism, and it wasn’t clear even the single public ferry of the day would be running from Rio Dulce that Sunday. So we opted for the alternative: hiring a private launch and pilot to take us down the river to the town of Livingston.

If pricy ($170), this was a luxury that felt like it was worth every penny. Baltazar, our pilot, was competent and informative, and we had his services for the whole day. He pointed out the egrets and cormorants perched in the dense trees on Bird Island. We cruised through an area filled with water lilies that he said bloomed year-round.A bit further downstream, we stopped at a bankside establishment that was part restaurant, part tourist attraction. Steve and I each paid 15 quetzals (about $2) to the 67-year-old proprietor, Felix,and he guided us up and down a plunging path to a creepy cave and natural sauna warmed by hot springs.

We saw this plump fellow in the cave, along with a ton of bats. I tried to photograph them, but failed.

I tested the water temperature in this bathing area (quite warm but not scalding). But I passed on a full-on soaking.

Downstream from Felix’s place, the river runs through towering limestone cliffs covered with some of the densest, greenest vegetation imaginable. The guidebook says a Tarzan movie was filmed here, and it’s easy to see why. A little later, about two hours after leaving Rio Dulce, we motored into the harbor at Livingston.

Everyone and everything that arrives in Livingston comes in by boat. No roads connect it to the rest of Guatemala. Adding to that exoticism is the fact it’s the home of the Garifuna, descendants of Afro-Caribbean people who moved to this coastline centuries ago. Because of their presence, Lonely Planet proclaims, “nowhere else in Guatemala will you find such a friendly, fun, and relaxed vibe.” People had also told us we couldn’t miss eating the Garifuna dish known as tapado, a mix of seafood stewed in spicy coconut milk that’s an emblem of Caribbean cooking.

We did see a dozen or so black folks hanging out around the pier. But walking up the seedy central thoroughfare, we detected few signs of the ethnic minority. The street ended at the beach, all but deserted shortly before noon on this particular Sunday morning. Because the breeze off the water tempered the sweltering heat, we decided to stroll along a scruffy waterfront pathway for a bit before searching for the restaurant recommended by our Rio Dulce hotel manager.

That’s how we met Philip Flores. He and another black guy were lounging on the concrete stoop of a derelict bungalow, and as we approached, Philip called out the universal street-hustler’s greeting: “Where’re you from?”

“California,” Steve answered amiably. “Where in California?” Philip pressed.

His next question was less orthodox. “What’s that mountain there [in San Diego] where you can see in all directions? I went up to the top when I played there as a musician.” We determined it was probably Mt Soledad, which somehow led to him reminiscing about fishing for tilapia at the Salton Sea. In another moment, he was telling us how rock legend Jerry Garcia had spent time in Garifuna and wound up inviting Philip, an accomplished guitarist, to return to the US with him and tour.

Philip claims that Jerry Garcia painted the colorful image on the wall.

Despite studying (at some point) at the University of Illinois’s campus in Chicago, Philip had returned to Livingston. Today he says he’s a well-recognized community leader. If this all sounds far-fetched, something made Steve and me trust him. His explanation of the sad plight of the Garifuna today had the ring of both truth and passionate indignation. He explained that during the 1980s, Mayans (as he called them) fleeing Guatemala’s civil war had moved into the town where the Garifuna had lived peacefully, in isolation, for so long. The Mayans had commandeered all the prime commercial real estate and forced the Garifuna into a ghetto on the shore. It was all but apartheid, according to Philip. And with local fish stocks decimated and little land for subsistence farming, the Garifuna were barely surviving, supported in large part by money sent back from relatives in the US.

When Philip offered to lead us on a little walk through the Garifuna enclave, we jumped at the opportunity. Steve and I have spent so much time in poor African villages in the last ten years, the Garifuna district almost felt like home. It was wretchedly poor. Most of the folks we passed looked tired.

We eventually wound up at a restaurant recommended by Philip, where we did gobble down delicious bowls of tapado.

Here’s Maria, owner of Restaurante Gamboa Place, and its chief cook.

Philip didn’t join us. He said he had to get to a gathering where he would be working with some of the local children. But before he left for that he sat with us and we talked a bit more. He mentioned offhand that the Rio Dulce is a huge highway for drugs. He implied that virtually all the cocaine grown in South America for eventual sale in America floats up it. The presence of the drug cartel lords and their enforcers adds to the edginess of his home town.

Steve and I left Livingstone shortly after lunch. On the ride back, we looked for signs of the drug runners, but all we saw were some waterside homes and marinas that looked suspiciously prosperous. They were like the fancy mansions we passed on our drive with Alfredo, conspicuous, almost arrogant, in their wealth.

We made one final stop. Just a few miles west of our lodge. In the opposite direction from Livingston, the Castillo de San Felipe commands a narrow point where the river meets the Lago de Izabel (Guatemala’s biggest lake). Baltazar told us the Spanish built this fort in the mid-1600s to fight the English pirates who roamed the Caribbean, plundering and marauding. It bristles with cannons that the locals employed to deter the bad guys of the day.

It made me reflect that the Garifuna people are probably worse off today than they were when the fort was new. On the other hand, life’s a lot better for the residents of Rio Dulce. Travel does provide constant reminders of the ups and downs of human fortunes.

In the cloud forest of the resplendent quetzal

I like beautiful birds as much as the next person, but I’m no serious birdwatcher. I would have said spotting any particular bird would never shape the itinerary of any of my trips. Still, I knew that resplendent quetzals, gorgeous and elusive birds laden with powerful symbolism, are an icon in this part of the world. When border politics forced us to cut Belize from our journey and gave us three extra days in Guatemala, we decided to try to (metaphorically) bag this mystical avian.

I’d read that there’s a quetzal bio-preserve a few of hours north of Guatemala City. Moreover, this time of year is when the birds are mating and having their babies, hence it’s an optimal time for spotting them.

On the other hand, the Biotopo del Quetzal is not the easiest place to reach. Our Lonely Planet guide to Central America suggested we might be able to get there on a public Monja Blanca bus from Guatemala City. But… were these buses running, post-Covid? And how exactly would we get to one from our hotel? I couldn’t find ready answers. When a travel blog and Facebook led me to a driver named Alfredo Garcia, I emailed him and he responded promptly. We hired him to pick us up at our Guatemala City hotel the morning after our arrival and take us directly to quetzal country.

Quetzals live in the cloud forests of Central America. Historians tell us that the ancient Mayans thought they were gods and executed anyone caught killing the birds. What particularly tempts humans to kill quetzals are the male birds’ gloriously long tails; their feathers can grow to be 30 inches long. Although quetzals reportedly can be found in high chilly regions ranging from the Yucatán to Panama, Guatemalans particularly revere them. They made quetzals their national bird; put them on their flag and named their money after them. Alfredo pointed out to us that quetzals die in captivity. “So to us they are the symbol of freedom,” he said.

Alfredo turned out to be my ideal driver: skillful, smart, savvy, sensitive, and an agile conversational partner. He had told me about Ranchitos del Quetzal, located immediately next to the quetzal reserve, which itself is located down a heavily forested country road. At these basic lodgings, Alfredo personally had had excellent luck spotting quetzals over the years. He picked us up at our hotel in the capital at 9, and we arrived at the Ranchitos a little over three hours later. It had started drizzling when we set out, and the strength of the rain had built throughout our ride. But on the bright side, one of the young managers showed us a photo of a gorgeous male quetzal he had taken with his phone just a few hours earlier.

Alfredo on the steps of Ranchitos del Quetzal

We ate a simple lunch — black beans, potato salad, a bit of salad. Then Steve and I donned pretty much all the outerwear we’d brought with us (not much), grabbed our umbrellas and hiking poles, and trudged the 100 meters down the road to the reserve.

As cloud forests go, this was a lovely one. Our altimeter app said we were at 5500 feet when we set out, and from there, the path was all uphill, over rocky but well-tended trails. Towering trees, ferns of all sizes, orchids, bromeliads, wild ginger and other plants crowded in at every twist of the path, while a cold fog swirled overhead. The trees protected us from the brunt of the rain, though droplets hitting leaves sounded like birds; they made me jump and crane my neck almost constantly, hoping to glimpse our quarry.

But we saw no quetzals and almost no other humans, except for one pack of young Guatemalan parents shepherding toddlers and toting a couple of babies, moving through the drenched, vertiginous wilderness as blithely as San Diego parents stroll through Balboa Park.

I began to brace myself for leaving the area bearing only a photo of the stuffed quetzal in the reserve’s tiny, unmanned visitor center. But back at the Ranchitos, the manager told us to be on the porch at 5:30 the next morning, “and you will see a quetzal.”

It sounded enough like a promise that we did what he said. Once again, it was drizzly under cold gray skies. Steve and Alfredo and the manager and I stood and watched. We noted squirrels gamboling high in some trees. We heard birds singing and eventually saw a beautiful quetzal relative called a drogon perched on a wire. We admired the big violet saber-winged hummingbirds whom we’d been seeing throughout our stay. We milled about and didn’t chat much.

After an hour or so I had sat down on a stool and was meditating when some movement caught my half-lidded gaze. My first thought was that it must be some other small mammal, like the squirrel, with the capacity to be airboreal. Its very long tail to me looked rat-like. But then the creature flew to another perch. I stared at that tail and the manager yelled. The steely early morning light made it hard to make out the bird’s brilliant red chest, but the tail looked like nothing I’d ever seen on a bird before: unmistakably a quetzal, Alfredo and the manager concurred.

The four of us were ebullient, the way people get when they go to a lot of trouble to view exotic animals in the wild, and they get lucky. I felt proud of my quetzal pictures. They’ll help me remember what this very rare bird actually looked like. The cloud forest photos are less useful. They don’t come close to communicating what it’s like to move through that dense, drenched chilly realm. But I have added to my mental list of Amazing Quetzal Facts its power to get folks out of their comfort zone and into remote, resplendent forests that, if unphotographable, are hard to forget.

Central America, finally

It’s time for this blog once again to justify the “Abroad” portion of its name. Thursday Steve and I will fly down to Central America. Unless you consider Mexico part of that region (which I don’t), this is an area in which neither of us has ever set foot. It’s not for lack of interest. Rather, we were saving it up. Now the time seems right.

One reason we were saving it is because for some years we dreamed about driving in our aging van all the way from San Diego to Panama, then donating the van to a charity and flying home. That would have been a real adventure, and it would have required a significant chunk of time.

Eventually, however, several factors gave us pause about the wisdom of this plan, not the least of which were the bureaucratic nightmares that would have been involved in taking a personal vehicle across all those borders. On the other hand, unlike Europe and Asia at the moment, all the countries in Central America are once again open to visitors, particularly fully vaccinated ones such as us.

So we scrapped the driving plan, and I worked for a while on concocting an itinerary that would have us flying to all seven countries (Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama). I quickly learned that even if all the countries are open, service on the regional airlines that connect them is far from fully restored. The staggering current cost of short flights into El Salvador and Honduras (troubled countries on other counts too) led me to scratch them from the program. We had wanted to start in Belize and cross the land border into Guatemala (then continue on), but then I learned the Belize government was not allowing visitors out of Belize that way. This annoyed me so much I scratched Belize.

So now the current plan calls for us to fly to Guatemala and spend a week and a half there, followed by visits to Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua (in that order). For me these will be my 66th through 69th countries.

In the short time before we depart, along with packing and otherwise organizing, I’m trying to prepare for other as-yet-unforeseen challenges that may arise in the wake of global pandemic lockdowns. I’m telling myself this trip will be like traveling in the days of yore, when you couldn’t just assume everything would run like clockwork. But some intrepid spirits nonetheless hit the road then, because then, as now, it was better than not going. I can relate.

A Golden Retriever’s guide to some of the wonders of the American West

(as reported by Dilly)

My pack and I got back from the road last week, and I have to tell you: life has been pretty boring since then. So I’ve volunteered to briefly shift my attention from Sitting and lying Down and Speaking to… Reporting. My puppyraiser/Mom usually handles this task, but on our recent trip she (my p/M) didn’t find anything interesting to write about. She’d be the first to say she had a wonderful time. But really.

(Excuse me while I yawn.)

We drove 2600 miles but never had a flat tire or ran out of gas or got into any accidents. No one asked for bribes or tried to kidnap us. We visited five national parks (and a couple of lesser ones). But who doesn’t know those places are amazing? (I’ll admit I didn’t. But I’m a one-year-old aspiring service dog.) To most folks, that’s not news.

I, however, see (and smell) things from a different perspective. Here are five of my most important takeaways from our adventure:

1) Flying is much more interesting than being driven around in a kennel. And traveling out of a kennel is (slightly) better than traveling inside one.

I flew once before, when I was 8 weeks old and Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), the organization that owns me, shipped me down from Northern California to my San Diego puppyraiser/parents. But for all their travels, my p/ps never before had flown with any CCI puppy. (I’m the 9th one they’ve raised.) Despite their trepidations, our flight from San Diego to Salt Lake City went well. The nice man at the Southwest Airlines counter didn’t even ask to see the rabies-vaccine documentation my p/M had brought along. (I mean, duh, it’s pretty obvious I’m not rabid.) He gave us boarding passes that let us go first through the jetway,so we had tons of room, sitting in the first row. I Stayed in a perfect Down position when the flight attendant gave her speech, and although I got a little nervous during the take-off (and later, the landing), my p/M gave me the Lap command and let me look out the window. I found the sights out the window intriguing, if slightly creepy.

After that, we got around in a rented van. My p/ps had checked a travel kennel for me to ride in. But after a while, they started letting me ride loose, like a Regular Big Dog. Sometimes I took advantage of this, sitting on a seat and looking out the window. Just as often, I napped.

2) Weather can be more interesting than I ever imagined.

I got a big lesson in this our first afternoon in Jackson Hole (Wyoming). My p/D had taken me out for a little afternoon stroll around the compound where we were staying when suddenly the sky got dark and I was being pelted with hundreds of little pebble-sized pieces of ice! Hail, people were calling it. I never saw the like of that in San Diego!Frankly, I’m not a fan.

Several days later when we had moved just outside Yellowstone National Park, my p/M took me out for my morning constitutional, and fluffy white stuff was falling out of the sky. That was cold too, but at least it didn’t hurt! And pretty soon the sun was shining again.

3) National Parks smell amazing.

We hiked an awful lot. One day (I think we were walking along the Rim Trail at Bryce Canyon National Park), my p/M sighed and said, “Dilly, it’s really too bad this can’t appreciate these sights.” They were looking at stuff like this:

My p/D piped up, voicing what I would have said (if I could talk). “Dilly says you can’t begin to appreciate all the smells.” Man, did he get that right! Sometimes there were scary smells, like this stuff, which was HUGE and filled with berry seeds. I didn’t want to get anywhere close to whatever creature produced it.

Day after day at Yellowstone, we hiked past what surely must be some of the weirdest smells on the planet.

I’m picking up sulphur, thermophilic bacteria, and subtle hints of magma!

But even the simplest stroll in a forest made me want to close my eyes and savor the symphony of scents produced when streams and leaves and pine trees and animals come together.

4) I don’t want to go to the moon.

After Yellowstone, my p/ps and I drove to Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve (in southern Idaho). It’s not actually the moon but a vast, crater-pocked area that was created when lava flowed out of fissures in the Snake River plain between 15,000 and 2,000 years ago. It’s a stark, alien landscape that did NOT smell anywhere near as interesting as the Grand Tetons or Zion canyon. And the scrunchy black gravel kind of hurt my paws.

5) I’m thinking about a career change.

Everywhere we went, I had to wear my official cape and halter and leash (on which I pulled about 1000 times more often than I should have). But I did get one taste of paradise.

This happened when we visited my p/M’s uncle and aunt. They live on a farm in a small town in Utah. Before sunset, we went for a walk through the farm’s corn fields. I was on my leash, as usual, but then we stopped and suddenly they released me. For a moment I was so stunned I couldn’t move. Then I went berserk with joy – racing up and down the road, kicking up clouds of dirt, leaping and twisting and finding sticks and dried corn cobs and stones to chew.

My ecstasy was so obvious, my p/ps brought me back early the next morning. Again I romped and rollicked.

Everyone tells me it will be a great thing if I graduate and work in a life of service. I say….. maybe. But I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be as great as life on a farm.

The land time forgot

Here’s the biggest thing I’ve learned from this road trip. If you’ve grown tired of today’s world, if you’re drowning in the digital flood, twisting in the social-media tendrils, overcrowded and over stressed, you might be happy living in the far-northwestern stretches of California (where we spent the five days from Saturday to Tuesday). It felt like we got there in a time machine, rather than our aging Chrysler van. We passed through stretches in which we were more informationally isolated than we were in the Congo, earlier this year. No (T-Mobile) cell phone service; wi-fi that simply didn’t work, even though it was supposed to. We walked Dilly down sections of Highway 101 — the main road connecting the coastline to the rest of the world — when no cars passed us for minutes at a time. Town signs often reported populations in the hundreds; five-digit ones were rare. Buildings in the centers of these villages remind me of those from my childhood. Or maybe my grandparents’ childhood.The coastal vistas were as beautiful and empty as any I’ve seen anywhere.

Why don’t more people live here?!” I asked Steve, several times. (I had trouble retaining his answer. It made sense but at the same time seemed incredible.) It’s hard to get to these parts, he pointed out. The rugged Klamath mountains cram right up to the coast. Carving roads through them (then maintaining them), looks to be a brutal task. Nor is it easy to make any kind of a living. Even pot-growing, once the economic engine in these parts, reportedly isn’t what it used to be since legalization. Tsunamis can strike at any time and wreck havoc. Then there’s the weather — gray, sodden, and dreary for much of the year. In the height of summer, we enjoyed some sunny spells, but the daytime highs rarely surpassed 60. Nights, the temperatures dipped into the 40s.

For all those reasons, I wouldn’t relocate here. But none of those factors dampened our pleasure in visiting. They in no way interfered with the great thrill accessible here: the chance to spend time with old-growth redwood trees.

Redwoods can be found all the way from Santa Cruz north to the southern reaches of Oregon. Many of them look stately, tall, impressive. But the vast majority — something like 95% —are relatively young specimens that reached for the sky only after the woodchoppers plundered their forebears. To the loggers who found their way to California in the wake of the Forty-Niners, the massive old redwoods were as good as any gold. Did those guys realize they were destroying arboreal gods that were already massive when the last Roman bastions fell? Did they reflect that what they sawed and chopped and floated out to sea to become house frames and fence posts was standing, shading, exhaling oxygen when Jesus was newborn?

I have no idea. But in California’s far northwest corner, in Redwoods National Park, the last few ancient redwoods still thrive. These are trees as tall as a football field is long; too wide in diameter to be spanned by a couple of adult humans. They’re the tallest trees on the planet, and while only half the age of the bristlecone pines, they still feel older than God.

We hiked at their feet, and I couldn’t stop exclaiming childishly, inarticulately: “Wow.” The forests are cool and shady. The ground underneath is springy and soft. The path ahead of us invariably looked shorter than the trees were tall. The scented air invigorated me, and the sculpted shapes surrounding us often stopped us in our tracks.It’s a landscape that competes with the most breathtaking anywhere, I think, and yet it rarely shows up on lists of the natural wonders of the world.

Steve and Dilly and I spent two nights in a cabin in Klamath, then three more in another isolated redwood grove in Mendocino. We didn’t exclusively hike in the redwoods. We found a path to a eerie solitary beach. We spent an afternoon exploring a canyon whose walls are coated with ferns. We got close to wild elk. Another morning we hiked up the mouth of the Big River.We resisted paying to drive through one of the touristic tree wonders.But we drove the Avenue of the Giants, where the huge trees crowd so close to the road people put reflectors on them as a warning.

Then Tuesday we headed south along Highway 1, skirting thrilling precipices (no shoulder! No guard rails!)……until we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and were back in Civilization. We slept in Santa Cruz last night and will spend our final night on the road in Santa Barbara. All that will be anticlimactic. Those hikes through the otherworldly, timeless woods were the climax.

A hot time on the old ranch

This summer marks my 30th anniversary as a home-exchanger. It was 30 years ago that Steve and I first traded our house in San Diego, that time for a spacious ground-floor apartment in a cool stone building in the most chic neighborhood in Paris. It had a private garden that opened onto a larger shared green space. After that we were hooked. Since then we’ve done almost 20 exchanges all over the planet.

When our sons no longer wanted to accompany us, we started traveling in places where home-exchanging didn’t work as well (e.g. much of South America and Africa). But I got interested again for part of our travels last fall in New Zealand. For this current road trip, I also looked for promising trading partners.

Over the years, I’ve developed a sense of when it’s worth gambling on a house trade. When I saw the listing for the place where we’re staying now, my sensors tingled. The photos on homeexchange.com suggested the house would be impressive, and it was located on what was described as a 75-acre ranch near Cottonwood, in the far northern section of the Sacramento River Valley. I corresponded with the owners, and we reached an agreement: They would stay in our house for a week, while we occupied their ranch house for five days.

Some house-trading partners are like me, compiling bulging guides to their homes and neighborhoods and cities. The ranch owners fell at the opposite end of that scale. I finally pressed the wife for a few crumbs of information, like, would they be wanting us to take care of any animals? She replied that if we would feed their two resident horses, she and her husband would appreciate that.

When I told friends about our upcoming trade, one or two warned that the temperatures in mid-July in this part of the state were certain to be blistering, and as we left Reno, I quailed a bit at the forecast: highs of more than 100 degrees every day.

The forecasts have proven accurate. When we reached the ranch gate around 5:30 Saturday afternoon and opened our van doors to key in the code, the heat smacked me with a brutal force.

True, it’s a dry heat. But it’s so hot the dryness doesn’t seem to help much.

Stepping outside every afternoon and early evening since then has felt like walking into a boiler room. Happily, thanks to two key strategies, this hasn’t dampened the intense pleasure we’ve experienced in being here.

The first has been to escape to some of the higher realms nearby. At Lassen Volcanic National Park (where we spent Saturday afternoon), it was warm but pleasant. We passed all of Monday near frosty Mt. Shasta and in the cool mists of the McCloud River and Burney waterfalls.

One view of hulking Mt. Shasta, from the ranch property

The second strategy has been to engage in most of our outdoor activities during the cool, pleasant mornings. Every day, Steve and Dilly and I have fed hay and a scoop full of pellets to Madonna and Bingo, the two horses.

Madonna, the sorrel mare, is the mother of mischievous young Bingo. He lives in a corral, but she gets to roam the property.

Although she feeds herself on the property’s grass, she comes around for a scoop of pellets.

Steve grabs a “flake” of hay.
Then he puts it in Bingo’s feeding trough.

After doling out this breakfast, with the temperatures still in the 70s, we’ve hiked along the Jeep trails that lace through the property.It’s a magical place filled with oak trees…manzanita……and other native flora. Near the house, we can there’s a pond ringed with emerald grass.On the afternoons when we decided not to venture out, we’ve hung out in the sprawling, baronial manor house. A swamp cooler protects the interior from the heat. (To my surprise, this system works as well as any air-conditioning unit and apparently costs a fraction of the price to run.)

The entrance is impressive. All of it is.
Here’s just a part of the enormous grassy lawn behind the house.

We’ve caught up on email; taken naps. I’ve written two blog posts.

I’ve reflected on the fact that never before in my life have I felt so removed from other people. Other ranches adjoin this property, but the house is situated far from any section of the perimeter. You have to walk for several minutes to reach the closest part. A gate and electrified fences guard the entire boundary of the property; I could take off all my clothes and hike the hillsides naked, feeling secure that I’d enjoy as much privacy as I do in my bedroom back at home. This thought shocks me.

We’re packing up now. In an hour or two we will drive off to the redwoods on California’s chilly northernmost coast. I couldn’t find a trading partner there, and if I had, it probably would not have been amazing. But over the years, several, like that first Paris apartment, have been. We’ve lived in a 300-year-old apartment in Venice just a short stroll from the Rialto Bridge. We’ve lived in a suburban American-style house in Tokyo just blocks from the insane electric crowds in Shibuya plaza. We’ve occupied a country house surrounded by its own stream and forest smack in the middle of Ireland. Our time on this sweltering ranch is totally different from any of them, but it will rank on that most delicious list.

On the Mop-Up Tour

Steve and I are now deep into what we have come to think of as our Mop-Up Tour of California. Cut off by corona-restrictions from doing any foreign travel, we’re using this three-week road trip as an opportunity to at last see some of the sights we’ve managed to miss over the last 46 years. For me this includes pretty much everything north of the Napa and Sonoma wine country; I’d never before laid eyes on about half my state.

As mentioned in my last post, we started with a five-day stay in Mammoth in a townhouse we exchanged for our home in San Diego. We had passed through the area years ago but never spent much time there. For this visit, the weather was perfect, and the cozy townhouse made a great base for some excellent day hikes, as well as our excursion to the ancient bristlecone pine forest.

We left Mammoth last Wednesday (July 8), and since then the touristic highlights have included the following.

— A visit to Bodie.

As ghost towns go, Bodie is more than respectable. In the late 1870s, it was a bustling gold-mining center, home to more than 10,000 fortune-seekers and the tradespeople who served them. It continued to be a functional mining center into the 1940s, when the feds shut it down (something about needing copper for the war effort.)

About 13 miles down empty, partly dirt roads off Highway 395 southeast of the town of Bridgeport, it appears beyond a bend in the road, a vision of the Wild Western past. Except that there’s an entrance booth manned by a state historic park ranger…

…dutifully wearing a proper antiviral mask. We had to pay him $21 to get in.

As in the bristlecone forest, the elevation softened the mid-summer heat, so it wasn’t unpleasant to stroll past the dozens of abandoned buildings. Even in non-pandemic times, visitors can enter only three or four of them. At the moment, they’re all closed, even the little gift shop. So a visit to Bodie is a strikingly non-commercial experience. All there is to do is wander the dirt byways and peer into various windows that reveal the dusty remains of a former world. Still, that’s not a bad way to spend an hour or two.

— Hiking to the monkey’s head above Lake Tahoe.

Our destination after Mammoth was Reno, home to our son Michael and his family (girlfriend Stephanie, her son Nicolas, and their standoffish corgi, Felina.) On Thursday, all of us (except Felina) drove to Lake Tahoe to hike. This wasn’t our first visit to Tahoe. But for me every visit feels new; I never seem to be able to remember that so much beauty can be concentrated into one location.

Folks refer to this as the monkey head trail, but that stone formation sure looks a lot more like a gorilla to me.

— Mt. Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Our next destination was another home-exchange in the far-northern reaches of the Sacramento Valley. On the way, we stopped at this national park, established in 1916 (shortly after the mountain last erupted.) The park headquarters building was coronavirally shuttered, but Steve was still able to get a sticker for our national park book in the little gift shop and a map from the temporarily outdoor ranger station.

Considering that we only had the afternoon, we saw and did a lot, including…

…picknicking at and then hiking around Manzanita Lake, with its lovely views of Mt. Lassen in the distance.

…and making the hour-long drive from the park’s north entrance to the southern one.

Along the way Dilly (our current CCI puppy, who is accompanying us on this odyssey) got his first introduction to glacial snow.
And his first smell of sulphurous bubbling mud.

— Mt. Shasta and the headwaters of the Sacramento River.

You can see Mt. Shasta from where we’re staying (about 70 miles to the south of it). It towers over the landscape, so dramatic that a pilgrimage seems mandatory. Not that we had any interest in climbing it. Crampons and ice picks are recommended even in mid-summer.

Instead we drove to the town at its foot, where locals tout the Headwaters of the Sacramento River as one of their touristic highlights. I’m a sucker for riverine starting points, having previously visited those of the Mississippi River, the Colorado River, and (sort of) the Nile. We parked in the Mt. Shasta City Park and made our way to this spot:

A public sign shattered some of the romance, explaining that actually the Sacramento River has many sources, so others arguably share the Headwaters title. Still, we enjoyed gazing at this humble pond. The park also provides a time warp back to the Sixties, being filled (at least during our visit) with psychedelically painted buses and folks wearing vintage Hippie wear, most of whom appeared to be chemically altering their consciousness.

— Waterfall country.

If you love waterfalls, the section of roads southeast of Mt. Shasta should be on your bucket list. Steve and Dilly and I first stopped at a trail on the McCloud River that led us up past three beautiful cascades.

We hiked past lower…
… and upper-level waterfalls.

Beautiful as they are, Burney Falls outdoes them. Gushing out of the rock walls of this canyon, exuding cool mists, this is a place to linger in for more time than we gave it.

— The Sundial Bridge in the town of Redding.

The house where we’re staying is about a half hour outside the town of Redding. This morning we drove to Redding’s 16-year-old Sundial suspension bridge. Famed both for its construction materials (largely glass) and striking design, I can now report that as a sundial, it seems pretty useless. But it’s well worth strolling across.

Only, however, in the morning at this time of year. As I type this (in the late afternoon,) the thermometer outside our back door reads 102. The weather app on my phone claims the temperature will reach 109 tomorrow (our last day here). In my next post I hope to explain how we’ve been having a marvelous time here anyway.

Not your run-of-the-mill walk in the woods

I got to meet the oldest living things on Earth the other day. It exceeded my expectations.

Of all the millions of species on land and sea, the very oldest among them are a type of bristlecone pine known as Pinus longaeva. These trees live in a couple of places in the West, including one cluster in the White Mountains about 45 minutes east of Big Pine, California. Traveling up and down Highway 395 over the years, Steve and I have passed through Big Pine many times. But it was only late in 2018 that we driving through, once again too short of time to stop, that we resolved to make time to see these amazing plants as soon as possible.

That took us to this past May, when we were planning our itinerary for the road trip we started on last Friday. We figured we’d make a day trip to the bristlecones from the condo in Mammoth Lakes where we’d be staying for the first five nights (a trade for our house in San Diego). But once we settled into the condo, I began to harbor doubts about the side trip. We would have to backtrack down 395 to get to Big Pine from Mammoth. The condo turned out to be idyllic, overlooking a stream that adjoins a beautiful meadow and rugged, tree-dense mountains.

The view from our balcony.

The stream just out our back door

The weather was sublime, nippy in the morning but warming to the mid-70s in the afternoons. I began to dread the thought of leaving this paradise for a multi-hour drive that might end in some blistering hell-hole where we wouldn’t feel like leaving our air-conditioned van. Probably all the visitor’s centers would be closed, due to Covid-19. Maybe we should defer the outing yet again, I suggested.

But Steve’s heart was set on the adventure, so we set off a little after 9 Monday. Ominously, both the visitor’s centers that we stopped at in Bishop were shuttered. We continued south to Big Pine, where some informational posters suggested we would find a dedicated bristlecone pine visitor’s center at the Schulman Grove, about 24 miles off the highway. So we pressed on, driving along a two-lane road so empty it reinforced the fact we were entering a true wilderness. We climbed higher and higher, eventually passing a sign announcing the elevation to be 10,000 feet. As we ascended, the air grew cooler, and by the time we reached the large, well-maintained parking lot at the Schulman Grove, the weather was as pleasant as it had been in Mammoth.

A dozen or so cars were in the parking lot, and at the far end of it, the visitor’s center promised to be impressive. But sadly, it too was closed for the pandemic. Still a host of clear, informative outdoor signs told us a lot about the amazing trees. Some of the tall, straight ones near the visitor’s center looked not so different from ordinary pines, albeit ones with distinctive thick needles and resinous little cones that felt like pin-cushions.

From the signs, however, we learned that these particular specimens, living in relatively nutrient-rich soil, were markedly weaker and shorter-lived than their cousins just up the hill, rooted in a barren, inhospitable soil known as dolomite. Those were the ancient bristlecones; we wanted to get closer to those. Three hiking trails start near the visitor’s center. We chose the mile-long Discovery Trail. It led us to the section where in 1953 a dendrochronologist named Avery Schulman learned one night that he had just cut a core out of a tree whose rings indicated it was more than 4000 years old.

The wood of these ancient trees is incredibly dense and resinous — qualities that protect it from insects, fire, and other tree hazards. Over the millennia the bristlecone pine wood twists into weird sinuous forms, many of which are bare of vegetation. But green branches cluster low to the ground. They make it clear that, though the trees may look half dead, they’re still very much alive. When Nero was burning Rome, some of these very specimens were already more than two thousand years old.

We took our time, ogling and admiring them, though I forgot to wrap my arms around a section of one, something I now regret. The trail was only a mile long, but it took us up through a couple hundred more feet of altitude gain, so by the time we completed the loop, it was almost 2, too late to head down one of the other trails.

One of them is a four-mile loop that leads to the Methuselah Tree, the very oldest bristlecone known to exist. It’s thought to be more than 5000 years old. I’d like to return some day to visit it. It takes two to four hours to hike that loop. Maybe we’d come in a vehicle that could also safely take us the 12 miles further down a twisty dirt road to reach the Patriarch Grove, home to largest bristlecone pine on earth. I’m not sure I ever will make it back. But if I do, I won’t forget that tree hug.

Will bonobos survive?

DSC07830 2.jpegI’m not a wildlife expert, and maybe even the experts don’t know what the future holds for bonobos. But what I want to say is: after visiting the Congo, I feel optimistic.

That may be naive. The DRC is one of the most corrupt countries on earth. Its national politics are still in turmoil. Atrocities continue to unfold in the war-torn east, where Ebola has broken out again. And yet… the biggest threat to bonobos isn’t habitat loss, as it is for so many animals in so many places. Congo still has plenty of equatorial rainforest where bonobos can thrive. The bonobo population has plunged because Congolese people eat them.  And even that isn’t as bad as it sounds. People don’t think bonobos are endowed with any magical properties (like rhinos, for example, burdened with their theoretically aphrodisiacal horns.) Bonobos are just meat, for which Africans have a big appetite.

Still, just as most humans (even hungry ones) don’t eat other humans, when people learn how similar bonobos are to humans, they can change their minds about bonobos’ place on the menu. And if protecting bonobos instead of eating them can make communities more prosperous, folks can be marshaled to protect them.

DSC07853.jpegSuzy Kwetuenda at Lola ya Bonobo has spent countless hours talking to Congolese villagers in the rainforest about why bonobos deserve protection. She says some of them bristle at the notion of outsiders trying to stop them from eating their bush meat. But she retorts, “You know, we are lucky to be the only ones in the world to have bonobos! They are very precious. The BIG value of bonobos is not in your stomach! It’s very important to have bonobos for development. If you protect them, this area will have more and more visitors. They will come and help you!”

This has always been a core premise of the Lola team: that the communities surrounding any bonobo release site must see concrete benefits from fighting against the hunters and poachers. Les Amies des Bonobos du Congo and its US-based fundraising arm, Friends of Bonobos, don’t have huge budgets. The money has come mostly from small and medium-sized donors. But a part of those limited resources has been devoted to improving the schools, infrastructure, health care and other services near the Ekola ya Bonobo release site. In the ten years since the Lola team began releasing bonobos back into the wilderness, more and more of the bonobos’ neighbors have become believers.

I’ve seen first-hand how a similar approach has worked in Uganda. There tourists who come from around the world to see mountain gorillas have become an engine of prosperity. Ugandan communities that have benefited now see the animals as a priceless resource. It’s possible to imagine something similar unfolding in the Congo.

Claudine has led the way.

What Claudine Andre has accomplished in the last 25 years also fills me with admiration and awe. Starting from nothing, she’s built a team that’s adept at saving baby bonobos on the verge of death. These survivors now routinely thrive in the garden that is Lola. The team also now knows what’s required to successfully reintroduce these very special creatures into the wild. (Only one of the 60-odd reintroduced bonobos has died, a youngster who was bitten by a poisonous snake.) And back at Lola more than 30,000 Congolese school kids already have visited Lola and been inspired by these stories.

It saddens me that so many people still don’t know what bonobos are. (I’ve gotten a lot of blank stares when I’ve mentioned our recent travel plans.) But that can change. A hundred years ago no one had heard of pandas. DSC07716.jpeg

A hundred years from now our closest animal relatives could be thriving in the African rainforests, showing us a different model for primate behavior than that demonstrated by chimpanzees and us. If that happens, a lot of things will have made it happen.

Some have already unfolded. Claudine has already dedicated a big chunk of her life to the bonobos’ preservation. Field researchers and veterinarians and the sanctuary crew and others have already learned a lot about what it takes to keep bonobos flourishing. But more will be required. Humans all over the planet will need to recognize bonobos as readily as they do pandas, and many will donate money to help them out. Congolese people will have to learn to treasure them.

That would be the happy ending to the bonobos’ story. Maybe it won’t come to pass, but it should. I’m hoping it will.


A tourist in Kinshasa

Fifteen years ago, a close friend and I began keeping (and comparing) lists of all the countries in the world, ranking our priorities for where we most would like to travel. There were only about 30 in which I never wanted to set foot, and two-thirds of those were tiny islands (e.g. Vanuatu, Dominica, Comoros). They don’t interest me. Among the other places to which I was sure I would never go was the Democratic Republic of the Congo. To which I can now say: never say never.

Since then I fell in love with bonobos and learned about the sanctuary for them outside  Kinshasa, all of which led to the trip we just completed. Visiting Lola ya Bonobo was why we went and what we wanted to do with 90% of our time in Congo. But since we were going to be in the neighborhood, Steve and I both yearned to see the mighty Congo River and a bit of Kinshasa (the capital city and home to more than 11 million Congolese). In email, someone at Lola said we might be able to arrange a little city tour, but no details had firmed up by the time we arrived.

What we glimpsed on our ride from the airport to Lola — insane traffic, filthy streets, open sewers — was so bad it almost erased my desire to see any more. IMG_6523.JPG

Still, I couldn’t help noting that almost everyone looked clean and well-fed. Some had a definite sense of style.

DSC08146.jpegThen we heard from Claudine André, Lola’s founder, that the center city, where all the ex-patriots live, was very nice, with some good hotels and many restaurants. She claimed that the cost of living there was the second highest in the world (after Luanda in Angola). When Steve broached the question of whether a little tour might be possible, Claudine  made it possible.

The Kinshasa home where Claudine has lived for 40 years is beautiful.

So it was that on the final morning of our stay, Lola’s driver, Constant, wound up chauffeuring Claudine, Steve, and me to her house in the city. We dropped her off and got a chance to meet her gigantic manual, Leon, (a dog herding breed originally from Turkey). Then we set off with Constant.

He drove us through a pleasant private housing complex filled with comfortable looking homes…DSC08137.jpeg…and views of Brazzaville, just across the river. DSC08135 2.jpeg

It’s the capital of the Republic of Congo, a separate country that was once a French colony. (The DRC was the domain of the Belgians.) Today there’s almost no commerce between the two, which baffles me.

We drove around the central core for a while, where the streets were wide and the Sunday morning traffic was light. DSC08143.jpg

A few buildings looked inviting…

The National Library was one of them.
The American Embassy less so.

We drove on and finally stopped at a cafe by the side of the river where we drank a couple of Cokes.

The entrance to the cafe.

IMG_6588.jpeg The terrace commanded good views of the river. The rapids begin here, and soon become so violent that boat traffic between Kinshasa and the ocean is impossible. DSC08173.jpg

It wasn’t much of a tour. But it was enough to transform Kinshasa from a scary dark hole in my mental map to a bustling metropolis. It’s not one I yearn to see again. But who knows? Sometimes you wind up in unexpected places.