Dispatches Tagline
Monday, December 28th, 2020

Whole Body Workout

Monday, December 7th, 2020: Hikes, Mogollon Crest, Mogollon Mountains, Nature, Southwest New Mexico, Wildfire.

When I first moved here, I discovered right away that the Mogollon Mountains were the tallest nearby range, and there was a five-mile crest trail to the highest peak that looked like a walk in the park, with less than 2,000′ of cumulative elevation gain.

But I lost interest when I read the trip reports of other hikers. The entire distance, including the top of the peak, was densely forested, so there were no views anywhere.

That changed after the 2012 wildfire, because the trail now traversed the heart of the burn area, a “moonscape” in which all vegetation had been destroyed. I figured there might be some decent views up there now. The crest trail starts at a forest road in the far north and runs more than 24 miles one-way to the southernmost high peak, so it has a history of use by backpackers aiming to complete the entire route.

However, the crest trail wasn’t included on the most recent Forest Service maintenance log. And in May of this year, a hiker reported that he was only able to do 3 miles, after dealing with more than 100 deadfall logs across the trail.

So I forgot about it until Sunday morning, when I did another search and found 3 trip reports from August, September, and October. They all claimed the trail had been cleared over the summer. The report in mid-October said the trail was completely clear up to a half-mile north of the peak, where some moderate deadfall began.

Yeah, the drive to the trailhead would take at least two hours, to a place that’s only 30 miles from my house as the crow flies. But I’d done a couple of hikes in Arizona recently that required a two hour drive. It would limit my hiking time, but I’d get an early start and I’m a fast walker.

The final road to the trailhead is legendary – I’d driven the first few miles of it last winter, but the rest of it had been gated – it’s usually closed all winter. It climbs from the old mining ghost town – itself reached by a scary one-lane paved road – over a 9,000′ pass to the high plateau north of our huge wilderness area. I was all stoked to put in another 15-mile day at 10,000′ elevation, with forays onto branch trails, and it didn’t even occur to me until I reached the ghost town that the forest road was almost certainly closed. I wouldn’t even reach the damn trailhead!

My heart sank, but I decided to keep going, knowing there were a couple of earlier trailheads I could take instead, for an alternate hike into lower elevations.

I was a little surprised to find patches of snow on the road through the ghost town – it’s in a deep canyon that remains in shadow through the winter. The storm had hit last Tuesday night, and was limited to the highest mountains – we didn’t even get any clouds in town.

I drove through onto the rough, rocky forest road, and after the first few miles, was surprised to find the gate open. That’s where it gets steep, and I was not even sure my 2wd truck would make it, especially if I hit snow higher up.

But the truck did okay. The road lived up to its legend, climbing up above the world for some truly spectacular views, but the snow was limited to inch-deep, fairly level stretches near the high pass. I passed only one other vehicle, a new-model Subaru with Texas plates parked in a forested, primitive camping area at 9,000′.

A mile or so beyond that was a large, cleared ledge with a Forest Service restroom and an incredible view to the northwest. My trailhead was across the road at the foot of a densely forested slope blanketed with 2″ of snow. It really felt like the top of the world, and the temperature was close to freezing, but the sky was perfectly clear, and since I expected most of the hike to be exposed, I packed my long johns rather than pulling them on.

As soon as I started up the trail, I encountered recent deadfall. Another hiker had recently told me that our local volunteer trail group had tried to clear this end of the trail but had given up because more trees were falling every day, so that was another piece of second-hand info floating around in my mind. I climbed around the first deadfall, but obstacles continued throughout the intact forest that lined the early part of the trail.

After a quarter mile or so, I left the intact forest and entered the burn scar, and the deadfall got really bad. Had all these trees really fallen since mid-October, when the last trip report claimed it fully cleared? It was hard to believe.

I’d recently decided to just accept the obstacles as the new normal, so I persevered. I might not get any decent mileage or elevation, but I’d get a whole-body workout instead. Many logs leaned over the trail at chest-height or higher, and those I could sometimes grab and swing under, with care for the rotator cuff tears in both shoulders. Some could be straddled and rolled over, and some huge logs had a gap underneath that could be crawled through. Others were so broad they had to be climbed over or around, and many involved multiple criss-crossing trunks that required precarious rock-climbing moves with outstretched legs, over a distance of several yards. Of course, a few were simply insurmountable, and I had to find a detour around them.

In a few places I found sections of clear trail that lasted for up to a hundred feet, where I would practically run to make up time. Climbing steadily, the trail traversed from a north slope around to an east-facing slope, and the view east, over country I’d never seen, was welcome. Still, I was hoping to reach a saddle with views to both east and west, and that was slow coming.

As I worked my way hopefully up the long east-slope traverse toward the crest, I encountered more animal tracks in the snow, finally coming upon really fresh mountain lion tracks, maybe from last night or this morning. The lion had been coming down the trail from the opposite direction, and its tracks continued for more than a mile. I envied it the ability to walk under many of the fallen logs that I had to climb over or around.

The obstacles never ended, and although I can hike for hours up much steeper trails without getting fatigued, my whole body was getting worked a lot harder than usual. I wondered how much more of this I could endure.

Finally I reached the crest, a point where the trail crossed over from the east to the west slope. I could now see the interior of the wilderness to the west, the headwaters of the biggest canyon, and the western peak and ridge that I hike regularly, where I’d recently cleared thorny locust with my Dad’s machete. But there was still a maze of charred snags masking my trailside view.

This trail gradually climbed and traversed through more deadfall until I eventually came in view of the highest peak. There was a rocky outcrop where I could climb out above the snags and get an unobstructed panorama of the entire west of the range. What a relief to rise clear of all those dead tree trunks! The peak was close, but it was also clearly covered with snags. There would be no unobstructed view up there! And apparently there was no trail either – it would just be a scramble over fallen logs the whole way up.

I continued to a saddle about a mile short of the peak, and there, at an elevation of almost 10,400′, I met my nemesis. On most of this winding trail, visibility had been limited to a few dozen feet, but facing me ahead was a long, straight uphill section that was a continuous maze of dense deadfall. I’d finally had enough of this, especially since the big peak wasn’t offering the payoff of a decent view.

Reflecting on the multiple recent trip reports that claimed this trail cleared, what amazed me most was that all those snags could’ve fallen on this 4 miles of trail in only a month and a half. The number of fallen trees I’d encountered in that distance may have been as high as 2,000. Yes, we’d had high west winds in November – that’s apparently what had brought them down – but the deadfall was nearly continuous along the whole trail, including forested sections, north, east, south, and west slopes.

After my leg cramp scare last week, I’d been drinking water more regularly, and I’d brought an electrolyte supplement I could add halfway through. I didn’t linger in that saddle because for once, with a two-hour return drive facing me, half of it on that difficult one-lane forest road, I was actually anxious to just get this damn hike over with. And I knew the hike back, battling all that deadfall over again, would really wear me out.

So I took it a little easier on the way down, stopping regularly to try and identify landmarks on the unfamiliar horizon. During the final traverse, a mile or so from the end, I noticed an out-of-place color on the trail ahead. Other hikers, here at the end of the day!

A man stood up and waved, a woman rising behind him. They were carrying medium-sized overnight packs, and appeared to be in their mid-to-late 30s. The woman was beautiful, but the man took over the conversation so I had to keep my attention on him.

They were clearly urban professionals, from San Antonio. I’ve gotten used to most of our visitors being from Texas – they’re always anxious to escape their state, and to them, New Mexico seems like paradise. They’d apparently just driven straight here, and were hoping to spend at least a couple nights out, maybe reaching the end of the 24-mile trail. I knew they wouldn’t make it, and I hadn’t seen any promising campsites in my 4-mile jaunt. They wouldn’t even make it as far as I had, in the time remaining tonight.

I told them the deadfall was bad but didn’t try to discourage them. I was just amazed that anyone would even try backpacking on this trail, in this condition. They’d find out for themselves.

Despite the late hour, it seemed the man could’ve stood there chatting with me forever, but his less enthusiastic companion was getting cold and wanted to keep moving, so he reluctantly bid me farewell and hurried to catch up with her.

I felt sorry for that young couple, forced to clear out a tiny campsite in the maze of charred deadfall somewhere short of the crest, on a night with temps well below freezing. I’ve been there many times myself, you just add to your store of experience. You can imagine my relief when I reached the truck, in plenty of time to enjoy the last light on the peaks and canyon walls, in plenty of time to reach the highway before full dark.

Subtracting stops, it’d taken me 5-1/2 hours to hike that 8 mile round-trip. Compare that with two months ago, when twice as far on clear trail took only a half hour longer. I wouldn’t be exploring this trail again without confirming it was clear!

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Volcano Fever

Wednesday, December 9th, 2020: Stories, Travel.

At the end of March, 1978, having finally wrapped up my 20 years of formal education, in the San Francisco Bay Area, I joined Pake, a grad-school classmate, on a trip through rural Mexico and Guatemala. Pake (short for Pecos, a nickname awarded in a card game) was tall, athletic, and worldly – his family had old-money roots in Switzerland and he’d spent childhood vacations abroad with the Grosvenors, founding family of National Geographic magazine. In grad school I’d started running and working out and throwing myself into outdoor activities like rock climbing, cross-country skiing, and sailing, but I’d had a sheltered childhood in a small Midwest farm town, and this would be my first time on foreign soil.

We started with no itinerary, but we planned to avoid big cities and popular tourist destinations like Cancun, Oaxaca, and Mazatlan, venturing off the beaten path, learning and making decisions on the fly, traveling and living as cheaply as possible, hoping to immerse ourselves in authentic local cultures.

Flying into Mexico City, we immediately jumped on a train, and for two months, we zigzagged southwards, traveling by third-class railway coaches and third-class buses loaded top to bottom with produce and livestock. We each carried a blanket, a waterproof poncho, a kerosene stove, a cooking pot, and one change of clothes, all stuffed into a medium-sized backpack. In addition, I brought my little antique parlor guitar in a waterproof sailcloth bag I’d made specially for the trip, and a sketchbook I’d hand-bound in tanned cowhide. We took back roads, stayed in cheap boarding houses with shared facilities, and occasionally camped out. Neither of us had ever studied Spanish, but we brought a dictionary and phrase book and learned enough to get by along the way, with the help of bilingual natives.

It must be almost impossible to imagine now, but this was before personal computers, before the internet, email, and the Web, before cell phones and smart phones, before Google, GPS, social media, or text messaging. We had to find our way around by approaching people face to face and asking questions, not by looking down and swiping a handheld device. Most of the places we visited lacked telephone service, and apart from sending postcards and letters from towns along the way, we had no way of sharing our experiences with friends and family back home, and they had no way of finding or contacting us if an emergency arose. In the context of my traditional family, our trip was such a radical idea that when I announced our impending departure, my Dad disowned me, canceling the credit card he’d given me in college. Afterwards, he hated Pake, accusing him of corrupting me and leading me into terrible danger.

Everyone had warned us from the beginning not to drink tapwater down there. But people under 40 may not be aware that purified bottled water – in the notorious single-use plastic container – is a recent innovation. Back then, the only drinking water we could depend on was carbonated mineral water purchased in glass bottles, and we were diligent about sticking to that. Still, restaurants used tap water, and by the end of April, we’d both developed nausea and diarrhea after eating in the dining room of a particularly sordid boarding house in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.

On the advice of other young travelers, we were heading to the village of Panajachel, a hippie mecca on the shore of Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan. By the time we reached the last town before the Guatemalan border, we’d been sick for a week. A pharmacist gave us activated carbon pills, which cured our symptoms and helped us endure the terrifying ride to the lake over narrow, twisting mountain roads in a bus that raced carelessly into blind curves.

At over 5,000′ elevation, more than 5 miles long and up to 1,120′ deep, with big wind-driven waves and clear blue water, Lake Atitlan lies in an ancient volcanic caldera, surrounded by a ring of cliffs and ridges blanketed with dense, dark-green tropical vegetation. Three steep, conical, forested stratovolcanoes rise from its southern shore: San Pedro, Toliman, and the tallest, Atitlan, 11,598′. The latter two are considered active, with Atitlan’s last eruption dating to 1853.

A series of villages dot the lakeshore at the base of the caldera’s circling wall, and the main road to the lake drops from the high rim at the northeast corner to the village of Panajachel on a level floodplain by the shore. A tiny resort scattered with vacation homes for upper class families from Guatemala City, it was a dramatic change from the rest of our trip.

As we relaxed on the beach on our second morning there, some laborers were preparing to launch an open aluminum dinghy with a small outboard motor, into which they’d manhandled a huge steel I-beam that extended several feet beyond the prow. Pake helped them get the motor started, and in gratitude they gave us a ride to a remote point on the north shore where they were building a vacation home for a wealthy Guatemala City doctor. From there, we had a perfect view of the volcanoes rising on the opposite side.

On our return to Panajachel that evening, we met a young French Canadian who shared the name “Gaetan” with the leading man in Barbet Schroeder’s The Valley (Obscured by Clouds), which had been released the previous year. This intense film, in which young European tourists seeking a lost tribe, a mythical Shangri-La, disappear into the misty highlands of New Guinea, had made a deep impression on me. We agreed that the tropical caldera of Atitlan, with its morning mists and shelves of cloud ringing the peaks, strongly reminded us of the movie.

Mail Boat to Santiago

Early Wednesday morning, Pake and I shouldered our packs, left our latest dollar-a-night boarding house, and walked a few blocks north to the Blue Bird, a “hippie” cafe run by gringos, where we had omelettes and yogurt with fruit and granola. After breakfast, we walked clean sidewalks past elegant homes nestled in lush gardens with gurgling water fountains, past rich young Castillian girls on bicycles laughing and speaking flawless English, past the modern resort hotel overlooking the beach, and finally to the municipal dock, where we joined a crowd of French and Japanese tourists boarding the small mail boat, bound for the village of Santiago, at the opposite end of the lake, at the foot of the volcanoes.

Santiago is a traditional Mayan farming village on the east shore of a deep inlet, with crop fields spread out along the shore to the south, ending at the foot of the cliffs ringing the lake. Across the inlet from the village, Volcan San Pedro rises directly from the shore; looming behind the village are Toliman and its taller, inland sister Atitlan, joined at the hip by an 8,200′ saddle.

As our boat approached Santiago’s dock, we watched women standing along the rocky shore, in blue water up to their thighs, washing clothing dyed or embroidered in all the colors of tropical flowers and tossing them over the rocks. Out in the inlet, fishermen stood up, paddling canoes carved by hand out of native hardwood.

There was a bar and cafe by the dock, El Cayuco, but we walked up the stone street past the church and other whitewashed buildings to Pension Rosita, a little informal hotel with shared facilities, where the friendly proprietor gave us upstairs rooms, one for me and Pake, another for Gaetan. The floor and rustic furniture were made of some sort of dark, unfinished wood which Pake recognized immediately as mahogany – a tree that was formerly abundant in northern Guatemala and Belize. He claimed that back in the States, the lumber in this room would be worth thousands. Through the open window, which overlooked a back courtyard, came the sound of the tinny, repetitive Latin pop music that had been driving me crazy in rural villages throughout the trip.

Calixto Gutierrez

Back out on the street, where the volcanoes towered above us. “Let’s climb a volcano!” I cried.

Pake and Gaetan both stared at me skeptically. “Are you kidding? Through that jungle?”

We walked down to the shore of the inlet, where some boys were fishing. They spoke rudimentary English, and I asked them if it was possible to climb a volcano. They said that Toliman belonged to the village of San Lucas, around the volcano on the next inlet to the east. They said if we tried to climb it from Santiago, the San Lucas people would chop our heads off.

We continued walking south along the shore of the inlet, past more women washing floral-embroidered clothes on rocks, and beyond the end of the village where we finally came to a Texaco gas station. I told the attendant we were interested in climbing Volcan Atitlan, and he said we should see Calixto Gutierrez, who might be able to guide us up the volcano. He gave us directions to Calixto’s place.

I dragged Pake and Gaetan back into town, up a narrow stone street, past a dentist’s office and some small, unmarked tiendas. Stores in villages don’t generally need signs, because everyone knows about them.

Around a corner and up a narrower stone path between stone walls surrounding small family plots, each containing a thatched bamboo hut, dogs, chickens, a pig, perhaps a cow or burro. A left turn past a knot of smiling girls, shy yet curious. Up a dirt trail between close walls, waist-high, another left, a right. And at the end of the trail, a wall with a gate, and inside a small courtyard, a hut with an open door.

“Hola! Buenos dias! Quiero Calixto Gutierrez!” I shouted from outside the gate.

A young woman appeared in the open doorway, holding a baby, and looked us over, frowning. “No esta aqui.”

Eventually lapsing into English, I tried to explain what we were looking for, and she understood well enough to assure us that her grandfather could meet us, back at the pension, at 8 that evening.

The three of us had dinner at El Cayuco by the dock, watching shadows lengthen across the blue lake and push the day’s last light up the forested cliffs on the other side. All the tourists had taken the mail boat back to Panajachel and the place was almost empty. Old Beatles songs played on the house sound system, dropping out occasionally, along with the lights, due to the sporadic power blackouts we’d come to expect throughout our trip.

A man at a neighboring table said he was from southern California, and had spent years exploring Guatemala. He told us about a valley, not far from here, where a Swiss immigrant makes cheese. With his Swiss roots, Pake was surprised and curious.

Back at the pension, an old man was waiting in the small lobby area, medium height and wiry, with short hair, bright brown eyes, and a week’s growth of beard sprinkled with gray. Rosita helped translate as I explained we wanted to climb Atitlan.

He adamantely maintained that we could not do this alone – the volcano belongs to the village, and we would have to hire a local guide. He offered to take us up and down in two days for the equivalent of $20 U.S., a fixed price with no bargaining.

I looked at Pake and Gaetan. “I don’t know,” I said. “That’s expensive! I’ve climbed lots of mountains – I even climbed Mt. Shasta, a bigger volcano than this – and I never needed a guide. Why don’t we just try it ourselves? Worst comes to worst, somebody catches us and gives us a hard time, or the jungle turns out to be impassable, and we have to turn back.”

Pake shook his head, smiling indulgently. “This is not your country, man! You can’t just go tramping around these peoples’ back yard. You’d understand if you’d traveled more.” Gaetan nodded.

“Back home, you can go wherever you want. But here, and everywhere else around the world, hiring somebody local is the only respectful thing to do.”

We shook hands with Calixto, and he grinned and said he’d pick us up here at 8 the next morning.

Night on Bald Mountain

The expedition was temporarily frustrated the next day, as provisions turned out to be very limited in the nearby tienda. Calixto already had his supplies, but he tried to help us, leading us farther afield. Pake finally rounded up a dozen eggs and set them to boil back in Rosita’s kitchen. He looked bored already, sitting there waiting on the underpowered gas range.

Calixto picked out a dozen green oranges; I bought peanut butter, honey, chocolate, bread, and beans; Gaetan acquired a bag of cookies; and Pake a bag of peanuts in their shells. Gaetan had borrowed a big plastic jug from Rosita and filled it with tap water, and Pake and I scrounged a couple of used one-liter pop bottles that we likewise filled at the tap, believing ourselves immune after taking those carbon pills. Besides, contaminated water was probably less common here, in a native village at the foot of volcanoes, than in the big cities.

Calixto had a bag with his bedroll and provisions, which he carried on his back via a tumpline, a strap around his forehead – the standard way of carrying heavy loads throughout rural Latin America. He was wearing a cowboy hat with a studded leather band and a fancy silver belt buckle, but his thick-skinned feet were bare inside homemade leather footwear that was half shoes, half sandals.

The eggs finally boiled, and we set out, Calixto often stopping to chat with friends. He spoke almost no English, but we were able to converse well enough to learn that he was 66 years old, he had nine children, he occasionally worked as a porter, he’d climbed Toliman many times, and Atitlan once before.

A quarter mile beyond the Texaco station, he led us left off the main road. We passed young men with long straight hair carrying machetes and short-handled hoes, all wearing purple-and-white striped knee pants. Each Mayan village has its own distinctive uniform for both men and women, akin to the “clan tartan” of the Scottish highlands. The women of Santiago wore magenta skirts.

We passed women with cloth bundles on their heads and tough-looking old men carrying footlocker-sized bundles of firewood to town from the foothills, bent over, using tumplines across their foreheads.

We passed between bamboo-fenced compounds containing huts, cattle, and small vegetable plots, shaded by low, spreading trees, and then out and up between hillside crop fields. The massive, perfectly symmetrical volcano loomed above, cloaked in dark tropical forest, pregnant with mystery. Its slopes funneled steeper toward the top, through a thin layer of clouds, the tip emerging from the forest, bald, in the top few hundred feet. We were planning to climb almost 6,500′ that day, and none of us was an athlete, nor had we trained in any way other than walking a mile or two a day, carrying our lightweight packs. But we were all in our mid-20s, and we gave little thought to the challenge ahead.

Climbing gradually in a straight line through dry corn fields, we first came to open forest, then to a steep slope which the trail began to traverse. Calixto was leading us into a steep valley below the saddle joining Atitlan to Toliman.

Halfway up, Gaetan began complaining of leg cramps. He soon left us abruptly to return to the village, taking his big jug of water. Calixto didn’t even stop, and Pake and I had to run to catch up. The old man was maintaining a relentless pace.

He finally stopped at the crest of a low ridge, where we all rested in shade at the edge of a cornfield, eating oranges and boiled eggs. The green oranges were dry but the eggs delicious. By sighting across the inlet to Volcan San Pedro, Pake and I estimated we’d climbed 1,000′ so far.

It was the end of the dry season, and all the dense vegetation around us – grasses and shrubs – was dry and dusty, and insects were mercifully scarce.

Calixto was anxious to resume climbing. Up we trudged, through more fields protected by plastic scarecrows. The trail growing steadily steeper, cutting shoulder and head deep between walls of earth, winding up dry creek bottoms lined with silver rock. Occasional damp spots indicated water below the surface. Around and around, up and up, in ditches so narrow we stumbled and reached out for balance, while Calixto raced onward. We had to beg him to stop so we youngsters could rest. He was polite but obviously frustrated.

After another thousand feet of climbing I got a second wind. I figured Gaetan would’ve been okay if he’d just hung in there a little farther. Now we were in a lush forest, and the path went straight up beneath the broad crowns of trees that harbored a profusion of air plants shaped like octopi.

Approaching the saddle, the path veered to the left, toward Toliman. Then it circled back, gradually leveled, and disappeared in the saddle itself, where berry bushes were interspersed with dry grasses and the burrows of animals.

Calixto kept moving, finding a winding route through the vegetation that he marked on stumps with his machete, clearing obstructions with short, precise strokes. He carried it tip back and blade upwards like all the Mayan men, holding it by the dull part of the blade right behind the handle.

The next day, on the way back down, he would stop in this saddle and tell us about “animales grandes,” shoulder height, which abound here and have been known to eat burros. Then, he would pluck a nondescript berry off a bush, chew it, and spit out the seeds and skin. I would try one and find it sweet with lots of little black seeds, but the taste would linger and become annoying.

After crossing the saddle, he led us up into a thin wood where we came upon the trail from the village of San Lucas. Calixto beamed with satisfaction. That trail led us into a rain forest where moss-covered trees wound their tortured trunks through a maze of vines toward a glowing emerald canopy. Deep vertical chasms ran down beside the trail. There were pines with long drooping branches like weeping willows.

We reached a small clearing where we stopped for lunch. A collapsed lean-to of branches and dry leaves lay beside a dead campfire. I tried a sandwich of peanut butter and honey – delicious. Calixto ate cold beans and tortillas – his sole provisions. He offered us some, but the Mayan-style tortillas were thick and doughy – an acquired taste.

From there, the trail just went straight up the 40-degree slope through dense rain forest. The concept of switchbacks seemed to be unknown here, but in any event, no slope was daunting for 66-year-old Calixto.

Moss covered everything. We used vines and folds in tree trunks as hand-holds. Calixto swung his machete liberally to clear the path. Strange air plants a foot long, like huge beans, hung in clusters from the canopy above. There were small red flowers. The effort of climbing became excruciating, Pake and I had to stop often to rest, and Calixto became exasperated, bounding 20 yards ahead then waiting impatiently for us to catch up.

The vegetation changed continuously as we ascended. That was the only way we could tell we were making progress – we couldn’t see out of the vine-choked jungle. Our view was limited to a few yards at a time. Higher up, flowers resembling dogwood trailed along the ground. We came upon giant trees with trunks 15 feet in circumference. In the canopy above us, black birds howled like monkeys.

My strength was failing and I was about to drop to the ground when I heard Calixto calling from somewhere up ahead: “El rio! El rio!” How could there be a river on top of a volcano?

I looked up and saw light, and Pake and I scrambled up out of the jungle, where we came to rest on a small boulder. From there on we faced an even steeper slope of loose volcanic rubble across hard outcrops interspersed with dry grass and red flowers. Calixto was impatient and we had no time to look anywhere but up. The slope was so steep that a fall would send you tumbling hundreds of feet.

While Calixto climbed straight up, Pake and I had to traverse back and forth across the rubble slope. It was just too steep for us. The end was in sight, we had to keep going, but those last few hundred feet seemed to take forever.

At last, I looked up, and saw Calixto waving. “El rio!” he shouted. Pake was ahead of me at that point, and as he reached the top, he turned to yell “Steam vents! That must be what they call a river around here!”

Calixto had predicted the climb would take us 8 hours, and my watch confirmed that I stumbled onto the peak of Atitlan exactly 8 hours after leaving Pension Rosita. While we were climbing, clouds had spread, encircling the peak in all directions, so that below us, an endless white carpet spread out to the world’s edge, shrouding the lake and its villages. The sun was still high, but glowed through a haze. The ground under my feet radiated heat, and white steam poured from moss-and-flower-filled cracks all over the peak.

I turned to the southeast, and witnessed the eruption of Volcan de Fuego, some 20 miles away.

Rust-colored clouds shot out of the peak, followed moments later by rumbling thunder. A dim trail of debris was spreading for hundreds of miles through the upper atmosphere. I continued turning to take it all in, until I saw, like some infernal mirror image, the simultaneous eruption of Volcan Santa Maria, 20 miles to the northwest, in a white outpouring that veiled the sun.

It was all too much. Today, something like this would be just another selfie moment to share instantly with hundreds of acqaintances and “followers” thousands of miles away. But we didn’t even have a camera between us, let alone a smart phone. I collapsed and lay on my pack on the warm ground. Calixto had wandered off across the peak, which was fairly level for only a couple hundred feet. I saw him waving at me. Crazy old man. He seemed to be waving me down, like he was going to do something I shouldn’t see. Eventually he rejoined us.

“Olla!” he said, pointing west. “Hay un’ olla!”

Pake and I followed him, scrambling over sharp rocks and skirting steaming fissures which led, seemingly bottomless, into the fiery heart of the earth. Suddenly it gaped before us, the crater of Atitlan. An utterly desolate funnel lined with chunks of gray rock, surrounded by steaming cracks. Shreds of clouds drifted over its far edge like the ghosts of pterodactyls.

I felt delirious with fatigue and altitude. We sat together at the east end of the peak, sharing a light supper of beans, eggs, and oranges, while in the west, the sun sank into a bloody bath of clouds. Our water was almost gone. Next to us was a crude partial enclosure with low stone walls topped by an open metal framework, under which Pake and I arranged our bedding, while Calixto spread a sheet of yellow plastic and covered himself with a coarse blanket and a bedspread. He had climbed the last 3,000′ barefoot.

Pake read by flashlight while I watched the stars come out. My legs ached and my face burned with fever. The ground was so warm that blankets were mostly unnecessary. I took two Excedrin, which helped me sleep for a few hours. Then it began to rain.

I pulled my poncho up over my head. Calixto didn’t even wake up.

Feverish, half-delirious, I slept and woke for 15 minutes or a half hour at a time. Once, I woke to the clearest night sky I had ever seen, with a Milky Way that looked like a diamond-studded belt, and constellations which I could not name. At the zenith I saw Vega and Pegasus, through the mystical steel pyramid which surveyors had erected above our enclosure.

Down to Earth

Sometime after dawn I heard the beating of wings on the stone wall behind my head. Small birds would alight near Calixto and tilt their eyes for a brief look at us.

I woke for the last time with a splitting headache. We shared a big breakfast, which helped restore me. We waited until 10am to start down. To his annoyance, I made Calixto hold still while I sketched his portrait. Screw you, I thought, I came along for a good time, not to train for the Olympics.

After our late start, Calixto was determined to lose no time on the descent. Pake had a bad knee, from some high school sports injury, and had to stagger downhill with his knees locked. He stopped to wrap an Ace bandage on, and after that, Calixto slowed a bit in sympathy.

The day was hot and dry. The descent through rain forest, lower forest, and scrub passed in a blur. We’d drunk the last of our water at breakfast, and when we finally emerged from the forest in the foothills, the harsh air of the dry cornfields parched our faces and cracked our lips.

The descent had taken 6 hours. The last few blocks leading to our pension were the worst. I could not think, I could only feel pain, numbness in my legs, and shocking dehydration. Pake and I collapsed into chairs in the small lobby. We paid Calixto and gave him some postcards from our stash. The old man was fresh as a daisy. He loped off, beaming with satisfaction at $20 of easy money.

As we reclined in our little room, Pake told me how he’d managed to get through Princeton in only 3 years, and how he’d cheated on a high school physics test by copying the teacher’s key and altering his exam after turning it in. We were both winding down. He seemed to have to get these things out.

After cold showers, we had a monumental feed. I endured another bad night with headaches and chills.

Losing Our Minds

We lingered in Santiago for a few more days, too fatigued or delirious to think straight, shuffling occasionally down to the lakeside dock, but lacking the motivation to board the mailboat back across the big lake, back to civilization. Completely cut off from everything and everyone we knew, we were just two more lost, scruffy, clueless gringos – our two changes of clothing were riddled with crude stitches and patches, having been worn out and mended multiple times during the past weeks with needles and thread borrowed from other travelers.

Returning to our pension in the evening, up the stony streets on pain-filled legs, we passed the open door of the church, and saw the men’s hats lined up neatly on a pew at the back of the candle-lit, rough-plastered room. We passed the open windows of family homes, and glancing in, saw bejeweled shrines and pictures of Jesus and the Virgin in gilded frames, and carpets of pine needles lining the bedroom floors. We passed girls sitting on the pavement beside tiny kerosene lamps, selling peanuts. We passed the shadows of men pissing on walls.

The diarrhea made us hungry all the time. Within a block of our pension, we found a little comedor that served Mayan pizza – perhaps featuring the local Swiss cheese we’d heard about at El Cayuco. The little senora would invite us into the kitchen first to choose our ingredients, and serve our pizza on a round wooden platform. Other times we’d return to El Cayuco for chicken, salads, licuados, and Beatles songs.

We gradually realized that the tapwater in Santiago, which we’d drunk on our volcano adventure and ever since, was making us sick. Not only that, it was sapping our energy, clouding our judgment, fogging our minds. I felt Pake drifting away from me. The differences between us had been thrown into higher contrast by temporary alliances with fellow travelers like Gaetan. We made it back to Panajachel, where we spent most our time lying on thin straw mattresses in our cheap boarding house.

We bought more carbon pills, but they didn’t help. Our stomachs were painfully bloated, and we tried milk of magnesia, but relief was only minor and temporary. Tossing and turning, sweating with fever and chills, we tried to read books left behind by other travelers on the Gringo Trail: Lillian Hellman’s Pentimento, Solzhenitsyn‘s Cancer Ward. Pake was even sicker than me, but he kept drinking the water he’d brought back from Santiago, despite my repeated warnings. It was like alien spirits had invaded and possessed us, robbing our will to live.

While I withdrew from society, Pake became more gregarious in his rare hours of activity. He went out and befriended Rick, a young guy from Seattle. Rick told him we probably had amoebic dysentery, and it was dangerous – the parasites could even migrate to our brains. But he was on his way to the old colonial capital, Antigua, where there was a doctor who could treat us. Pake told me that after Antigua, he and Rick planned to travel on to the ruins of Tikal. I could join them or not, it was up to me.

Somehow we managed to pack up and leave Panajachel. The ride to Antigua was a blur, and fittingly, the bus dropped us off at the circus grounds near the mercado. The ancient city smaller than we expected, with a maze of narrow streets running up and down between tall walls painted in bright primary colors. The biggest buildings, the whitewashed colonial churches, had been damaged centuries ago by an earthquake and were in a state of perpetual ruin. But to me, that made it all the more dreamlike, beautiful and romantic.

We found a posada past an arch containing a large clock, across from a ruined church and a Japanese restaurant called Zen. The doctor’s office was just up the hill. First, we got lab tests, then, starving again, we tried dinner at Zen. Teriyaki, fried shrimp, tempura – delicious. A wonderful ice cream shop nearby.

We returned the next day to see Dr. Aceituno. He spoke halting English with an impressive vocabulary. He took my temperature and blood pressure and knocked and felt around my stomach and liver, while I lay on my back staring at the dark hardwood ceiling, which was inlaid with an intricate, hand-carved star pattern. A beautiful black and white photograph of the doctor’s son, like an early Steichen portrait, hung on the wall beside his desk. The lab tests indeed indicated amoebic dysentery, and Dr. Aceituno wrote us prescriptions for Flagyl, a powerful antibiotic.

The next morning, we waited until 11am for breakfast, so we could have our last meal at Zen. There, we met Alice Bell, 60, from Palo Alto, who lived here with her husband. She took us back to her home and shop, which was like a museum – she claimed they had the most valuable collection of antique Mayan clothing in the country, from which native weavers got patterns to keep the ancient art alive.

Their small home, built by Mr. Bell, was a marvel, designed around a small hexagonal garden with moss, ivy, and a pond. Packed with art and antique furniture, and a second story, via a spiral stone staircase, with beds facing the city’s volcano – Volcan de Agua – through hexagonal windows, and an outside sun deck. Phi Beta Kappa certificates and war relics on the wall, a beautiful Japanese enamel tile in a floral pattern.

Alice saw my guitar and asked me to come back in a year or so to play in the bar she was planning to open.

I shook hands with Rick and Pake. Alice Bell drove me to the bus station. It was time for the next chapter.

Society in Denial

Pake and I had reached Panajachel and Lake Atitlan by walking down a narrow, winding road from the high rim of the caldera. Along the way, we had breathtaking views, but we felt like we’d entered a different world in other ways. Up until now we’d traveled through poor rural areas, but here, every other car that passed us was a late-model BMW or Mercedes. Panajachel was full of the vacation homes of the rich, and we were surrounded by wealthy, well-dressed, white-skinned vacationers from Guatemala City. We soon learned that unlike Mexico, Guatemala was deeply divided into two major social, racial, and economic classes: the white-skinned urban aristocracy, who identified as Europeans, and the poor, dark-skinned, indigenous Mayan peasants of the countryside, who were considered ignorant, superstitious savages.

Like its neighbors in Latin America, Guatemala has been a client state of the U.S. empire since the 19th century, enriching our capitalists as well as the local ruling class by ruthlessly oppressing the native Maya and exploiting their natural resources. In 1960, a rural resistance movement was finally organized, beginning what became known as the Guatemalan Civil War. In the eyes of the U.S. empire, which had stolen territory and resources and perpetrated genocide on its own indigenous population, the resistance movement and its natural Mayan allies were clearly contrary to our national interests.

While we enjoyed eating their bananas and wearing their colorful fabrics and embroidery, our government sponsored terrorism against the Maya for decades, culminating in the mass atrocities of the 1980s and 1990s, in which up to 200,000 indigenous Maya were tortured, killed, and mutilated by right-wing death squads trained in the U.S. by the Reagan administration.

In 1980, two years after our visit, the resistance movement reached Santiago Atitlan, and the Guatemalan Army established a base south of the village, amidst the cornfields of Calixto’s neighbors, and began a military occupation of the town. In 1981, a death squad assassinated the local priest, and throughout the 1980s, hundreds of Calixto’s neighbors were “disappeared” by death squads trained in the U.S., to be tortured, killed, and lost forever to their families. Finally, in 1990, unarmed villagers marched on the military post in protest, and the army opened fire into the crowd, killing 14 and wounding 21.

The “Civil War” ended in 1996, and Santiago became, temporarily at least, a “military-free zone.” But Guatemala was neither the beginning nor the end of state terrorism by our country. In the new millenium we’ve achieved more technological progress and less accountability. While we argue over domestic issues, safe in the bosom of empire, our government continues to perpetrate political assassinations and collateral murder of dark-skinned villagers in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, via drone warfare and “air strikes” in general, ignored by national media and overlooked in our public discourse. Conditioned by centuries of propaganda under the guise of “education,” we believe we’re a peaceful democracy and live in denial that the U.S. is, and has always been, an oppressive, exploitative empire.

During our recent election, the only presidential candidate who acknowledged this was Gloria La Riva of the Party for Socialism and Liberation. I voted for her, not because I expected her to win, nor because I believe in the European academic fantasy of “socialism,” but because I recognize that nations and empires are fundamentally destructive and unsustainable. Living in denial, most of us cling to the false hope that our culture is a force for good, wishing only that the privileged lives we’ve become accustomed to could persist and be shared with others. The sooner we recognize that our way of life is the problem, and the sooner we find local alternatives to empire, the less our world and its people will suffer. The “ignorant, superstitious” Maya of Santiago, far from being our enemies or even our victims, could have much to teach us.

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Fire, Part 1: Growing Up in Flames

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2020: Fire, Nature, Stories, Trouble.

In early August of this year, I lost my home to fire. But it wasn’t the first time. Fire has welcomed me into its mystery since early childhood, and I’ve lost homes and other treasures to a variety of natural as well as human catastrophes. In weekly hikes, I’ve been studying how natural habitats and wildlife adapt to wildfire, and for the past two decades I’ve been planning to summarize my experiences with natural disasters in a series of thematic essays. So in the wake of the latest loss, here’s the first Dispatch on my life with fire.

All images by Max unless otherwise credited.


Anthropologists who study mobile subsistence cultures – human communities that use open fires for heating and cooking – often observe that many adults have burn scars dating to their childhood, when getting burned was a routine part of living around fire and learning about its dangers.

I was born into a very different society: the suburban United States of the early 1950s. Only a few years before I was born, the U.S. had joined other imperial powers in a war that spanned the entire planet, and our victory in that war, and the industrial development that enabled it, had made us the richest and most powerful nation on earth, one of two new global superpowers.

The Good War. The Greatest Generation. Scientific discovery, technological innovation, industrialization, an orgy of violence and killing on a scale never seen before.

Almost overnight we had a worldwide military empire. And now: continuous, unending shows of force against our counterpart, in what was being called a Cold War.

Always hyper-competitive, we mobilized our scientists and engineers against the enemy in an Arms Race – stockpiling nuclear weapons – and a Space Race, rushing to conquer and dominate the skies overhead with rockets, satellites, and eventually “astronauts.”

But all our newfound wealth, power, and technological progress had a price: hanging over all of us was the threat of The Bomb, a wartime miracle product of our most advanced science – nuclear physics – that threatened to destroy all life on earth. At school, class was interrupted regularly by terrifying air raid sirens, and our teachers would hustle us out into the sterile hallways to hunch down in rows against cinderblock walls, arms crossed over our heads, eyes clamped shut, haunted by visions of a nuclear firestorm.

In contrast to our technological advances, fear made us socially conservative and conformist. My family lived outside a small college town, a center of high-tech industry, in a proto-suburb of modest, modern homes laid out in a row along one side of a road running up the narrow valley of a small creek, with forested ridges rising to each side. Each home sheltered another modern innovation, the nuclear family: our professional dads drove off to work early in the morning, then the kids got up and left for school, while the stay-at-home moms kept house, did the shopping, and cooked the meals. Smaller and more standardized consumer units, isolated from each other, resulted in needs that could be better commodified, improving efficiency and increasing profits for the shareholders.

It’s likely that I first became familiar with fire in our living room. My dad, a research scientist, wasn’t around much – he went straight to the bar after work, and came home late after I was already in bed – so he compensated each year in late autumn by conducting a little family ritual: collecting walnuts from under the trees alongside our house, building a fire in the fireplace in our small living room, and recruiting my mom and me to shell nuts in front of the fire.

Our house at the upper end of the row of houses, with the elementary school at the lower end. When I turned 7, a new family moved into the house next door, with a boy my age. We’d all been indoctrinated with the fever of space exploration, and he’d been given a working model of a multi-stage rocket ship like the ones being used to launch satellites into orbit. It looked realistic, but it stood only a couple feet tall and used water and compressed air for propulsion. It lacked much of the drama of the real thing.

All of our houses stood on terraces above the creek, with the front on the top level facing the road, and the back one story lower, with a basement opening onto a big concrete patio on the bank of the creek. Prosperity, conformity and predictability made society safe, and outside of school, kids were allowed to spend their days without adult supervision. My neighbor and I were sometimes left alone at the same time – our fathers at work, our mothers out running errands or visiting friends. On one of those days, bored with his water-powered rocket, the neighbor boy got the idea of collecting everything we could find labeled “flammable,” dumping it into an empty coffee can on his patio, and setting the mixture on fire, to simulate a real rocket launch.

We disappeared into our vacant basements and emerged a few minutes later carrying cans of gasoline, paint thinner, lighter fluid, and the like. My neighbor placed the coffee can out in the middle of the concrete slab, we poured a little of everything in, and he stirred it up with a stick. I stood back a few yards as he lit a match, tossed it in the can, and dashed back to join me. There was a subdued whoosh, a brief burst of flame, and that was it. Bad idea. Sheepishly, we returned all the ingredients to their proper places and moved on to something different.

Unfortunately for us, a lady in the next house over happened to be looking out a back window at the time. As soon as my neighbor’s mom got home, our spectator ran over to tell her. She interrogated her son, and he blamed everything on me.

My dad got the news at work, and rushed home early for a change. Our phone was ringing off the hook – all the neighbors in a state of hysteria, labeling me a pyromaniac, an arsonist, a dangerous juvenile offender.

I was undersize, and terrified of my dad’s temper. Obese, with a deep, bellowing voice, he always seemed like a giant. He interrogated me, but that only frightened me more, and I denied having anything to do with the backyard fire.

The other parents had chosen a dad from the lower end of our road as a representative, and he called my dad to announce their verdict. My dad angrily defended me, but the decision was final. Why? I’ll never know – over time, our family has lost all contact with that community.

Henceforth, I was not to be seen or heard socializing or communicating with any other kids on our road. And additionally: I was not allowed to set foot on their properties, which meant that I would have to cross the road in front of our house and walk to school on the far side, where there was no sidewalk.

Fire had made me an exile in my own neighborhood. I’d lied to my parents and felt terrible. I’m sure the neighbor kid was suffering too. I lost my playmates, and every weekday I carefully crossed the busy road and walked alone through the weeds on the other side, all the way down the valley to school, trying to avoid looking at my neighbors’ forbidden properties. It wasn’t until decades later, after our nuclear family had fragmented and dispersed across the continent, that the mother of the neighbor boy approached my paternal grandmother in a local supermarket and apologized, saying her son had finally admitted to starting that silly little fire.

Fanning the Flames

I was only an outcast for a year. In 1960, when I turned 8, my parents decided to separate, and my mom moved me and my new baby brother to her own hometown in the next state to the west.

A new decade and a different environment. The Russians hadn’t bombed us into oblivion yet, so it was possible to start ignoring the threat of those growing nuclear stockpiles. And my mom’s hometown was a small farming community in the midst of flat, sprawling cropfields, almost an hour’s drive from the nearest city. Little industry, life had a slower pace, and progress and the wider world now seemed far away. Plus, instead of the “modern, progressive” nuclear family, I was now in the bosom of my mom’s traditional extended family.

My mom’s parents – my grandparents – operated a neighborhood grocery, and initially, we moved into their house, a short walk from the center of town in a tree-shaded neighborhood of small business owners and tradespeople. It was a modest two-story, three-bedroom wood-frame house probably built between the 1930s and the 40s, but it wasn’t really designed for all of us. After a year or two of this cramped arrangement, our grandparents moved around the corner into our great-grandparents’ house, and we spread out.

Our mom slept downstairs in the small parlor-like room off the kitchen, with a tiny half bath. I took the larger upstairs bedroom and my brother the smaller, and we all shared the only full bath, which was across a tiny landing between the bedrooms at the top of the stairs.

I was still an undersize child and was being bullied regularly by my new classmates and teachers, so if anything, I was even more fearful than before. My dad’s parents, back in our previous hometown, were insurance agents, and on some birthday or holiday they gave me a big book published by an insurance company, sensationalizing famous fires from history, with garish paintings showing people jumping out of the burning windows of big-city apartment buildings, and firemen running from burning houses with babies in their arms. I had developed a habit of reading in bed at night, and this book “fired” my imagination to the point where I was afraid of going to sleep and having the house catch fire with us unconscious inside.

I had only a rudimentary notion of how house fires got started. A spark or some source of heat in contact with something flammable? The only sources I could think of were the steam-heat furnace downstairs in the back kitchen, the electrical outlets and appliances, and the radiators and steam pipes located in every room. Every night, after my mom and brother had gone to sleep, I got up and prowled the house checking for hot spots. When I was sure everything was okay, I went back to bed and eventually fell asleep.

It took me another couple of years to get over my fear of fire in the night, but I finally did. Meanwhile, real fires were a regular spectacle in our town. The fire station had a horn that was so loud it could be heard all over town, and they divided the town into sectors. Whenever a fire was called in, they blew the horn from one to four times to indicate the sector, so spectators would know where to go to watch the fire. I’ll never forget the night the big grain elevator behind the courthouse caught fire. It was almost as tall as the courthouse itself, and much of the town’s population gathered on the courthouse lawn to watch the tower of flames and sparks collapsing into the criss-crossing arcs of water from the fire engines.

Midwestern summers can get really hot and muggy, and my brother’s room only had one small window, whereas my larger room had a couple of dormer windows next to my double bed and a taller sash window in the gable at the opposite end of the room, so I had a lot more airflow. Our grandpa had installed a big window fan in the lower part of that gable window, and on really hot summer nights, my brother left his room and joined me. On one such night, we had the fan going full blast, blowing directly at the bed, and it helped us both fall asleep.

The next thing I knew, I woke up to a roaring, crackling sound, and a wall of flame facing me across the room. I grabbed my little brother and dragged him out to the landing, where I yelled that my room was on fire. He bounded down to join our mom at the bottom of the stairs, and she rushed him out the front door, then dashed to the phone and called the fire department.

I followed my brother down, but my whole life was up in that burning room. I wasn’t going to let it go without a fight. I ran back to the kitchen, grabbing a big sauce pan and filling it with water, which I lugged back up the stairs, into a growing cloud of smoke. Choking and coughing in the heavy smoke, I could now barely see the fire, but I trudged forward anyway and threw the pan of water toward where I knew the window had to be.

Of course, that added a rush of steam to the smoke, and I was driven back down the stairs, where our mom was waiting for me, and we both ran outside, across the porch into the front yard where we joined my little brother under the big maple tree. Flames were climbing out my window toward the peak of the roof, and thick smoke was pouring out of the door and all the open windows, both upstairs and down. The fire station’s horn was blowing, a siren was howling up the street, and the fire engine was just turning into our alley. They stopped short of the house, ran a ladder up to the window, and a fireman began climbing it with a hose.

It only took a short blast from the high-pressure hose to put out the flames, and meanwhile, other uniformed firemen were tramping through our house, making sure the fire was truly out and all the windows and doors were open to let out the smoke.

Our grandparents accompanied us back to their house, around the corner. Our great-grandparents had both passed away by that time, so there was now a spare bedroom where the three of us could temporarily shelter. Our first order of business: to get clean. The window fan had had a plastic housing, which had apparently been flammable, generating black smoke full of molten soot and ashes that had coated everything in the house, including us, and my brother and I had been breathing it.

We were too filthy for the upstairs bathroom, which had only an old clawfoot tub, so we took turns showering in the unfinished basement, where our grandparents had their furnace and laundry room with a shower in the low ceiling. I remember coughing up long strands of black phlegm and watching them trail away to the drain in the concrete floor, seemingly endlessly, until finally the water cleared and I felt I could breath freely again. Decades later, a chest x-ray would show a scar in my lungs which may date to that fire.

The next day, we learned that the only actual fire damage was to the wall immediately around the window. But as always happens, our house was uninhabitable, because everything inside it was covered with that black soot, and the odor, the off-gassing, was toxic. Everything exposed – all our furniture, appliances, bedding, clothing, hobbies, toys, pictures – would have to be cleaned, and much of it would be unsalvageable. All the ceilings, walls, and floors would need to be cleaned, painted or refinished.

It was only a few years after the trauma of an entire neighborhood turning against me, but what a different experience this fire was! My mom’s hometown came together generously to support us, and all the cleaning and repairs were completed quickly. In my memory it was no more than three weeks before I was back in my upstairs bedroom, where the previous greenish wallpaper had been replaced with white paint, and the tongue-and-groove hardwood floor had a shiny new finish.

My clothes, bedding, books, and model cars had been cleaned, and it was great to be back in my own room, but I couldn’t get that wall of flame out of my imagination, and my nighttime fear of fire returned with a vengeance. Once again, I waited every night for the others to fall asleep, so I could prowl the house looking for hot spots. Only when I was sure everything was safe would I return to bed, but even then it was hard to sleep. So for a little more peace of mind, I arranged to spend one night a week in the spare bedroom at our grandparents’ house. Fire was redirecting my life.

Slow-Burning Cave

To people who live close to the earth, fire and flames are a mystical embodiment of spirit itself, and even in our advanced, civilized culture, we regularly use fire as a metaphor. In Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning post-apocalyptic novel The Road, the protagonist speaks of “carrying the fire” – the seeds of civilization itself – referring to our popular stereotype of cultural evolution: “man’s discovery of fire.” That civilization went through huge changes in the decades after my bedroom fire: the civil rights and environmental movements, Vietnam and the anti-war movement, the youth culture revolution of the 1960s and the Counterculture of the 1970s. And I finally had a growth spurt and gained confidence, and a small support group of kindred spirits, through my achievements in art and academics.

Beginning in the 1960s, candles became an icon of the new hippie generation, and in my high school art class, I made a big rainbow-colored candle in the shape of a long slab, like a little stone wall, with half a dozen wicks in a row. Growing out of my early timidity, I’d begun taking on the role of an organizer and leader both in our neighborhood and at school, and at night, I’d set the big candle in the middle of my bedroom floor at night, invite friends over, and chant lines from ancient Anglo-Saxon poems – Beowolf, The Seafarer, and The Wanderer – as we sat in a circle gazing at the flames. On the eve of my departure for college, my experimental folk-rock band peformed its final concert on the open porch of a farmhouse way out in the country, surrounded by fifty flickering candles.

Our parents had split up when we moved to Indiana, but during our visits to his new home in California, our dad took my brother and me camping. His approach was incredibly stressful, planning months in advance, with multi-page checklists and tons of expensive gear that had to be kept spotless and meticulously maintained, but he always said that nature was his church, and after I eventually transcended the uptightness and inhibitions of his style of camping, the love and respect remained, along with many essential lessons, including how to safely and effectively build and manage a campfire.

When I left the small town for college in the big city, I remained dependent on my extended family in many ways – a sort of prolonged adolescence, seemingly destined for the sort of “normal” adulthood my father had hoped for, with a professional career, wife, home, and children. It wasn’t until I finally came out the other end, degrees in hand, that I began to rebel.

Attracted by the bohemian lifestyle, I became an apprentice to my best friend Mark, a fellow artist, who practiced a casual, minimalist style of camping. You always carried a sleeping bag and slept wherever you found yourself – in somebody’s living room, yard, or under a bush in a park. Anything else you needed, you scrounged or mooched from others at the last minute. We spent years making road trips together, all over the west and into Mexico, huddling around campfires, surrounded by six packs of cold beer, passing handrolled joints, dreaming up art projects, making up songs and phantasmagorical banter.

When I graduated from Mark’s teachings and created my own arts community in a loft in San Francisco, we were hit by the coldest winter on record, and I bought and installed a wood stove which became the center of our home on cold nights. We started out poor, burning castoff softwood lumber we scavenged late at night from the streets of our industrial neighborhood. But then we got better day jobs, and I found a firewood lot in a distant suburb that offered delivery, and henceforth we kept a woodpile on one side of the big front hall, fed the stove with oak and avocado, and learned how to safely and effectively heat a large, high-ceilinged urban space with wood fires, warming up unforgettable jam sessions, parties, and late-night confessions.

In the meantime, Mark had introduced me to the Mojave Desert, where he camped occasionally in a “cave” – a hollow under a granite boulder in a beautiful basin next to a remote dirt road. Through him, I eventually met Katie, who would become my partner in life and music for a while. She’d come from a family with at least as much trauma as mine – she and her siblings had been condemned by their childhood community for “setting a swamp on fire” – accidentally burning off the dried vegetation of a large wetland that provided habitat for wildlife.

But Katie was an experienced outdoorswoman who taught me how as bohemian artists, we didn’t need to stress over preparations for camping, nor did we need high technology, but with a little work and creativity, we could have all the comforts of home while deep in the wilderness.

I took Katie out to the desert, where we discovered our own, larger shelter in a pile of boulders near Mark’s cave. But it needed cleaning up. The gravel floor was covered with cholla cactus joints – the spine-covered branches that littered the ground around wide-branching buckhorn cholla and were always getting stuck to our shoes, ankles, and the occasional careless limb.

We drove the 80 miles to the nearest town and came back with a cheap garden rake, but a little raking only revealed a much bigger challenge: the ancient woodrat midden in the back. At that early stage of our desert apprenticeship we were ecologically ignorant and didn’t realize our cave had been the home of woodrats for centuries, if not millenia.

The midden was a resinous mass at the back of our cave – where our heads would lie at night – stinking of woodrat urine, thoroughly embedded with cactus spines. We tried to break it up with a shovel, but it was too dense and hard. So we came up with the bright idea of setting it on fire and burning it out. I guess my coal-mining uncle had never told me about coal seam fires, which can burn underground for thousands of years, because that’s what we ended up with.

The woodrat midden generated a massive stream of dense white smoke that poured out of the cave and spread across the basin. We used all our limited supply of bottled water on it with no effect, and there we were in the desert, a half mile from our car and 80 miles from civilization, so we had to leave it burning, deep in the cave, while we hiked to the car and drove back to Twentynine Palms. There, we bought a fire extinguisher and more jugs of drinking water, and took showers in the public park. Then we drove the 80 miles back to our cave.

After all those hours of driving and hiking back and forth from the road, the little fire extinguisher was exhausted in about 30 seconds and likewise had no effect. We were driven out of our cave by yet another cloud of smoke, coughing and weeping, heartsick and desolate, feeling like history’s biggest fools. All Katie could think of was that burning swamp from her childhood. What had we started, and what would happen next? We couldn’t just drive away and leave it to burn – this was a beautiful wilderness, on public land.

For whatever reason, the one thing we hadn’t tried yet was to bury the fire, smother it with the sand and gravel that we still had an unlimited supply of in and around our cave. We still had my little folding shovel, so working in shifts to recover from breathing smoke, we began slowly burying the midden fire, and it eventually went out, and we cleaned up our cave, which, under Katie’s direction, we finally turned into a comfortable home in the wilderness. We built a little dry-stone wall around the charred midden, and there at the back of the cave, right next to where we slept, it became a permanent reminder of that early disaster.

Tossing the Coal

Our San Francisco loft was crumbling, decrepit, and illegal – not zoned for residential, developed in violation of building codes – and we were all sure it wouldn’t survive a major earthquake. But as artists and musicians, we found beauty in ruins, and in capitalist society, we had no other options.

The building next to us on the south was a tenement whose upper floor sheltered a long series of troubled tenants, desperate people whose problems couldn’t always be confined to their apartment. Their back door opened onto a lower roof below the window of my bedroom and art studio. I was working there one afternoon when I heard kids outside. A Vietnamese family were our newest neighbors, and when I opened the window, the kids were setting fire to an old mattress on the tarred roof just below my window. I screamed at them and ran to the phone in the hall. Fortunately a fire station was just around the corner.

My roommates were together enough to talk me into getting a fire extinguisher for our kitchen, and John, whose room had a path to a side alley via another low roof outside his window, set up a rope ladder we could access from the roof, via our many skylights and roof hatches, to escape in an emergency. But our place was still a fire trap, like the Ghost Ship artist community in Oakland that became a terrible tragedy and a prolonged scandal in the 2010s. We were lucky; they weren’t.

It wasn’t fire, but an earthquake that brought my San Francisco loft community to an end in October 1989, leaving me homeless yet again. As described elsewhere, the quake caught me at work across the Bay in Berkeley, and it was hours before I could return to my damaged home. At a friend’s house in Oakland, “We watched Mike’s TV in silence as they showed the same helicopter footage over and over, of a blacked-out city lit only by raging fires in my South of Market neighborhood and in the Marina District to the north.”

Later, returning to the crippled loft, “It was about 2am when I rolled down darkened Folsom Street, driving slow and swerving to avoid trash can fires and homeless people staggering like zombies through the rubble.” It was literally post-apocalyptic, beyond any movie, and I’ll never forget those fires and the human shadows crossing in front of them.

Despite all those decades of experience and that long, diverse series of teachers, my knowledge of fire didn’t truly mature until I joined an aboriginal skills field course at Utah’s Boulder Outdoor Survival School in 1990. There, I learned to make fire the ancient way, by assembling and crafting a fire-starting kit from local, natural materials. It takes a lot of practice, but once you master it, it’s no more difficult than any of our routine domestic chores.

That course gave me something priceless I’d only dreamed about: the firsthand understanding of how indigenous people – the ancestors of all of us – thrived in harmony with nature. There in the high desert wilderness of Utah’s Colorado Plateau, I assembled a fire drill and a stash of firemaking materials, all of which were destroyed in this year’s house fire. Those things were sacred to me, and their loss adds to so many others I will always grieve.

But I didn’t just learn how to make fire from scratch. I also learned to make an effective cooking fire with sticks no thicker than my thumb, so the coals would burn down to ash that could be mixed into the soil, obliterating any record of the fire when we left the site. Leave no trace.

And at night, sitting around the campfire, after eating our dinner of hand-caught trout from a nearby stream, we learned the game of tossing the coal – something so counter-intuitive to our civilized, risk-averse lifestyle that it seems impossible. Tom, our instructor, reached into the embers, grabbed a red-hot coal, and began tossing it from hand to hand while he grinned at each of us novices in turn.

“Never tried tossing the coal?” He glanced at Cody, the apprentice at his side, and passed the coal to him. “One of the oldest games known to man. You’d never think it, but all you need is to keep it moving, bouncing around in your palm, tossing it back and forth between your hands.”

Tom looked at me. “Go ahead, grab yourself a coal!”

The universal attraction of fire is far older than our species. Early humans didn’t “discover” fire, kick-starting our cultural progress toward the conquest of outer space, any more than Columbus “discovered” the New World. Once we stop trying to “conquer” nature, it has much to teach us. Fire taught me that mice are omnivorous: alone on my desert land one cold night, I watched moths drawn to the campfire, and a deer mouse leaping into the air to catch them.

It’s ironic – white do-gooders are always trying to wean brown-skinned villagers in the Global South from their traditional wood fires – but my civilized friends and I are all happiest living in the wilderness around a primitive campfire.

Next: Discovering Wildfire


Day of Clouds

Monday, December 28th, 2020: Hikes, Pinalenos, Southeast Arizona.

One of those days when I wasn’t motivated. It was freezing outside, I had trouble deciding where to go, and the hike I finally chose was a long drive away. Fortunately, preparing for an all-day hike in the mountains is a complicated routine, so I just submitted to it, and the routine eventually got me out the door on time.

Funny, the sky was’t particularly interesting during the drive across the big empty basins of the Southwest. But once I arrived and started walking, something drew my eyes upwards, and the spectacle began.

No wind at ground level, but the clouds were churning constantly, all day long. Still, I had to keep my eyes on the ground while walking, and I was surprised to find a crowd of footprints – big, medium, and small, both coming and going – lining the trail from the beginning. I hadn’t thought this was such a popular trail.

However, the human prints disappeared after the first mile or so in the foothills. As usual, they were only up for a short stroll and had turned back. From there on, I had virgin trail – looked like no one else but animals had set foot on it since my last visit, seven weeks ago.

This is probably the most consistently steep hike I do. I’d forgotten how relentless it is. Southern exposure most of the way up, sweating. Then at the top, a knife edge ridge scoured by icy wind, legs aching, trudging in the chill shadow of towering firs up ground altering between crusty patches of snow and a pillowy sea of oak leaves.

Taking it easier on the way down. Love this Sky Island habitat – much more interesting than what we have back home. Especially in this canyon, where a maze of rock outcrops and cliffs forces vegetation into patches, alternating between dense chaparral and mixed-conifer forest, often interpenetrating. So much diversity! I kept exlaiming out loud, “What a great trail!”

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