Lesson’s from the moon’s shadow

How the eclipse makes you understand space, and why we should pay attention to lesser wonders.

IMG_3477This essay originally appeared at hcn.org on Aug. 23, 2017

Most of us who came always knew there could be fog.

Oregon’s coast is a moody place, carved by surf, stormsurge and the Earth’s seismic shivers into sea-stacks and cliffs. Its tree-covered hills are alternately woven through with cloud, or scoured to sun by gusts that sculpt branches into bonsais and stiffen your fingers with chill. Sometimes, though, it is clear and still, as if the world is tasting light for the first time, made new again while you slept. As maybe it always is.

Those of us who came to see the total solar eclipse from the spot where the moon’s shadow would first touch the continent knew this. But we came anyway. We came from Portland. From Washington and Texas. From British Columbia and California and South Carolina. As if to bless our choice, the weekend was sunnier than any I’ve experienced on the coast. But sometime early in the morning on Monday, the day of the eclipse, a thick fog crept in. It obscured the houses across the Siletz River from where I camped in my truck, turned the toppled snags jutting from Siletz Bay into a blurred jumble of old bones. More…

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Go North, Young Woman

In a place no one can see you, you can see yourself more clearly.

IMG_6835This essay originally appeared in the print edition of High Country News March 16, 2017.

Think of your skin as a map.

Its marks inscribe a story of your life. The raggedness of your fingertips from biting your nails. The lines in your cheeks from laughing. The scar from surgery to help knit broken bone. The burn you gave yourself when only pain would calm you. The nick on your wrist that, whenever you touch it, makes you think of the talus field where you stumbled and cut yourself, the mountain lake where you washed the blood away.

On this August afternoon, the skin on my calves is tanned dark, crisscrossed with scratches, welted with bugbites, scummed over with beaver pond. On this August afternoon, my skin says that I’ve ventured into the boreal forest, and that it’s kicking my ass.

I’m a few days into a 16-day canoe trip with five girlfriends down the remote Spatsizi and Upper Stikine rivers — joined threads in the high reaches of a great system of braided, salmon-bearing waterways that originate in a swath of northern British Columbia known as the Sacred Headwaters. It’s a place toothy with mountain ranges, broad-shouldered with tundra plateaus, and furred with endless forests of white and black spruce and bursts of poplar just turning gold. More…

The Trouble with Abundance

IMG_8731This post originally appeared at The Last Word on Nothing on February 1, 2017.

There are several things you’re likely to notice if you fly over Southeast Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago on a clear day. If you’re an alpine junky like me, the first will be the snowcapped mountains that stretch seemingly without end from near the coast to the eastern horizon somewhere in Canada, their white-and-gray-tongued glaciers pouring all the way to the sea. The second is the serene sea itself, scattered with more than 1,000 islands that jut down from the state along the coast like a shattered thumb. The third thing, the thing that Southeast Alaska and British Columbia have in greater abundance than just about everywhere else on Earth, is drippy, sponge-floored old-growth temperate rainforest.

It furs the near-coast foothills, the lower toes of peaks and all those islands for miles—dark, silvered at the edges with hanging lichens and mosses, youthful with saplings, wise with centuries-old giants, boney with standing snags. It looks like the hide of something Maurice Sendak would have drawn, or of one of Jim Henson’s fantastical creatures, or of something you can’t quite imagine at all. It looks wild in the truest sense of the word. More…

Oregon’s Trail through Time: How do you protect a historic artifact from the development it catalyzed?

IMG_8067This feature appeared in the March 7, 2016 special travel issue of High Country News:

Ignore the cold that stiffens your fingers this blustery November day. Ignore the snow atop the distant mountains and the seed-flecked mud that weights your boots. Forget the Jeep Cherokee you came in. None of that was here, in eastern Oregon, in late summer when they crossed.

“You’ve gotta pretend,” says Gail Carbiener, “that it’s 100 degrees.”

I close my eyes. Beneath my feet are the ruts of the Oregon Trail, left by thousands of covered wagons that settlers used to haul belongings from Missouri to the valleys beyond the Cascades, back during the 1840s, ’50s and ’60s. Even then, the route wasn’t new: Fur trappers and missionaries used it, and so, for millennia, did Native peoples.

Today, it’s the designated Oregon National Historic Trail, administered by the National Park Service and mostly visited by history enthusiasts like Carbiener and his wife, Muriel. This particular stretch, northwest of Ontario, Oregon, was a brutally dry 25 miles between the algae-choked Malheur River and a final crossing of the Snake River called Farewell Bend. I conjure creaking leather, plodding livestock, and sunburnt families on foot. It’s not easy: The ruts look more like an eroded ditch grown over with sagebrush. I can faintly hear traffic on Interstate 84, out of sight beyond a hill that fails to conceal a cellphone tower.

The visual intrusion makes 81-year-old Carbiener scowl beneath his John Deere ball cap, but otherwise, the white-grassed hills appear mostly unchanged since the 19th century. That’s why the Carbieners so love this spot, called Birch Creek. Those early travelers “would talk about coming up to a ridge, and as far as the eye could see, they saw wagons,” Gail Carbiener continues. “And so the dust here was unbelievable. The diaries would say that it was so thick, we can’t see the oxen in front of the wagon.”

To complete the scene, I glance at Muriel Carbiener. She performs living history at the High Desert Museum in Bend, where the couple lives, and today, she’s in character. A bonnet covers her close-cropped hair and a floral-print dress hangs to her ankles, cinched with a slightly tattered apron. “And of course there’s a corset,” the diminutive 79-year-old laughs, to “keep the girls in. Do you want to walk 2,000 miles without any support?” More…

The day I tried to love ticks

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This post appeared in The Last Word on Nothing on February 26, 2016.

There’s a certain category of mundane but distinctly unpleasant discovery: The blueberries you just mixed in your oatmeal explode mold into your mouth at 6 a.m. You read that Donald Trump won the Nevada Republican caucuses. You roll over in bed to find a tick lodged midriff-deep in your shoulder, wiggling about with a tenacity that suggests she plans to spelunk all the way through to your lungs.

“Fortuitously, the antibiotic you take prophylactically for Lyme disease is also the one you take to treat Chlamydia,” the doctor tells me cheerfully a day later when he checks the bruised and swollen bite and gives me a prescription. I stare at him, wondering why he thinks I need this information. It’s unlikely that I’ve got Lyme. Though local incidence is going up, Oregon saw only 44 reported cases in 2014 and Washington generally gets fewer than 30 a year – with just zero to three stemming from local ticks. But the fact that odds are in my favor fails to cheer me as I pluck tick after ever-more-engorged tick from my dog over the next several days. They’re small and hide well in her fur, so unless they pop out of her ears and stroll calmly across her face (some do) I can’t seem to find them until they’re attached and on their way to becoming fat and shiny as coffee beans.

Their emergence is, of course, just as much a sign of spring as the lovely purple grass widows my friend Roger and I had been out looking for when tickmageddon started last Saturday. By tick 10, I started to wonder: Aside from their reputation for transmitting more diseases than any other blood-sucking arthropod, why shouldn’t I find a way to appreciate ticks, too – from a safe distance away? Maybe I could even learn to love them a little bit. Continue reading The day I tried to love ticks

The masks we wear

This is crossposted from The Last Word on Nothing, a science writing blog where I just became a regular contributor!

Revised alien

When I put on the metallic silver unitard and homemade alien mask that rainy morning, I had no idea that I was about to embark on one of the most stressful weekends of my life.

How could I? I love wearing costumes. One Halloween, I dressed as a vulture-like Skeksis from Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal, and stalked through the local grocery sniffing packages of meat. Another, I made 30 little men out of fabric and baling wire, gluegunned toothpick spears into their tiny mitts, and sewed them all over my clothes. When my friends asked what I was, I screamed that I was “being attacked by tiny people!”

A mask gives you freedom to reinterpret yourself. Sort of like the way being drunk cleanses you of all your inhibitions: Maybe you dance “15,000 times better in costume than out,” as one of my friends puts it, or maybe you finally have an excuse to talk to that cute stranger dressed as a box of wine. To wear a costume is to take on a sort of power.

But the difference with my alien getup was that it wasn’t Halloween. It was an ordinary March day. As a newcomer to Portland, Oregon, I had decided to take on the role of the ultimate foreign visitor for a travel story that I was writing – a sort of cross between performance art and social experiment where I would spend 48 hours seeing the city’s sights through black, ovoid eyes. There was a tenuous journalistic angle, in that Oregon had the highest per capita rate of UFO sightings in 2014, and Portland was a hotspot. But it was personal, too: Moving from a town of 1,500 to a city of 600,000, I felt invisible. I yearned, with tinges of existential dread, to set myself apart from the faceless masses. To be a special snowflake. A special alien snowflake. Continue reading The masks we wear

Claustrophilia: Do wide-open lands bring us closer together?

Cover essay and photographs from the September 15, 2015 High Country News Books and Essays issue:

I can see a spark of tired panic in Jo’s eyes as they meet mine. Our narrow Purgon — a Russian-made UAZ van that resembles a jacked-up VW bus — is bursting with people. The rigid seats, which face each other like those in a diner booth, are crammed with butts, and our knees interlock like a human zipper. In the back, where baggage and boxes of supplies serve as yet more seats, two weathered old men hunch below the ceiling. In the front passenger seat, a woman settles on the lap of the standby driver.

Dhuka reindeerAnd yet here we are, picking up another passenger. She looks like she weighs maybe 100 pounds soaking wet, but where will she fit? There’s a slim gap between Jo and her neighbor; the newcomer clambers over and wedges in sideways. Finally, finally, after six hours of waiting, the driver decides that we’re full. He grinds into gear and we chug free of Murun, Mongolia — capital of the country’s northernmost province — toward the remote village of Tsagaan Nuur, near the Russian border.

After 30 minutes of paved road, we veer abruptly onto a dirt two-track winding into the hills. Jo’s husband, Sean, who finished a Peace Corps assignment here in 2007, grins knowingly at Jo and me. “Jiiinkheeene,” he comments wryly, drawing out the Mongolian word. Jinkhene translates roughly as authentic, or old-school. But it can best be defined by what follows.

The Purgon bounces and shudders: The passengers brace arms against seats and each other’s knees, occasionally knocking heads. The Purgon grows steadily chillier: The passengers produce a laptop and memory stick and put together a compilation of Mongolian power ballads that the driver plays on repeat for the next 12 hours. The Purgon bogs in the mud: The passengers tumble out and push, sprinting in all directions when it lurches free at high speed. Through it all, everyone smiles, everyone laughs. There’s something almost tender about the ease with which strangers drowse on each others’ shoulders through the night. Shepherd slumps against meaty policeman; meaty policeman slumps against Sean; Sean, wincing, flattens his 6-foot-4-inch frame against the Purgon wall and my feet, which I had propped up to keep my knees from cramping.

The Mongolians are better at this than us.

In my early 20s, I was in a similar situation on a Greyhound bus between Kansas City and Denver. When the sleeping teenage girl next to me began drooling on my shoulder, I felt not tenderness but silent, half-homicidal rage.

Now, though, watching these strangers touch each other as casually as friends, I feel differently. Beyond the smeared windows stretches one of the most sparsely populated landscapes in the world. There are no fences, and little interrupts the gentle roll of the steppe besides patches of dark trees and congregations of plump sheep, yaks and horses. Felt roundhouses called gers — the traditional homes of pastoral nomads — appear now and then like white buttons stitched haphazardly onto rumpled green fabric. Sean has told us about the nomads’ generosity, how they will offer even unexpected visitors salted yak-milk tea, food, a bed. And I’ve read of the blizzards and subzero cold that pummel people here each winter. Maybe, I think, in all this beautiful, brutal vastness, a tiny enclosure that brings the world to a human scale is to be shared, not defended. How else would anyone survive in such a place? More…