Thursday, May 30, 2013

Kook Alert

Brown pelicans flew in formation overhead. Dogs frolicked at the shore, joggers and bicyclists cruised the boardwalk, smell of ganja and surf wax. Stand up paddle boarders and surfers cruised the three foot swell. Mellow, idyllic So Cali scene.

I could appreciate little of it while being dragged toward the shore and floundering in the whitewater. I was in battle mode, constantly fighting for breath from maneuvering the 9 foot plank against current that dragged me into the knots of real surfers toward the pier.

Doug was ever calm and maneuvered his lithe nearly 70 year old body in circles around me giving me a few tips and encouragement but I think mainly trying to stay out of way and let me flounder and learn. "That's good, you are learning to bracket like photography. Too far back and you lose your momentum to catch the wave, too far forward and you pearl off the nose." He must have seen my eyes widen a bit because he followed with, "it's really no big deal to pearl, I just cover my head like this..."

Doug is a retired psychologist and seemed to already have clicked in to my learning style, kinesthetic motor, usually the hard way. "I'll just surf over here and let you find your way."

There were a few moments, when I wasn't in constant bounce like a semi-professional leg-less log roller, that I could take a full zen-like breath and look at the set coming and ponder the kernels of wisdom Doug had conservatively tossed my way. So far they seemed always to land quite a ways out of reach and sink hopelessly to the seafloor.

Doug had cautioned me to be aware of anyone around me. "If they are on your left they have the right of way so just back off if you are trying to catch the same wave, they come fast! And if they are on your right you should probably just bail out too." Doug must have been a very good psychologist. I think he already intuited that I am usually correct only about 50% of the time when picking right from left, and its especially suspect under duress.

In truth I felt like an arthritic elephant seal with prop chopped flippers. Or a sad caged clipped winged hawk pulled from his home in the mountains. I am sure I was painfully obvious to everyone out there and to any sharks sniffing for wounded prey.

Paddling is surprisingly arm-y and shoulder-y and required some good fluidity in the joints. I can hike for days with a 100 pound pack over rough terrain but strip me down and throw me on a 9 foot fiberglass plank to maneuver in the water and I was fairly hopeless. Crawling on my belly with near vestigial arms on a cumbersome tippy board was really challenging me. Going from that state to turning toward shore, paddling from the sweet spot on the board and springing directly to standing seemed a tad delusional.

I was thrilled to not get too pummeled by angry locals and to not add any dings to the board Doug had graciously let me borrow. He explained to me the gravity that effects the attitude of seasoned surfers to new surfers. "It's dangerous, so expect to be chewed out if you are floundering in the whitewater. I got yelled at just a few months ago and I am a pretty decent surfer."

I thought Doug was banishing me to Mondos, the beginner's beach 5 miles north where he spent his first year. "It's more consistent here at C Street but you really need to be aware of other surfers."

He let me keep the board for a few days. I had only managed to belly-board white water but was keen to try again. I asked him when he would be surfing again, expecting a vague answer. I wouldn't blame him at all if he did. Instead he said, "I think I will be here tomorrow morning if you want to come down again." I think I just might...

Friday, May 24, 2013

More Shameless Self Promotion...

You can be the proud owner of one of 14 amazing prints of my photos (or I suppose if you felt inclined they would even sell you all 14). They can be framed and matted simply by clicking a few buttons, and you can even choose mattes and frame styles and get a preview of it mocked up - so cool! - Or ordered neat like fine scotch: sans frame and matte. via  -and it ships in just 1 to 2 days... Wa-hoo!

I might have to order one myself. I think my birthday is coming up...

Bike Magazine and Ojai Quarterly

Two pieces hit the newsstand whilst I was galavanting with Maureen at the bottom of the globe... The quality local magazine Ojai Quarterly published The Welcome Return...

Featuring vintage shots from (way) back in the day...

Bike Magazine printed a two page spread of an image I shot while on assignment shooting the Whiskey Off-Road in Prescott Arizona... Yee-haa!!!

Shot this from the back of the official chase truck on the starting line with a bunch of real bike photogs, it was an honor to elbowing and shooting with such seasoned pros...

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Past Tense of Mow is Moan

Have I missed my calling?
Image ©Tom Eversgerd
What is the sound I have learned to associate most with the Midwest after my most recent two-week sojourn this last May? It is not the near ubiquitous chirpings of red wing blackbirds and robins. No, not the buzzing of a million bugs reveling in the humid torpor of a promised thunderstorm. It is the revved up roar of the riding lawn mower.

Visually the lawns here are quite stunning - True works of art. Drive from St. Louis International past the sculpted grounds of corporate buildings, parks and universities, then pass the farmsteads in the rural areas and on into the neighborhoods in the heartland and it is blaringly apparent just how much effort, pride and money flows into this pursuit.

Whispers remain of the geometric passes made by riding mowers. Perfectly hewn lines across thousands of emerald carpets of every size and pitch... North America's own version of the Nazca lines, though a bit more utilitarian and ephemeral but no less impressive to me. Solitary pin oak and rose bushes are spun concentrically around as deftly as a Shinto monk would take a rake to a Zen rock garden.

I imagine the perfected art of the riding mower as a rite of passage. To have acquired the skills needed to create such harmony in a manicured space must require monk-like stamina, a keen eye for spatial symmetry and mastery over a decent sized machine with spinning metal blades.

In water-starved and laid back California the lawns often look like they were beaten with an ugly stick- with massive yellowed patches, often more weeds and dust than true grass... Most people give up and throw down flowerpots or gravel, build a deck... My main high school chore was push power mower forays. A sad little machine by Midwest standards... It sputtered and choked and constantly stalled on the uneven ground, clogging routinely with the carpets of spiky canyon oak leaves. To my father's constant consternation, as he would have to replace them, I would inevitably wump a couple hidden brass sprinkler heads into my shins during the bi monthly mowings because I was too lazy to rake first.

So when Maureen's father Tom asked if I would mow I said sure. I thought it a high honor, kind of like gaining entrance to a secret society like the Masons. I also thought there might be a glimmer of redemption for my lazy hasty mowings of the past. Tom is a big man with thick arms and speaks the language of hard work and has all his life. I would do my best to speak his language.

I was also hoping to repay their kindness for what turned into my lengthy stay after the plane from Argentina put us back in Germantown. I was excited to have projects. First I dug out ornamental rocks around an oak because its roots were growing into them instead of down. I then successfully weed whacked a half acre behind the barn- an area recently flooded and still too wet to mow and handily dispatched the three foot tall weeds.

After an evening session of cutting Tom told me I had best brush off with the broom because I had painted my pants and shirt green with flying bits of plant from the industrial strength weedwacker. He shared a story of how when he got his new job as a gas delivery man in the beginning he would come home smelling of gasoline because he was still learning and was spilling it all over himself. A week in a coworker asked if he liked it. "Yeah, I like it. The first four days I got home my wife met me at the door and said take all your clothes off right now! I told him that's the first time that's ever happened in my whole life. He thought that was great."

I felt like I was slowly earning some points. It's tough to prove you have a solid work ethic when first you are in Argentina for two months and then you are spending a couple weeks recovering in the Midwest as I had been doing... Sure I was slinging a few photos and writing, recovering from travel -but certainly to someone on the outside the life of a freelancer might, well, look a bit lazy...

Then Tom made the announcement. "I got some mowing for you Bennett, if you want to do it." I was honored. I may have beamed. Tom's lawn was no exception in the artistic category. A true thing of beauty. Both Maureen and her mom Jan were a bit surprised at the announcement and said, "Really?" They confessed being afraid of Tom's mower. I saw it as my chance, some latent desire to feel domestically professional at something and maybe impress Tom with how quickly I might pick up the skill and actually do something helpful. The Midwest climate required a couple mowings a week this time of year and he had a few acres worth with some 20 trees, flower beds, clothesline and power boxes to snake around.
Heading to where the mower was stored I was stoked, I seriously felt like I might burst into skipping mode. Maureen stopped me and tried to bring me back down to earth. She said, "The only time I have ever seen my dad mad was when we drove a car on his lawn." I assured her I would be careful. Then she followed it up with a story about her sister crashing into a support column on the porch years ago when she was learning the riding mower.

Pro Mowers...
©Bennett Barthelemy
It was true I wasn't the most precise or detail oriented person, and maybe my eyes didn't fuse meaning I could never be a commercial pilot, and I had never been on any sort of heavy machinery save a car - but how difficult could it be?

When the roll top door was yanked up and I first saw the gleaming orange monster I got a tad nervous. I admit my ADHD brain kind of kicked in as Tom verbally described all the controls and executions... "Ok. These two bars here pull in and when they are out it cuts the power, safety feature. Push forward to go, backwards to stop and go back and one bar in at a time to spin around. Chokes here. Open 'er up all the way right here and run it hard. This is for grass height so slide this here. When you are in neutral drop the blades with this here and make sure you switch it back when its in neutral before you shut her down. Raise the deck height here... Got it?"

The model name in cursive carved in the metal above the covered blade was "Bad Boy." Now I was getting slightly more nervous. It was a diesel and obviously had more than a few horses hidden in it. Maureen said when it came to mowers her dad had to have the best. It was a zero turn and much larger than his old riding mower. The sticker price was double what I paid for my car, close to 10 grand.

Tom must have seen my somewhat glazed and confused look and said, "Just watch what I do here." A good teacher, he flipped all the switches and explained again the nuances through the howl of the engine and then roared off to cut the borders of the field adjacent his storage warehouse... The idea was that I would have guide cuts to go by and not drive it into the boggy ditch at the far edge.

The wheel needs to be placed in the same groove the outside wheel just made from the previous pass when you begin your next pass. I was all over the place trying to dial in a straight trajectory and did twice as many passes as I needed to. I felt like a three year old again trying to color inside the lines.

When it came to turning at the end of the cut the zero turn lived up to its name and rotated as if on a fixed pivot and dizzyingly swung its bulky frame around. I thought the G-force from the torquey spin might cause me to pass out. Admittedly, it was fun, but I noticed I put it a balding spin burning out a chunk of grass ... "Slow down on those turns." Tom's sage advice. This had not been easy to do but I reasoned with a bit of practice I would get it. Tom was generous and reassuring. "A couple more times and you can cut the lawn by the house." I wasn't so sure.

As we walked back to the house he told me he had an older zero turn he was selling for $1500. "When I got the new one I saved 45 minutes cutting my front yard." Even though Tom had officially retired the township still called him regularly to cut the miles of grass at the highway margins. He was an agrarian artist and if he believed I could successfully cut his lawn then maybe I really could.

A day later at breakfast Tom handed me keys and asked if I would cut the lawn around the house. There had been no "couple more times". I wanted desperately to find the confidence and say yes but hesitated. Maureen and her mom were shocked. "Really Tom?" said Jan. You are leaving, don't you want to be here?" Maureen said I didn't have to do it I didn't feel comfortable. Hearing this my pride kicked in. "Sure Tom. I'm keen."

That night after the cutting Maureen and I pitched a tent in Shawnee National Forest. Fireflies floated past surreally in the dark, pops from our campfire serenaded us. The scrabble game fought for my attention when usually I am rapt. I was wracked with worry and guilt. We had left after the grass cutting fiasco and I had not seen Tom yet...

I tried to play the word sawn; the past tense of saw, but without a dictionary Maureen was not convinced it was a word. I couldn't blame her, as I was infamous for passing off sketchy strings of letters. "Like the past tense of mow is mown," I said. Then all the guilt and horror flooded back anew from my afternoon grass attack...

I had put the mower away not feeling too bad but slightly concerned I had put a few too many burnout marks negotiating my turns. I had remembered to slow to a crawl for them. I just wasn't consistent with the technique so I decided I would save the front yard for Tom and his expertise. The grass had a bit of saturation to it from the recent thunderstorms and I hated the thought of doing any real damage where it would be visible to the whole town.

A well groomed lawn is paramount to maximize the fun at a washers tournament (kind of like golf)
©Maureen Eversgerd
While I was packing for Shawnee NF Maureen yelled for me. "What did you even do Bennett? Did you put the blade down?" There was an obvious triangle of shaggy grass but I was sure I had seen grass bits flying from the machine. I ran back to the shed and fired up the beast again and brought it to the backyard under Maureen's watchful eye. I re-cut the shaggy triangle and on my turn Maureen screamed.

Maureen killing it... ©Bennett Barthelemy
A fresh bare chunk appeared from the zero turn rotation despite the slowing. I shut it down and took a closer look at the several dozen turns and the majority showed they had lost grass to my lack of mowing prowess. I felt sick. Maureen just shook her head in shock. No laughing at me, just a pitiful look with a twinge if what I thought was unspoken horror. It was suddenly serious. "Should I try to re-cut the whole thing?" I asked sheepishly. "No. Just put it back."

These women play for keeps! Jan celebrates her win.
©Bennett Barthelemy
On the way home from camping, after sweating gallons in the humid forested sauna, wading through endless poison ivy and fighting slugs for slimy saturated sandstone pinches on climbing routes at Jackson Falls, being feasted on by mosquitoes and ticks (actually all a really cool and worthwhile Midwest experience) at Ferne Clyff it was time to face the music. There was no more hiding. We turned Maureen’s cell on now that we had a signal but there were no messages. I begged Maureen to call her folks so I could know what to expect. How mad would Tom be? Maureen shrugged which really did not help my angst.

Maureen enjoying Jackson Falls in Shawnee National Forest
©Bennett Barthelemy
I had Maureen call her folk's house but there was no answer so she left a message. I then texted her mom apologizing for the grass massacre and asking if they had built a bonfire and burnt all my belongings yet. No response. I thought about buying sod chunks and replacing the turkey platter sized divots. Or perhaps grass seed would work?

When we arrived Maureen's mom was working on her flowerbed that circled a backyard tree. The mower was parked a few feet from her. Did you run over her flowers too?" Oh, God I thought. I am so dead. Thankfully Jan had just gotten some new potted flowers and was putting them in the dirt around the tree.

Jan confessed she didn't know how mad Tom was but I could find out. He was inside. Hmm... Maybe humor could defuse it... I cautiously entered the house. I opened with, "Hey Tom, I tried hard to tackle the guy that hijacked your mower and put all the holes in your lawn but he was too fast." "Oh? You mean the same guy that ran into my tree?"

"What? He hit your tree too?" I was stunned. I remembered rubbing against a tree while on my first turn but never thought it damaged it. I quickly walked outside and looked at it I saw the bark had been sheared clean off and I had nearly girdled it -which would have killed it had I been accurate enough to continue the spin.

Tom chuckled loudly and said, “The tree would be fine. The grass would grow back.” I breathed a huge sigh of relief. "That's the nice thing about you working for free, I can't fire you," offered Tom. It was clear, though unspoken; I would not be getting near the mower. I had to agree was probably a sound decision.

Tom then got back on the parked mower to finish up. Maureen grabbed my arm and said, "Watch the master make his turn." A three point and not a zero point pivot turn - a chunk free execution. It made perfect sense now. Maybe I would get a shot at mowing redemption next visit. Hmm... Probably not.

From inside the house a few minutes later I heard the mower shut down and then Jan yell at Tom. I walked outside and Jan told me Tom had negotiated his last three point mower turn directly over the bright orange pansy she had just planted minutes before...

"Dang it," said Tom. I made her promise not to tell!" We all shared a laugh.

Later I got to thinking. Tom was a 4th degree black belt at mowing, the Midwest equivalent of Jet Li. There was a part of me that secretly wondered if he ran down the defenseless pansy purposefully to help me assuage my guilt? Hmm...

A five foot long snake skin hangs from a sign at Ferne Clyff State Park.
©Bennett Barthelemy

Monday, May 20, 2013

Carry on my wayward son...

I have gotten to test and destroy a lot of outdoor gear in the last 13 years for different companies for photos/reviews... technical rock gear, ropes, clothes, knives, hiking boots, trail running shoes and a pretty decent array of backpacks.

When it comes to packs I tend to max them out and often go well beyond what the designers had in mind in terms of weight necessitated by carrying both camera gear and climbing gear. With the Figure Four pack (similar to theTau 350) it only holds about 40 pounds due to the primary design goal of being a "technical fit" pack that happens to work insanely well for technical climbing.

This time, because I physically could not overload it, I did my best to aggressively cram it into every space possible whilst traveling throughout Argentina and southern Chile. On the rock pitches I carried it on - as well as the overnight treks - it performed like a dream. The fabric is Cuben and it appears to be totally bombproof, shedding water and showing hardly no signs of wear save a slight color shift due to excessive dirt and grime exposure... Carry on... and on, and on...

My review of the pack can be found at the Figure Four website.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Photos of Patagonia and Beyond...

Images of mine from both Argentina and Chile are now live (and continue to be uploaded) to Tandem for licensing by them... If anyone waded through any of the blog posts from the prior two months you can see many of the visual inspirations -with perhaps some leaps of imagination required- of people, places, and moments from our South America escapades...

A Threatened Patagonia Gray Fox on Mt. Tronador, Nahuel Huapi National Park, Patagonia Argentina

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Travel Fallout...

Travel fallout - kind of like jet lag... Perhaps best described as a vertiginous reeling inspired by fleeing one continent for another and skipping through time zones like a deftly thrown rock from the lakeshore.  Memories still burn wildly like a haunting landscape burned on the retina, then they flicker and begin to dim in the squinting heat of this Midwest heatwave as feet slowly steady... One image still burns clearer than the rest. A cold fire ignited in my soul when I first saw it escape the clouds. It seems to be more prone to the Antarctic style weather patterns, sitting just behind Fitz Roy and Poincenot...

Cerro Torre is a siren and it calls... I may never be good enough or bold enough to summit it but a piece of me feels charged and pulled to witness it again and up close... It is mythical... the quintessential, iconic feature pulled straight from an impossible dreamscape.

Our highpoint was Cerro Constitucion, situated in what appears to be the center of a vast mountain world with snow capped peaks 360 as far as we could see, the heart of the Andes. Mt. Tronador (The Thunderer) behind...

Frey was all I could hope for and more. I was lucky enough to have a travel partner that catered enough to my vertical addiction so that I could sample some of its captivating routes. Stunning location, perfect stone...

As the bullfrogs begin to croak and the moths flutter the welcome chill of evening descends in rural Illinois... My mind is still a continent away... Remembering jamming my way up cracks on spires my muscles twitch, I close my eyes and reflexively brace as I slip through shin deep mud on the misty trail below Paso de las Nubes, my eyes strain to follow a pair of Patagonian foxes as they trot into the sunset in Nahuel Huapi National Park, again I feel the cobblestones beneath my tired feet in colonial Humahuaca, I taste the mildly astringent coca tea in the Milmahuasi hostel in Iruya, I again feel knocked off balance by the unbelievably fierce phantom winds of Torres del Paine, through my yearning mind's eye I marvel at the distance covered in mere seconds by an Andean condor as it soars across the Fitz Roy Range, I still smell fresh facturas in a panaderia...  Soon... Soon.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Ghostwriter, Stunt Double, Freebooter For Hire...

The Current Threshold... ©Bennett Barthelemy

Taking the opportunity to post the resume... A two month sojourn spending all my ducats thusly requires a reality check at the far side, back end post return... 

Relocation to Boulder Colorado looms on the collective horizon with its 300 days of sunshine and good climbing options... 

If anyone out there in cybersphere has or knows of work that doesn't require selling of necessary body parts or too much soul depletion I am all ears... Trigger happy ghostwriting, stunt doubling, freebooter for hire...

Curriculum Vitae
Bennett Barthelemy
16749 Maricopa Hwy, Ojai CA 93023

Work Goals: Contract/Seasonal/Part Time/Full Time
Photo Clients: Editorial/commercial/contract/stock/weddings

National Geographic Traveler, Bike Magazine, Black Diamond Equipment, Metolius, Tandem Stills and Motion, Climbing Magazine, Getty Images, Corbis, Aurora Photos, Epic Rides, Patagonia, Outside Magazine, Of The Earth Clothing, Brooks Range Mountaineering, Mile High Mountaineering, Darn Tough Socks, Life Cycle Adventures, Wildland Trekking…

Writing Clients: Editorial feature writer/columnist/copywriter/newspaper:

Epic Rides, Climbing Magazine, Backpacker Magazine, Rock and Ice, Tail Winds, Desert Leaf, Lifestyle USA of Japan, North Coast Journal, Merriam Powell Center fro Environmental Research, Epic Rides, CRKT, Urban Climber, California Coast and Ocean, VBouldering…

Work History: Since 1997

2008 to 2011:  Backpacking guide for The Wildland Trekking Company in Grand Canyon/Yellowstone/southern Utah.

2000 to present: Freelance writer / photographer

2011 to July 2012: Contract copywriter. Writing press releases and copy for Epic Rides and Columbia River Knife and Tool (CRKT).

Fall 2010 to present: Outdoor columnist for regional Southern California Magazine, Ojai Quarterly.

2006 to present: Stock photography shooting for Aurora Photos and selling images internationally through Aurora and partners Getty and Corbis.

2011 to present: Stock photography for Tandem Stock.

Fall 2011:  Tutor with Advantage Point Learning of Portland Oregon. 1-5th grade language arts and math.

Spring/Summer 2011:  Editor at The Highly Acclaimed Magazine for issue 1 and 2.

2008 to 2011:  Backpacking guide and commercial photographer for Wildland Trekking in Grand Canyon/Yellowstone/southern Utah.

Fall 2008: Editor of Northern Arizona University newsletter for Merriam Powell Center for Environmental Research.

2007: Columnist for the North Coast Journal, Outdoor section in Arcata California.

2007: Manager of Humboldt State Climbing Gym and extended education rock climbing program as well as backpacking guide.

2005 to 2007: Guided several multi-day backpacking trips and worked ropes/challenge courses for Acorn Adventures/Peak Performance in Southern Califronia.

1998-2007: Eight seasons as outdoor educator/Guide for Naturalists at Large of Ventura California – Canoe on Colorado River, climbing instructor, ropes course and challenge course instructor.

2005-2007:  Adjunct faculty in history and journalism at College of the Redwoods and Humboldt State University teaching Native American history, magazine writing, magazine production and adventure photography.

2004: Freelance

2002-2003:  Publisher/ed in chief of regional outdoor magazine, Wild Humboldt Quarterly, Arcata California

1997: Instructor at Desert Sun Science Center/Astrocamp Guided Discoveries teaching classes in earth sciences and running rock climbing program and ropes courses

Masters: English lit 2002 Humboldt State
Bachelors: Native American Studies 1996 Humboldt State

Wilderness First Responder and CPR for the professional rescuer valid through October 2012 (re-certing June 8, 2013)
Access Fund Sharp End Award for Climbing Activism in 2006

-20 years technical rock climbing experience all over the globe, mountain biking, trail running…
-Travel to some 15 countries
-Proficiency in Microsoft Word, Photoshop/Lightroom. Type 40+ words a minute
Bret Bradigan: Ojai Quarterly Magazine Publisher/Editor –
JP Harrison: Tandem Stills and Motion Inc Executive Director of Sales and Development
Lindsey Phelps: Sales Manager International Markets for Columbia River Knife and Tool (CRKT)
Mike Calabro:  Owner of Urban Camper Photography
Brad Ball: Co-owner of The Wildland Trekking Company

Links for photo/writing work:

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Post Andean Turbulence

Scary smooth departure from the "Paris" of South America - aka Buenos Aires. Smoothest, cleanest bus and ride yet despite it feeling somehow clandestinely surreal. This locals bus is half the cost of the regular bus station buses and it is running long distance when all other long distance buses in the country have slammed on the brakes and ground to a halt until the drivers demands for a 23% salary increase are met.

Maureen and I confess to each other that we kind of felt like we won the lottery. I cannot help but be reminded of a James Bond movie (Octopussy?) where an East German is successfully smuggled over the border while the Wall was still up. We were experiencing a similar feeling of elation I am sure.

Maureen stopped payment on her credit card, our only recourse- after three bus stations trips on friday to the Vasa office and having them give us the runaround an finally flatly refusing any kind of refund on our 680 peso per person overnight bus to BA. The Salta Por Siempre Hostel was amazing in their patience with my "espanol creativo" (stealing a term from Helga) to call the bus company, airlines, ministry of tourism - and speak in Spanish on our behalf. With helpful ideas from Helga and the support o Salta Por Siempre we ultimately forged our escape us on the locals from Salta bus with Cache Turismo...

Finally fell asleep on the bus at two AM after witnessing at minimum 3000 brutal killings: Expendables with facelifted mercenaries Sly Stallone and Dolph  Lundgren snuffing out everything that moved. Then an American werewolf in Paris, Resident Evil, a zombie movie, and 44 Minutes in North Hollywood - a documentary about a bank robbery w sub machine guns... The bus had become a Strange kind of rolling desensitization tank.

Somehow these movies make the Argentine world of huelga and the present near total absence of the ubiquitous bus, the intense poverty creating the possibility of road blockades, the sketchy traffic potentials evidenced by struck dead and bloated slow pigs and horses and the non stop double yellow passing game immediately beyond the drifting pane - seem a bit less threatening.

The present reality is inescapable- deafening non stop gunfire, seat rattling fireball explosions, spurting blood from jugular knife thrusts, the undead feasting on helpless humans- for a nerve jangling 14 non-stop hours.

We put on our headphones and plug into music lists on our iPhones but we too are among the helpless. The auditory and visual armageddon leaks in at the periphery... But- We are moving! We have snacks for the ride. The driving has been non-erratically smooth so far. We will make our flight. We saved money. All of this seemed nearly impossible the last 36 hours when we were fairly convinced we would be spending hundreds in US$ more for a domestic flight with extra baggage charges.

We arrived  at 5:30 in pre-dawn darkness to a sedate Buenos Aires where cabs were already waiting to meet the bus. The transition took just minutes and we made it 14 hours early to Ezeiza for our flight. They put us one at 8AM, so instead of 12 hours in the BA airport it would be 13 hours in Lima international.

Mid-flight with nearly one travel leg down I have a chance to reflect on the fascinating and inspiring people and lessons learned while traveling... It comes whilst being bumped around, trading blows with an invisible pugilist-A bit of Post Andean turbulence - felt physically as the plane takes hits - and internally as my mind sifts through a barrage of synaptic jabs- memories of individuals I hope will not evaporate like the clouds we are pushing through. I will attempt to write some of them into permanence before the challenged batteries of phone and memory fade.

I think I am most impressed with all the solo women travelers: Christine the architect from Hong Kong living in London. She admitted that the longer she is away the more she is estranged from her old life back home. Her memories are still fresh of mainland China and what a different world it was in the early 90s when visiting her grandmother there. For her traveling bursts the bubble of comfortable isolation; Kathy the 20 year old veterinarian from a tiny town in Australia- Argentina and Brazil were her first steps outside the country. Helga the chain smoking 70ish Austrian that drove by car in 1973 to India from Germany passing through Afghanistan; Maria, the 23 year old Brazilian working at a Bariloche hostel to earn enough to continue hitch hiking alone to meet a friend in Cuzco. "How brave they must be..." Maureen had said. I think as a man I would have a much easier time traveling alone and I would still be quite intimidated...

How does travel forge and reforge ones veltaunshauen (worldview)? At times I think you have to let your guard down and just trust - locals and fellow travelers - and rely on a universal sense of humanity trusting it is still accessible in others. In sedentary life you can go a long time without doing this. But in travel, following the often turbulent paths of the nomad, you have to know how to listen and trust your instincts, to sometimes give in, but not give up. To stay positive when facing not the best of outcomes, through sickness and last second roadblocks- to be able to divine the best solutions and not be crippled with doubt or fear, or too closed off to other options well outside the comfort zone. The crux as always is balance- Being too open and too trusting and fall off the cliff obliviousness at the other end. Constantly (and this soon becomes a job for the subconscious to free you up so you can move with some fluidity) as travelers we calculate risks over reward while forgiving yourself for less than perfect choices -because through mistakes we can often learn the most about life and ourselves...

Travel could be the condensed crash course for living a more passionate and compassionate life. It has the potential to effect healthy change of perspective at a more expedited and fundamental level. It is difficult to remain stagnant/stoic when borders and time zones are broken through, rivers and ranges crossed and recrossed - especially when outside of a plane. Traversing through micro climates of geography with jackets shifting to tshirt and sandals as we get more comfortable and adjusted- and if we are lucky- finally being reclothed in a sleek pair of empathetic perspective dungarees and a classy leather Indiana Jones hat of wonder and wanderlust.

There is magic in the translations found going from fingers crossing a contour line or eyes across a printed photo or a typed description... to mobilized feet and engaged eyes into the winded blue sky,  feeling the bite of altitude on heart and lungs and creating your own multi dimensioned map of experience in a new location.

I remember a casual sharing of chords from a guitar at a mountain refugio on a stormy night in the Nahuel Huapi... What commenced was a smashing through of multiple borders and a resonant shattering of our near silent lives pre travel. A shared Yerba mate soon becomes a shared laugh... The whisper of a line on the flat map, a postcard photo, a story from a fellow traveler, delivered the itch and soon the scratch becomes the tonic of momentum on an ancient Incan highway pulling you forward in the present, and a rushing torrent down a dry riverbed from a fall storm, impossible to shut out. A nexus of living history, communion and potential -far exceeding what is normally accessible in our prosaic backyards and neighborhoods.

Travel is a re-awakening... A figurative placing of our stones for luck on the apacheta of life. Again, soon, we will switchback in the dusty tracks close behind a 10 year old minding his family's goats as he and his family has done for centuries. We will walk Salta's cobbled colonial city blocks with the locals and hear and see the same revving of a moped straining beneath the weight of a family of four. The miles will again counted through the vast sea faces, our lives reflected in the eyes of a 1000 strangers finally met. Ancient desert dust will again swirl in our lungs by the force of fierce Patagonia winds and Andean Pumas. We will hear subtle slips in speech- the softening of a consonant inspired by the insolation and isolation of a political border or a mountain range... Taste tiny green Andean potatoes from the local soil and 1000 year old terraced fields of the Quebrada Humahuaca at 10,000 feet. In Palpala smell the burning of garbage detritus of a harvested tobacco field. In Cafayate inhale the decaying of Visaja Secreto wine in 147 year old hardwood casks. Chew numbing coca leaves and blacken our teeth with Rosario Canchi who's whole world is his tiny pueblo and the nearby towns in the distant mountains of northern Argentina. Again we will be sniffed and followed by several hundred homeless dogs of every size and description. We will watch the splintering of sunlight through iron crucifixes while wandering a cementario in Humahuaca at sunset as a family adds plastic flowers to a recently filled grave...

Next trip we will experience home stays with local families that have opened up rooms for travelers keen to escape the roads and walk. We will connect networks of ancient villages whose streets have never seen a car, 8 hours from the nearest dirt road with only ancient foot trails for access hidden beyond over 5000 meter passes as we travel from Argentina into Bolivia...

I realize once here at the Lima airport the maps and descriptions have now all been read, the blisters popped and healed, the words have been spoken or forever left unspoken- but the nagging silence of an unknown region is gone. The memories, the several thousand images are no longer blurry and static and they are now our own. The mental reflections have sprouted roots, as do the epiphanies yet to burst above the surface to be exposed like quinoa sprouting in cool sunlight, and the leaps of comprehension will soon be assimilated into my everyday speech, like vocabulary to a newly discovered language. The key to Patagonia and to Argentina has been turned, the door has swung wide, we are inside, at the end of the trip but not through... I am grateful to have shared this journey with someone as amazing as Maureen.

So many words yet to be written, images to be processed, emails and photos to send across time zones to people who will have likely long forgotten me but will be reconnected.

The exciting part of finishing a good book is that you get to start a new one... And with travel it is an exponential planting of words, seeds, images, connections, contacts - in this case pulled from our past two months in South America and far beyond into our collective pasts. In travel wisely executed comes a gentle and welcome tugging... Illuminations for the journeys yet to come, volumes and libraries filling with worthwhile datum. A constant welcome return.

I have come to believe that travel can be a feast for all the senses and for the spirit if we are open to it- It is up to us when we choose to take the leap of faith to speak in a foreign tongue, to talk to a stranger, to find the courage to walk the same streets and trails for a while... A massive collective borrowing and a temporary sharing of perspectives and space. Often not easy but always illuminating.

Travel. In its essence- To go and embrace the turbulence...

We are thanking the travel gods... All told we traveled 135 hours on long distance bus routes with just one four hour mechanical issue and a 3 hour tire repair. on our last week 25 of those hours were during the strike and with asking the right questions, staying focused and an amazing amount of luck we found a locals bus from Humahuaca to Juy Juy and a remise from their to salta for only 10 pesos more than the bus (5 hours total). I still don't understand why we were lucky enough to find our 20 bus all the way to BA. Strange that no on else seems to know about it as evidenced by blogs and web posts from stranded travelers. when we bought the ticket i first thought it would be a 16 passenger van or a series of short and medium distance buses. Cachi has pictures on the bus and in the office of their coaches parked next to colonial churches but seems to function as a locals bus for business people to ferry goods to and from BA... still unsure if it is really operating above board... We truly had the best possible outcome...

Sitting in Miami Int with our bags checked to St Louis we have the luxury of time to read headlines about the continuing huelga in Argentina. Officially called a A lockout whereby 22000 drivers refuse to budge. The government has ordered bus companies to pay the increase of 23% from April to the end if the year. The bus companies want none of it, nor do the unions because they want the increase to be retroactive since January. And the government has no teeth to enforce the demands. People are sleeping in bus stations for multiple days, many wondering if they will get reimbursed for tickets still not knowing if/when they might travel, and protests have turned violent in some major cities like Cordoba. Many tourists are stranded and blogs talk abut many resorting to hitch hiking. There appears to be no end in sight for the short term.

To further add to the insanity the truckers union has now begun their strike and is snarling traffic in the Congresso district of Buenos Aires where we arrived yesterday for our taxi to the airport. The traffic in the city is now likely to be nightmarish...

I think of the the stressed zippers and stitching blowing out on our packs that had been our personal mobile homes for two months - never entirely sure how secure they were and how quickly they would deteriorate and just give way. Soon the decklid zipper was blown on my pack and rendered 10 percent of the pack capacity useless. Maureen's decklid three weeks in was held together with a safety pin. A buckle broke and left my pack with one crucial tie down point unusable... Maureen soon blew another side zipper and we began carrying reusable shopping bags with are compromised behemoth packs...

I tried to learn from and adopt the enviable relaxed approach the Argentines have toward this unavoidable fraying, this continual breakdown. I have some work yet to do....

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Peñas of Salta

Experienced a bit of the deeper Salteño culture last night in the form of a Peña. The hostel innkeeper saw the group of us heading out to one and said, "No." He handed me a different card I had not seen. "No muy turistic." A taxi was required for the five of us and only four are allowed. He called and hooked it up so that we could all travel to the edge of Salta together. You could see his smile and how proud he was that he could do this for us and it was well worth it. Quite a ways out but with 5 large rooms for eating and listening, all painted a different pastel color and with naturally good acoustics, 150 year old building perhaps with an open courtyard. A half hour after we arrived we were allowed to be reseated back in the front room where four musicians had set up at a table, drinking with empanadas. But soon enough a drum came out, a classical guitar, and outstanding booming voices.

The folkloric tradition of the Peña in Salta is quite vibrant. By 11 nearly each room had performers. Some of the lyrics had the word Salta in them and several regulars in the crowd sang along as they sipped red house wine, tapped fingers in time to the passionate music. All acoustic and sung with power and conviction at what seemed to be almost pure joy that was expressed by the lead guitarist who would share his guitar from time to time but also sing like a mariachi. Maureen remarked how impressed he was that he could sing with such a huge smile constantly on his face. In his element, loving what he was doing. We ate humita, burschetta, parilla, papas con queso y marones. The place was packed and the taxi driver said every night it was full. We may have been the only non locals there, the three Americans, the Aussie and the German. A nice way to finish off our trip.

I was the last one out for the taxi and one was already waiting. I walked up and said, "Hey, I scored some digits of the guitar player!" They were a bit taken aback. As we made for the door the guitarist-singer waved me over and introduced himself. His name was Rodrigo. He saw me shooting some photos of the performance and I gladly shared emails with him and promised to send photos. 

Today, in day four of the bus strike with the country nearly at a standstill, we managed to find a bus running for locals to go from Salta to Buenos Aires, to pick up clothes to sell back here... For half the cost of the regular bus and likely not subject to the same regulations or maybe even safety guidelines so it will be an interesting 20  hour adventure. It is said if a bus runs during the strike the drivers of the buses wait at the terminals and with throw stones at them as they pull in. Kind of like scabs crossing the line at a coal mine if busses roll they are not happy. Somehow this under the wire transport is allowed. We go to a somewhat secret location stapled to our ticked by taxi, given to us only after we purchased. All locals in the tiny backstreet office...

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Revolutionary Spirit in El Norte...

Revolutionary Spirit in El Norte
Heading north on the highways the Towns/cities seem to be a bit more revolutionary - or quicker to subvert the yoke of last centuries militarism. competing with statues of the typical busts of generals are monuments of a sculpted women reading to their child in the square at Hamahuaca. In San Salvador Juy Juy bare breasted pregnant women were rubbing their bellies just a block from Gral. San Martin. We pass a park that has dozens of very stylized wrought iron sculptures of athletes and velociraptor type birds. Lots more murals up here in the north too and the craft scene took a massive leap on quality as we approach Bolivia and since leaving Mendoza. Some items are now actually handmade and there seems to he more of an appreciation for artistry. Even the cuisine has retained some of north of the border Andean flavor.

A new housing project off both sides of the highway north of humahuaca had Che and another revolutionary (?) painted on every bricked in water tank above each of the hundred odd houses. Graffiti on the judicial and government offices say "justicia para el Condor" and some have stylized middle fingers raised and say basta or libre for some cause or someone  assumed to be falsely incarcerated. Artfully done political commentary: cutouts on cardboard about a foot square, strategically placed in high profile areas and then quickly sprayed over with a rattle can... Obviously not the addiction to surveillance cameras here as there is in the states.

Our ballistic beast of a bus we are currently bouncing around in sounds more like a tractor. Low gearing is needed to engage the steep twisty rocky washboards over the 4000 meter pass to Iruya. we snake at a slow pace through the rolling green treeless hills. The 20 odd school kids aged just 5 to 10 exited before we hit the dirt portion of our 3 hour plus 70km  journey. Maureen and I thought it a pretty invasive and insensitive act on the part of the tourist that kept videoing the school kids as they talked and pinched and poked each other on the bus.

More murals of Che and other heroes painted on the walls of the remote town of Iturbe. Just crossed the river that cuts through town. A couple feet deep and through it not over it. In the rainy season this place is cut off from the world... Just before entering the tiny Puebla of Chaupi Rodeo the driver blasted his air horn at a sizable heard of roadside guanaco.

As we weave through a piece of the quebrada Hamahuaca it is easy to see why it is a UNESCO world heritage site: non stop glimpses of abandoned houses, corrals, fields walled with stones for agriculture and tiny churches and cemeteries. For some 10 thousand years the area has had human activity. The area caught the eye, and was conquered and controlled by both the Inca and then the Spanish so they could glean the mineral and agricultural products from here and have the resources flow to key empire kingdoms/city centers. The area had long been a trade route to exchange items from the lake titcaca on the border of bolivia and Peru- popular item for the Inca was a hallucinogenic plant found in the jungle valleys stretching toward Juy Juy.

We drive over a 4000 meter the summit piled high with stones of travelers hoping for good luck, an apacheta, said to be a cultural left over from the Incan empire. Somewhat easier to imagine the Inca's 5000 mile sphere of control north to south when you see all the evidence of farming to support it, the endless trails... from the top to the bottom of the Andes which is essentially a line drown all the way down South America. Limited by the alpaca and the llama to carry and for eating, they were limited to the hypoxic heights.

Once landed in iruya it is immediatelly apparent that every other tourist desperate to get off the beaten path has landed here too so we decide to head for the hills. at the Milmahuasi hostel, the proprietor shared that inca ruins are atop a 5000 meter peak next to where we drove over the 4000 meter pass but too far away ti hike now. He reminisced about how beautiful it was and that it was a spot for ceremonies
and perhaps sacrifices. Other Inca ruins are a three hour hike away but closed to the public.

If we we are ambitious he suggests we hike 8 hours one way straight up switchbacks and across the plateau through a pass at well over 4000 meters to a village -or the village from the left fork just 4 hours one way. I tell him it's already one so we would be a bit rushed. "I always tell people to go to the villages but no one has ever done it. Just hike an hour to mirador el condor and watch for the birds."