Blogs, Work, Writing

Possessed: Part 1: Paper Trails

Mexico’s Copper Canyon Country.

Last weekend, I rented the much-anticipated movie version of Jack Kerouac’s seminal “On the Road.” Though I have never been the world’s most enthusiastic Kerouac fan, and though the movie did not especially appeal to me (at least partially because it did not stand alone very well; that is to say: a viewer would already have to be pretty familiar with Kerouac’s work in general, “On the Road” specifically and the macro-Kerouac mythos in order to “get it”), it did get me thinking about movement and lightness and, by extension, the possessions that sometimes weigh us down, especially as we age and become more sedentary.

At least I think that’s why I finally decided to write this story. Or maybe it’s that, having just successfully avoided any direct interactions with Black Friday and Cyber Monday (though, like most Americans, I was unable to avoid indirect interactions with the kickoff to what has lamentably become known as the “Holiday Shopping Season”), I am feeling ruminative about the entire concept of material acquisition, a subject that generally either bores me to tears, incites me to rage or inspires me to drink more than usual.

But, here’s the thing: Not all possessions are burdensome. Not all possessions weigh you down. Not all possessions possess their possessor. Three of the items I have treasured most in my life were mere pieces of paper, one of which had direct bearing to Kerouac and the cultural wake he left behind.

First things first.

Like many folks who came of age during the backsplash of the ’60s, which took a while to make their way to rural Gloucester County, Virginia, for most of my early adult life, I was one seriously mobile unit. As an example of simultaneous cause and effect, almost everything I owned fit nicely into a backpack and a trunk. If I planned to stay only a couple months wherever I was going — which was most often the case — the backpack was all I needed. Two pairs of ratty, thrift-shop-procured clothes. Down jacket. Ditty bag containing fundamental health and beauty aids. Cook kit with a cup and spoon. Sleeping bag and pad. Reading material and notebooks. Pipe and weed.

If I planned to park it for a full a season, which was generally as long as I stayed anywhere in those blurry days, I would have the trunk shipped in by bus by my mom and stepfather — both of whom were deep-rooted by nature — who likely spent much time wondering if their wayward son would ever apply the brakes long enough to leave a traceable forwarding address.

The trunk contained a few more changes of clothing, a portable record player, 50 or so of my favorite albums, an Underwood manual typewriter I bought for $40 at a pawn shop in Silver City while I was pretending to be a college student, a bong, a dictionary given to me as a high school graduation present by my mom and a Thesaurus given to me as a high school graduation present by a friend’s mom, a woman who was always ready to temporarily provide me with refuge when the hellfire of my fractured childhood home started burning a bit too hot.

It is axiomatic that a life on the road cannot include much in the way of personal effects. But that simplifies the situation for a great many of us. I did not travel lightly solely out of necessary expediency. There are two types of perpetual travelers: those more concerned with arriving and those more concerned with leaving. And I was a card-carrying member of the latter category, a man running from rather than to. Always leaving, always fleeing. When that’s your operational mindset, it’s not uncommon for stuff, sometimes important and cool stuff, to get left behind in a sometimes-frantic effort to find the closest exit.

The road giveth, and the road taketh away. That’s part of the deal.


1) Cecil and Alpine Beard lived about 10 miles outside remote Reserve, New Mexico, which, at that time, was a sometimes combustible sociological amalgam of multi-generational Anglo and Hispanic ranchers and Rainbow Family hippies. To get to their mostly rustic re-built adobe house (it had electricity and phone, but not much else in the way of modern amenities), you had to cross the San Francisco River a half-dozen times. Mostly, those crossings were easy, as the San Francisco is little more than a trickle up where the Beards lived. Sometimes, though, during monsoon season, the waters would rise to the point where Cecil and Alpine were cut off from civilization, such as it is in that part of the world, for days at a time, which suited them just fine, even though, by the time I made their acquaintance, they were in their mid-70s. Cecil and Alpine had moved to their compound in the middle of some of New Mexico’s most-nowhere nowhere in 1967 from the urban craziness of southern California, where Cecil worked for five years — from about 1935-40 — as an animator for Walt Disney Studios.

Cecil had been working as a muralist in Dallas when he saw an ad in a local paper soliciting applications for cartoonists for the brand-new Disney Studios in Los Angeles. He called and was hired on the phone.

His first assignment with Disney was to work on what many people have called the most-outstanding full-length animated movie ever made: “Snow White.” After that, he was assigned to another noteworthy Disney animated creation: “Bambi.”

Cecil left Disney shortly after “Bambi” was released to embark upon what ended up being his career right up till the point when I met him and Alpine: He became a professional creator of comic books.

I visited Cecil and Alpine three or four times, interviewing them for stories for the El Paso Times, where I was working as a reporter, and New Mexico magazine. Though they were very private people who, as they told me on several occasions, really didn’t like company, they were graciousness incarnate. Even though I was at that point in my life still what one lady friend described as a “wild child,” I was intrigued by the Beard’s living situation, which was all the more captivating to me because it was clutter free. Until then, I had always associated long-term domesticity with perpetual accumulation. But, not the Beards. They had no TV or music system. Their furnishings were simple and sparse. And it wasn’t because, like so many of the hippies living in Catron County at that time, they could afford no other lifestyle option. Though I of course never asked about their income, they worked every day. For many years, they completed a dozen comic books per month. By the time I met them, they were down to one a week. They had the bearing of people who were fiscally comfortable.

“Bugs Bunny,” “The Roadrunner” and “Dennis the Menace” were their staples. Sometimes Cecil would come up with the plots; sometimes Alpine would. Cecil would then do a rough set of storyboard illustrations. They would package them up and send them off during their twice-monthly journeys into Reserve. They never saw the finished products. Didn’t care to. And, even though several of their stories were eventually made into television specials, their TV-lessness prevented them from eyeballing the fruits of their labor. Checks came as regularly as comic books went out. And life was good.

The last time I visited the Beards, I could tell they were getting a tad impatient with my endless series of journalistic interrogatives. They never overtly pointed me toward the door, but an unmistakable hint was dropped when Cecil told me that he and Alpine would like to give me a “parting gift.” He pulled out two pieces of old rolled-up sketchbook paper and handed them to me. I carefully unrolled the almost-brittle pages and found upon them numerous pencil drawings of a certain well-known baby deer character. What Cecil and Alpine Beard had given me were two of the original sheets upon which the character of “Bambi” was being brought to life. “Bambi’s” final form had not yet been determined. There were probably 15 different versions of “Bambi,” some rough, some honed, some drawn by Cecil, some drawn by other Disney animators.

This was a splendid gift indeed, but one that I really did not know how to integrate into my wild-child life.

Over the course of the next couple years, I lived in a utility-less camper trailer way out in the desert, got laid off from my gig at the El Paso Times, worked on a juvenile-delinquent-rehabilitation wagon train in Nevada, moved to Denver — with, yes, nothing more than a backpack and trunk — where I slept on a friend’s couch till I could afford a hovel of my own, worked as a busboy in one of the Mile High City’s first high-end yuppie/snob restaurants, sold blood plasma to help make ends meet and, eventually, moved to a non-winterized cabin in the Colorado High Country — with, yes, nothing more than a backpack and a trunk — where I took a gig as a reporter for a small-town weekly paper. Less than a month later, I met the woman who would become Mrs. Hyphenated-Fayhee. Gay and I rented an ancient 36×8 trailer in Grand Lake, a tight-quarters living arrangement that necessitated a minimalist lifestyle. The following fall, we put all our shit into storage in the basement of Gay’s dad’s dental office and embarked upon a meandering multi-month foray that took us as far south as Costa Rica.

Somewhere along the line, those drawings of “Bambi” went their own way. There’s a good possibility they were horked by a roommate, as the non-winterized cabin I called home for most of the rough winter of 1983-84 was more like a dormitory, with roommates coming and going so fast, it was not unusual to find yourself cooking next to someone whose name you did not know. And it would not have been the first time that items stored in the basement of Gay’s dad’s dental office went missing. Or maybe I simply accidentally threw those irreplaceable drawings away. Who knows? They were gone. They are still gone.

I heard several years later that Cecil had passed away and that Alpine, feeling it prudent to dwell a bit closer to fellow humans as she passed her eighth decade, sold her house outside Reserve and moved to Pleasanton, New Mexico — which is not exactly Manhattan — where she, too, eventually succumbed.

Every time I have told this story in the presence of my wife, a woman who loved “Bambi” so much that she named her all-time best cat “Flower,” after a skunk that was a major character in the movie, her eyes tear up because it seriously makes her wonder about the psychic constitution of the man with whom she shares her life. I mean, who the fuck would lose original drawings of “Bambi” given to him by one of the people who worked on that movie? And this very reasonable question/concern transcends by leaps and bounds the very real observation that those drawings might actually be worth some money.

There are some things in the world that are so intrinsically and inherently wonderful, they deserve focused attention, protection and preservation, even by someone who was at that time predisposed to run like the wind whenever his backpack and trunk got even a little bit too heavy. I could have put them in a safety deposit box, even though I did not have a bank account. I could have sent them home to Virginia for safekeeping in a house that was always one drunken mental meltdown away from volcanic eruption. Fuck, I could have given them to a random person on the street in hopes they would at least survive.

Yet I did none of that.

I suspect my wife has long wondered, if I could be so cavalier with something so obviously and blatantly precious, what else could I leave behind?

It’s amazing how heavy paper can be.


2) Many are the people who rationally contend that, if you can travel together under arduous circumstances as a couple without negative reactions and consequences, then you are perhaps meant to be together. Or at least there’s hope. There are those who argue that, if you can’t travel together, then there is no hope, which may or may not be pretty much the same thing. When Gay and I were planning the multi-month journey that would eventually take us as far south as Costa Rica, we decided to invite my long-time amigo Norb and his wife Lori, partly because Norb was an aspiring photographer and I was looking at the trip through a journalistic lens, partly because, since we were going to be traveling through the heart of Central America’s Contra-era craziness, it seemed like a good idea to have more people in our group and partly because I think I was somewhat fretful about being alone for that long with one person. This marked the first time I had ever planned a journey with another person, much less a love interest. Until that point, my travels had always been solitary.

The first stop was in northern Mexico, a place I vaguely remembered some of my college chums talking about. A place called Copper Canyon. Though we did have with us a first-generation Hilary Bradt guidebook to the national parks of Central America, we had no orientational material whatsoever regarding Mexico. We flew from Denver to El Paso, crossed the Staunton Street Bridge into Juarez as the sun set, took a redeye bus to Chihuahua City and then hooked up with world-famous Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad, which deposited us in a ramshackle trackside town called Creel.

There was no way I could possibly have known, could possibly even have guessed, the part that Creel would come to play in my professional life. At that point, it was yet another place I was passing through on my way to somewhere else. We got a room in the Hotel Nuevo and, having been up all night, slept most of the afternoon. Since there were then no maps of the area (man, I miss those days), at dinner at Lupita’s, we asked rudimentary tourist questions of the staff and learned that, about 10 miles south of town, there was a pretty little lake, called Arareco, where we could camp. From there, we were told, we could access Copper Canyon itself.

“Como — how?” I, being the closest thing to a Spanish speaker in our group, queried.

“Como quieren — however you want,” was the poetically cryptic response.

“Well,” thought I, “that IS the best way to get someplace.”

We hoisted our packs the next morning and began to walk down a lonely dirt road — now a busy paved highway — toward the lake. Before we passed out of Creel, we were approached by a Tarahumara Indian man who was so drunk, he could barely stand. He had puke spittles dried on his lips and breath that could knock a buzzard off a shitwagon. His eyes were blood red and wild. And he was belligerent and confrontative. Though I did not and still do not know more than a handful of words of Tarahumara, it was clear as a bell that he was cursing our existence in general and our existence in this particular neck of the woods specifically. We tried to calm him down, to explain to him in a language he did not comprehend that we were just passing through and that we meant no harm and that, basically, if he did not get the fuck out of our faces, Norb and I were going to pummel his drunken, belligerent, diminutive ass right there on the side of the road.

At that, he seemed to take even more offense. He pulled his fist back so far he likely strained his shoulder, apparently preparing to launch a haymaker in my general direction that took so long to engage, my grandmother could have blocked it with her cane. But there was no opportunity to block it, as the momentum of his backswing was such that the inertia carried him ass over teakettle backwards down a steep and fairly long embankment and deposited him unceremoniously in a rocky ravine. Once the dust settled, he did not move. He appeared to be dead. For about point-two seconds, we considered climbing down to take his pulse and perhaps resuscitate his seeming lifeless corpse, but thought better of it, as surely such a benevolent act on our part would invariably lead to an interface with local officialdom, something we wanted to avoid at all costs. Rationally figuring that a visit to the local hoosegow on a suspected charge of murdering a drunk local was not the best way to kick off our journey, we sauntered on as though nothing had happened.

Shortly thereafter, a multi-colored, heavily dented, smoke-spewing pickup truck of extremely indeterminate lineage stopped next to us. “What now?” we wondered. In the cab of the venerable vehicle sat something on the order of 14 people, all of whom were attired in the crazy colorful manner preferred by the Tarahumara. Except the driver. He wore a captivating mix-and-match ensemble that looked like it was procured at a thrift store that only accepted donations from other thrift stores. And he was so crusty/dusty that he looked less like a human being than he did part of the surrounding arid landscape. He had wood smoke in his eyebrows. It was only when he parted his lips that we realized he was an American. An American sporting a facial expression that can best be described as borderline gobsmacked. This was back when tourists were very rare commodities in the Copper Canyon area — a situation that has changed drastically in the interim.

“You folks lost?” he asked with an inflection that indicated he thought maybe we were looking for Paris rather than Copper Canyon.

“Well, we’re not what I would call found,” I responded.

I told him that we had heard about Lago Arareco. He offered to drive us there, so we loaded ourselves into a pickup bed that held much in the way of miscellany. Strands of rope. Smooshed cardboard boxes. Crushed beer cans. A desiccated saddle that very well might have used by B. Traven as he was looking for treasure in the Sierra Madre. A live goat. Three dead chickens. Piles of books and magazines that had been left out in the weather.

When the crusty/dusty gringo dropped us off, he asked about our plans. We told him that we intended to hike into Copper Canyon though, very much like Frodo having to ask Elrond the directions to Mordor, we admitted that we had no earthly idea how to get to Copper Canyon. We assumed, we told him, that, if we simply took out hiking, we would at some point find ourselves staring down into an abyss as large as the Grand Canyon.

We were told it was a bit more complicated than that, that we ought to consider adding some actual information to an exploration strategy at that point overly reliant upon happenstance.

He proceeded to dig through the two-foot-high pile of unidentifiable detritus that covered the interior floorboard and pulled out a soiled and crumpled envelope. Upon the back of that envelope, he thoughtfully and deliberately hand-drew a map that, if the gods were in an unlikely benevolent mood, would lead us, after six or so hours of hard slogging, to a place called Recohuata Hot Springs, located at the bottom of a side canyon that, if followed far enough, would eventually open up into the deepest depths of Copper Canyon proper. He provided a running directional commentary as he drew squiggly lines that represented dirt tracks through the wilderness, and as he highlighted potentially confusing intersections, and as he tried to estimate distances, and as he pointed out landmarks, and as he said stuff like, “Make sure you don’t go this way” and as he finally and reluctantly handed the map over with a look on his face that betrayed an obvious feeling that he was actually doing us a disservice, that he felt there was no hope whatsoever we would ever find Recohuata Hot Springs and that, some day, our bodies would be found 100 miles off in completely the wrong direction and that it would be his fault.

After camping for two days at Lago Arareco, we set off in what we thought was more or less the right direction with the kind of yin-yang enthusiastic trepidation that often accompanies hand-drawn-envelope-map-driven forays into rugged foreign realms. Ordinarily, I am perfectly comfortable with these types of outings. I am confident in both my orientational and survival acumen. But our gracious map-giver had stressed that we would not find so much as a drop of water between the lake and Recohuata. And it was late-summer hot.

We hiked diligently. We made shoulder-shrugging guesses at several junctions that did not appear on the map, or at least did not appear to appear. We frustratingly backtracked a few times. We argued whether this rock formation or that giant juniper was the one the gringo was talking about. And we walked, and we walked. By evening, we were fatigued and near-bouts dry. We decided unanimously to try to work our way down into the closest drainage in hopes that we would accidentally trip over a spring or at least a stagnant pool of moist pond scum. As long as it was wet. We found what appeared to be a goat trail and followed its rocky, overgrown tread down what turned out to be about 800 vertical feet. At the bottom — shocker of shockers! — was a stream and a series of deep turquoise-colored pools. It took a bit of downstream bushwhacking to find a place level enough to camp, but, when we did, we could not help but notice there were several streamside hot spring pools. We had, somehow, stumbled our way to Recohuata, our actual destination. Though I tried to act cool, like there was absolutely no doubt we would arrive right where we were supposed to arrive, truth be told, I was stunned.

After a well-deserved day of hanging out in the hot springs, we dayhiked downstream, thinking that, sooner rather than later, we would round a bend and there would be Copper Canyon. But concern with the security our the gear we left behind unattended in camp made us turn around prematurely. We hiked out of Recohuata the same way we came in, hitchhiked back to Creel, caught the train and rode it down to the Pacific coast. From there, we rode trains and buses all the way to the heart of war-town Central America. The hand-drawn map to Recohuata was with me the entire way, and stayed with me when we finally returned home to Colorado.

Of all the astounding places we visited on the trip — Caye Caulker, Tikal, Lago Atitlan, Santa Rosa National Park — it was the area around Creel, Lago Arareco and Recohuata Hot Springs that most stuck with me. A year later, I returned to Recohuata Hot Springs with a friend with the idea of hiking down to Copper Canyon, a journey I expected would take a couple days. It took us almost a week. And that week was off-the-goddamned-scale intense. By the time we dragged our beat-up carcasses into Copper Canyon, our clothes were in tatters and we boasted more cuts, scrapes and bruises than we did unscathed skin. We were out of food. We were almost delirious with fatigue. And we still had to hike out of one of North America’s deepest canyons. And we didn’t know the way.

The year after that, I returned once again to Copper Canyon, a journey that resulted in my first cover story for Backpacker magazine. That cover story resulted in my first book contract, a backpacking guide/travelogue to the entire Copper Canyon region. And that book resulted in me getting a contract to do a coffee table book about the then-new Colorado Trail. And I ended up guiding backcountry trips into Copper Canyon. I ended up going down there dozens of times.

It’s of course impossible to say how that first trip into the Copper Canyon area would have turned out had that dusty/crusty gringo not stopped to give us a ride and had he not drawn us that map. Perhaps we would have ended up in Batopilas. Maybe Urique. Maybe my life would have turned out plus-or-minus how it turned out. But maybe we would have said fuck it after wandering through the woods without ever having found that goat path into the depths of one of the most mysterious and remote and sometimes scary places on the planet, a place that came to feel like a second home to me.

I had that hand-drawn map for several years, but, like the drawings of Bambi, somewhere along the line, it was lost. Part of me thinks I sent it in to the editors at Backpacker for use with the Copper Canyon cover story and they didn’t send it back. More than likely, though, it just got tossed.

One of the best aspects of our fleeting little inconsequential lives is how one seemingly innocuous thing can snowball, how a map hand drawn on the back of a dirty envelope can lead a person to a destination called the rest of his life. But it did.

It’s amazing how substantial paper can be.


3) To this day, I say that, were I inclined toward urban living, Denver would be the place, partially because it is a vibrant city and partially because it is fairly close to decidedly non-urban environs. But I am not inclined toward urban living, which runs counter in many ways to the notion of trying to make your living as a freelance writer. After all, a large percentage of publications are found in cities, and there’s always lots going on and, therefore, lots to write about.

But …

I lived in Denver for four-plus years — nine months when I first moved to Colorado from New Mexico in 1982 and then from 1985-88. Gay and I got married in Denver. And I truly believe that, given the right domestic circumstances (which likely would not include yours truly!), my wife would be perfectly happy to call the Mile High City — the place of her birth — home forevermore. But, again, I am definitely not a city person, and, despite the perpetual hustle and bustle, I found myself during my time in Denver flailing for story ideas in ways and to a degree that I do not often experience in rural areas. By a long shot. In the boondocks, I can go for a short walk or drive and come back with 15 story ideas. Matter of fact, it’s one of the things I’m best known for in my small world. I’ve given seminars to young writers and reporters on the generation of story ideas. Yet, I guess the noise and the lights and the incessant movement and the density of the urban ecosystem overwhelm my mental circuitry.

Still …

During the time I lived in Denver, I wrote like a crazed banshee on speed. For several years, I was writing, and getting published, more than 15,000 words a week. (For those of you not used to thinking in terms of word count, understand: that’s a shitload.) I wrote for almost every issue of Denver magazine, Denver Business magazine and the Boulder County Business Report. I was also the main writer for a long-defunct Denver weekly called City Edition. It was during that time that I began my long relationship with Backpacker magazine. It was crazy, but, because of the aforementioned challenges I constantly faced generating story ideas, or, better stated, ideas that translated to newspaper and magazine articles that were actually appropriate for and appreciated by an urban readership, I felt like I was constantly hanging by the last molecules of my fingertips from a steep and high cliff.

And did I mention I was also drinking fairly heavily and hanging out with a tribe of Bohemian poets who blew cocaine not just during breakfast, but as breakfast?

I do not remember the actual genesis, but somewhere along the line, I developed an interest in following in Kerouac’s Denver footsteps, of actually finding and visiting the physical locations Kerouac wrote about in those of his works that included references to his Western travels. This was easier said than done, because, first, as I stated many words ago, I was never really a big Kerouac fan, though I always respected, and still respect, his justified prominent place in American literary history. Thus, I did not have his haunts memorized the same way a true disciple would. And, second, Denver was right then going through a substantial metamorphosis from cowtown to … whatever it is now. LoDo, which did not yet have that name, was still nothing more than a series of abandoned warehouses. Confluence Park, where the REI flagship store now is, was skid row. Broadway Terrace, where the Mayan Theater is and where I once lived and drank, was worse than skid row. Though a large part of Denver’s metamorphosis consisted of architectural preservation and restoration, it was becoming increasingly difficult to find remnants of the past beneath the veneer that was then being slathered onto the exterior of what was long known as the Queen City of the Plains. I asked the Denver and Colorado historical society people what they knew about Kerouac. I tried the tourism bureau. I tried the history and literature departments at Metropolitan State University. None could tell me where Kerouac drank and slept.

Then it dawned on me to try to communicate directly with one of the recurring characters in Kerouac’s work: Allen Ginsberg, the poet laureate of the Beat Generation and a frequent companion of Kerouac. Ginsberg is the thinly veiled Carlo Marx character in “On the Road” (both the book and the afore-referenced movie), and his unveiling of “Howl” — probably the most-important, most-groundbreaking and flat-out best American poem since Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” — at the Six Gallery Reading in San Francisco in October 1955 (a mere two months before I was born), is recounted in barely fictionalized form in Kerouac’s “The Dharma Bums.” (Ask me if I would give a left nut to be magically transported back in time to the Six Gallery Reading.) In 1974, Ginsberg helped found the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poets at the Naropa Institute (now Naropa University) in Boulder.

Given my lack of luck hunting down Kerouac’s old haunts via what could be termed traditional means, I decided to send a letter to Ginsberg asking for his help. I addressed the letter, which was succinct and contained a modest exaggeration of my academic and literary CV, as well as an ambiguous outline of my intent, to Allen Ginsberg, c/o Naropa. I, of course assumed no reply would be forthcoming but, several months later — long enough that I had essentially given up on the Kerouac story idea — I got a personal, detailed response from Ginsberg, one of the most-influential poets in American history. I mean, fuck! In his response, Ginsberg graciously praised me coming up with such a great idea, telling me how he had been thinking of pursuing a similar project for years. He suggested putting together a map that Kerouac aficionados could follow around, like those maps of where stars live in Hollywood. He told me about a couple of Kerouac’s old haunts that might still be standing, told me about a few others that had been razed and told me about a few others with locations he could not recollect. He signed the note with a valediction: “Let me know how this turns out, Allen.”

I could not believe my eyes.

I half-heartedly tried to hunt down a couple of the places Ginsberg referenced in his note, but I never got around to writing the story. It just seemed that the ghost images of Kerouac and Neal Cassady and even Ginsberg were too long gone, too obliterated by the new Denver, the shiny affluent modern Denver that was right then rising from the city’s colorful skid-row ashes. It was while I was wandering around erstwhile decrepit neighborhoods that were quickly becoming gentrified beyond recognition that I decided it was high time I got out of the city, lest I wake up in 20 years still there, wishing the whole time I was somewhere else.

Not long thereafter, Gay and I packed our shit up yet again and stored it, yet again, in the basement of her dad’s dental office. We loaded up our old Toyota pick-up truck and headed back to Copper Canyon where, for several months, we lived in a tent and backpacked hundreds and hundreds of miles all over the place doing research for my first book.

Though I do not know his work well enough to make a cogent comment, I believe Kerouac would have approved of my lifestyle choice, of my willingness, of my need, to travel lightly to and through off-the-map locales, to spend a large part of my life on the road.

I do not know whatever happened to the note I received from Alan Ginsberg, who passed away in 1997. Like the Bambi drawings and the hand-drawn map to Recohuata Hot Springs, one day, it just wasn’t there. It had disappeared. Maybe it didn’t want to end up framed on my office wall.

It’s amazing how influential a piece of paper can be.

Next time: Possessed, Part Two: A Tour of a Typewriter Collection

A double exposure of a house in Gloucester County, Virginia, I pulled from a public domain website. I don’t know why this image seems appropriate for this post, but it does.





Cameroon Diary

Cameroon Diary 3: Tracks in the Sand

One of the most-glaring seeming contradictions with regards to your average modern-American (especially of the Western U.S. variety) self-propelled outdoor recreationist is that, while we might be able to sniff the air to plus-or-minus ascertain whether precipitation is imminent, and while we may be able to, with a little luck, find our way through an area that two years ago was devastated by wildfire, when it comes to sussing out the ways of wildlife, most of us are decidedly lacking in even most rudimentary ability.

“Pathfinder” most backpackers, backcountry skiers, climbers and mountain bikers are not.

It oft-times chagrins those of us who adorn ourselves with garments manufactured by The North Face and Royal Robbins that “sportsmen” — hunters and fisherpeople — are significantly more capable than are backpackers, backcountry skiers, climbers and mountain bikers when it comes to locating wildlife. We may hike into a place known to harbor elk or bears, but, for most of us, any interface that might result comes by way of pure happenstance. This is especially frustrating for those of us who would gladly trade a long-winded view of Yosemite Falls for a fleeting glimpse of a mountain lion. But it is what it is.

The RhinoBuster — a poor man’s LandCruiser.

Gay and I flew into the sub-Saharan town of Maroua (accent, like most towns in Cameroon’s Extreme Nord province, on the first syllable: MAR-oo-ah). For the first time in our lives, we had hired guides, sight unseen, via the Internet, prior to our arrival. There was no give and take on this decision. Our destination was the famed Waza National Park, one of the most-impressive and remote wildlife-viewing destinations in all of West Africa. Since it is illegal to enter the park without a vehicle and without a guide, we had little choice but to shell out hard-earned cash for the services of a driver, a young Muslim named Moussa, a guide named Marga (the brother of the man who owned and operated the tour company) and, more importantly, a vehicle, a 4WD SUV that was apparently Nissan’s equivalent of a Toyota LandCruiser. (The specific model was something like “RhinoBuster,” a model I had never before seen on the streets of relatively rhino free New Mexico.) I, an ex-LandCruiser owner, was hoping for and actual ’Cruiser, so we could feel like we were participating in a National Geographic documentary. I mean, who travels through the hinterlands of Africa in a fucking Nissan?

After seeing to last-minute supply-procurement details in Maroua, Moussa pointed us northward toward Waza, two delightfully bone-jarring hours away. It was during this sweltering introduction into local climatic reality that we learned that Moussa spoke nary a syllable of English and that what little English Marga spoke was lost in a linguistically unidentifiable accent so thick that we came away from every conversation more befuddled than if he had never parted his lips.

By the time we got to Waza, daylight was fading fast. Through much effort, we were able to ascertain that Marga was asking us if we wanted to enter the park, which officially closed to visitation at dusk, for a quick visit, or did we want to just journey forth to our hotel and hit the park first thing in the mañana? Fuck yeah, we wanted to visit the park right then and there!

Entry to Waza.

We stopped at the entry station and picked up the legally required ranger and tracker. That made for six people crammed into the RhinoBuster, which could not have been caked any more with dust if a backhoe had unleashed a torrent of fill dirt into the interior.

Dry country.

In the part of the world I call home — southwest New Mexico — we are assuredly dealing with what local meteorologists are calling a “drought.” And, relativity notwithstanding, things are indeed parched in Gila Country. But, anytime you overlay the word “drought” with the word “Sahara,” you know you are entering a realm of scorching aridity that sets its own standard. This part of Cameroon was topographically featureless. Dust devils defined the horizon. All along our route, colorfully attired women walked great distances with pots atop their heads to the one moist-ish puddle for 50 miles, where they would sit and squeeze a thimblefuls of dirty moisture from the ooze, before returning to their thatched village several on-foot hours away. It was at least 105 degrees. And, until we arrived at the protected gates of Waza, vegetation was sparse in the extreme.

Though I could not understand their discourse, I could tell that the driver, the guide, the ranger and the tracker were all concerned. It did not take a linguistic scholar to understand that, given the desiccated nature of the surrounding terrain, they were worried that the wildlife viewing might be disappointing, a reality that would surely effect our remunerative largesse once post-trip tip time rolled around.

Waza National Park, according to the literature, is home to beaucoup quantities of giraffes, elephants, rhinos and lions. The entire elephant and rhino populations had apparently migrated out of the park for wetter environs, which was disappointing in the extreme, we having just journeyed halfway around the planet to see they unaccommodating asses and all.

But, we were told (or at least I think we were told), there were still plenty of giraffes and, if we were lucky, lions.

The tracker.

Several times, the tracker asked that the RhinoBuster be stopped. He would egress the vehicle, and just like on the silver screen, he would squat and eyeball the ground, running his fingers through the dirt, while frequently scouring the horizon. He exchanged much chitchat with his countrymen, all of whom seemed, if one can judge such things by eyeballing physical features and attire, to be from very different ethnic groups. I could not venture a wild guess what languages they were speaking, but none were French, Cameroon’s lingua franca. It seemed like they were each speaking their own language and they each was understanding what was being said — which meant these folks were at a minimum penta-lingual. I mean, it was like the bar scene in “Star Wars.”

And I’m sitting there thinking what every well-fed American would be thinking: That the tracker is not only seeing, but feeling — through his fingers, through his very skin pores, through a form of osmosis I could never in  a million years even perceive, much less share — the story of the land and what has transpired here. He’s not just looking at hoof prints; he is able to discern that, four days ago, a warthog passed by and it stopped to scratch its ass because a horsefly had just bit it, and, three hours, four minutes and 56 seconds after the warthog scratched its ass, an ostrich walked by in the other direction, while, far overhead, a vulture circled. And so on. I envied this man’s solid connection to his native territory and lamented, not for the first time, how far removed we well-fed Americans are from our own environment. Most of us can’t tell the difference between our own dog’s paw print and our own boot print.

The tracker, the driver, the ranger and the guide all jabbered, nodded their heads knowingly and scoured the horizon some more. The tracker picked up some duff and tossed it lightly into the evening breeze. It did not dawn on me until later that these four men might very well have been talking about soccer or nookie or how much ransom they might receive if they sold the two Americans to the Islamic jihadists across the border in Nigeria. The tracker might have been squatting there looking at the withered terra firma beneath his feet and telling his compadres that, fuck, he had no idea where the goddamned wildlife was. He might have been a recent graduate of whatever school of method acting it is that every tracker character that has appeared in every movie and TV show that required the services of faux members of this particular vocation attended.

Some kind of ungulate.

A rare green-headed roadpecker.

Gay and Moussa watch the tracker tracking, while Marga marks his territory.

This I came to suspect at least partially because, while the jabbering was transpiring and while the duff was being tossed and while the horizon was being scoured, I looked over to my right and, not 50 yards away, stood still as stone two full-grown giraffes, staring warily directly at us. When I pointed the two giraffes out to the rest of our entourage, Marga, clearly somewhat mortified that first critter contact was made by the flabby, sweat-soaked gringo, gestured toward the tracker and, if I waded my way through our communicative difficulties accurately, effused unabashedly about the finely honed skills displayed by our tracker, whose facial expression seemed to be hovering somewhere between “Where did those goddamned giraffes come from?” and “Hey, there are two giraffes standing right there!”

Due to the well-honed tracking skills of our tracker, we managed to find these two giraffes standing close to our vehicle.

We drove around for an hour or so, during which time we viewed numerous more giraffes, as well as some sorts of exotic ungulates, some monkeys, a slew of very cool birds (we learned later that this area is one of the main bird-watching areas on the planet), including a family of ostriches, a jackal and a warthog. Then, suddenly, out of the blue, lying right there in the middle of a rutted dirt track, was a pride of five lions, which we followed for 10 minutes before impending darkness forced us to leave. Something about not wanting to get eaten alive.


Red monkey and baby.

I could be wrong, but it did not seem to me that the tracker had anything whatsoever to do with the fact that we came upon a pride of lions. I believe it was just our good fortune. Which is totally cool. Nothing whatsoever wrong with a bit of happenstance. We thanked the tracker profusely and tipped him generously, thinking, if nothing else, that those method-acting classes likely had set him back a bit.

Big bird.

Some other kind of ungulate.

Wonderful happenstance.

Cameroon Diary

Cameroon Diary 2: Synonym City

Douala at night

Since our taxi driver, Maurice, spoke nary a lick of English, and since neither my wife nor I understand any French more complicated than laissez les bon temps roulez, the look on our chauffeur’s mug was likely the response to nothing more than fundamental intra-language cross-circuiting. By utilizing a combination of hand gestures, crude drawings and that time-tested method for breaching cultural abysses: talking louder and louder, Maurice seemed to grok items 1-3 on our first-full-day-in-Africa checklist: I needed to procure a pocketknife, mine having been a victim of incomprehensible carry-on-luggage prohibitions. We needed a spare charger for our Nikon camera batteries, one we knew for sure would work with whatever static shit it is that spews forth from local sockets in unpredictable fashion. We needed to convert U.S. dollars into whatever shit it is they use for money hereabouts. And we, having a full day to kill before we fly to the northern part of the country in hopes of viewing lions, tigers and bears in their native habitat, would like to take a three-hour tour of Douala, Cameroon’s largest city, to orient ourselves, to eyeball the local sights, to kill some time before the inevitable first-full-day-in-Africa drinking marathon commences.

Maurice required clarification of list item #4. We pulled out the manager of the restaurant of the fortress-like Hotel Bano Palace (it did not escape our notice that the second word of our hotel’s name was one tilde short of translating to “bathroom” in Español), where we were ensconced. The manager is a native of Equatorial Guinea, the only Spanish-speaking country in Africa. So, I spoke to him in Tex-Mex and he translated my requests to Maurice in French. Maurice’s befuddled expression did not de-fuddle. He responded in French to the restaurant manager, who passed along that translation to me in Spanish tinged mightily with an accent that verily dripped tropical mildew.

“He wants to know what you would like to see specifically?” was the gist of this multi-pronged attack on fundamental linguistics.

“The sights! We’re tourists … we have never been here before … we will never be here again … so we would like to check out Douala.” It was about 400 degrees with a 500-percent humidity. My jet-lagged ass was starting to get exasperated. Back and forth this went for a few more centuries before, finally, Maurice nodded his head, his visage betraying the fact the he was still a bit baffled, and away we drove into the bustling madness of downtown Douala. We were perplexed by Maurice’s perplexedness. He was, after all, a taxi driver who stationed himself right in front of one of Douala’s top-shelf (all things being relative) lodging facilities. Surely, we could not have been the only foreigners to have requested a tour of his home city.

Misty-morning view from the Hotel Bano Palace.

The Hotel Bano Palace is located on a less-than-totally chaotic side street. Where we needed to go to score a pocketknife, a battery charger and a wad of whatever shit is it is they use for money hereabouts (turns out it’s CFA (pronounced CEE-fah) — Central African francs, a pretty much non-convertible currency shared by numerous nations in this part of the Dark Continent) was the center of a city described by travelers as one of the biggest urban cesspools on a continent that sports more than its fair share of urban cesspools. By the time we turned onto the main drag, Boulevard de la Liberte, that cesspooliness exploded into our reality in such a way to make one thankful for the plethora of synonyms our language boasts for “bedlam.” Disarray. Mayhem. Pandemonium. Havoc. Turmoil. Anarchy. Every subtle nuance of that synonymic symphony manifested itself by way of inadequate, disrepaired streets filled to over-brimming with every variation imaginable on the exhaust-spewing internal-combustion-engine theme (and here we come to praise yet another English-language cavalcade of synonyms) — antiquated cars, venerable trucks, decrepit motorcycles, doddering buses, ancient tractors, hell, even the occasional infirmed, wheezing riding lawnmower — along with aged bicycles by the millions and colorfully clad pedestrians by the zillions, all moving about in willy-nilly fashion following, as far as we could tell, not a single traffic law, assuming there were any local traffic laws, which is doubtful in the extreme. The only unifying component to the chaos bedlam disarray mayhem pandemonium havoc was the constant application of horns, which were applied by every single vehicle crammed onto the streets (and, often, sidewalks) every single second.

It was an amusingly captivating scene and one that presented very little in the way of actual physical threat, because, since the streets and sidewalks were so crammed full of vehicles, people and vendors purveying everything from household appliances to formal attire to homemade bush remedies concocted from unidentifiable viscera, nothing could move at more than about point-two miles per hour. And, since we weren’t driving, we were able to dispassionately spectate the chaos bedlam disarray mayhem pandemonium havoc from the relative, albeit hot-and-humid, comfort of Maurice’s dilapidated taxi.

I was especially transfixed by the traffic-merging protocols, all of which were beyond my comprehension. Since every traffic light I saw in this city of three million inhabitants did not function, intersections were seemingly anarchic. And they were defined by what looked to be the most laid-back form of machismo I had ever seen. As this sea of antiquated cars, venerable trucks, decrepit motorcycles, doddering buses, ancient tractors and the occasional infirmed riding lawnmower approached intersections, they all accelerated slightly and blared their horns even more. Fists were shaken and invectives hurled. Were such a scene to manifest itself in the U.S., bumper-car-like collisions would become so prevalent that tire-track-adorned corpses would have been piled high in the median strips. Fistfights would erupt en masse. Every car insurance company in the nation would soon have to declare bankruptcy. Yet, here in downtown Douala, stunningly, inexplicably, a sense of propriety and order manifest itself in such a way that we witnessed not so much as a mild fender-bender, and it soon became apparent that all the machismo was ornamental. By the time the miraculous merging took place, every driver seemed relaxed and courteous. They were all marching to a beat we could not discern.

Maurice managed, via stopping and asking vendors attending to sidewalk-based kiosks that all seemed to specialize in one item and one item only — laundry detergent, razor blades, fans, white faux leather belts, flip-flops, a veritable Walmart’s worth of goods spread across the cityscape — who knew another vendor three blocks down who might know another vendor seven blocks the other direction, to locate both a pocketknife and a battery charger for our camera.

Across from the black-market exchange corner.

Then he took us to what apparently is Douala’s Wall Street of black-market currency exchange: a street corner populated by several hundred very large black (I almost said Africa-American) guys who would have been intimidating in a cellblock-C sorta way, except for the fact that every one of them sat astride motorcycles so diminutive that Shriners would have been mortified ride them in a small-town Fourth of July parade.

Maurice beckoned a gentleman who looked to have been recently released by the Detroit Lions because he was too ugly and mean-looking and had too many scars on his face. They chatted conspiratorially for a few moments, then the man joined us in the taxi. I have traded dollars for whatever shit it is they use for money in many unsavory venues during my Third-World travels. I have traded yuan for FEC in a dimly lit alleyway in rural China where Round Eyes had never before been seen and where scores of opium-smoking Mao clones eyed me in a way I could not even come close to reading. I have traded lempira for colones with child soldiers as the sounds of contra machine gun fire resonated throughout the surrounding jungle. I have traded sols for bolivianos in Cuzco with the tattered remnants of the sendero luminoso. And here I was, yet again, subscribing to the operational philosophy that, the better the black-market exchange rate, the worse the surrounding circumstances. When you exchange money for a bad rate at a bank or hotel in the Third World, you are paying for comfort, safety and predictability, for air conditioning, armed guards and a sense of assurance that you will indeed receive the amount of money you are promised without getting robbed, raped, stabbed and killed. To get the best rates, however, you must venture forth into the great fearsome unknown. Despite the aforementioned diminutive motorcycle situation, and despite my previous experience with sordid black-market scenarios, I have never been on black-market red alert to the degree that I was there on that corner of Boulevard de la Liberte in Douala, Cameroon. I started preemptively running my fingers across my recently procured pocketknife.

There is little doubt that the racial make-up of, well, every other human being within about 2,000 miles of our current location, had a lot to do with the intimidation factor. In the U.S., we are culturally indoctrinated to consider every black neighborhood — especially those that would be classified as “slums” (which, I think it’s fair to say that downtown Douala would be thus classified) — to be off-limits danger zones for those of us who sport obvious northern European pigmentation.

I pulled out a big wad of dollars — which amounted to several year’s worth of wages for the average Cameroonian — and handed it over to the huge, scar-faced black guy sitting in the back seat of the taxi next to my wife. Every eye in the vicinity was focused upon us. Scarface took that wad over to yet another huge black man whose face was also adorned with scars. Upon further examination, I could not help but notice that pretty much every one of the huge black men sitting astride their 75cc mopeds was thus scarred. Probably a result of some sort of tribal coming-of-age ceremony, although there was a distinct possibility those scars bore graphic testimony to the number of dumbass white people looking to buy CFA that the scar-bearer has dispatched during his life. Those scars definitely got me thinking that, if these people are willing to maim themselves for whatever reasons, what would they be willing to do to us for a couple thousand dollars?


Our friend soon returned with a wad of CFA the size of a pillow. He meticulously counted the filthy bills and handed them to me to count. It was all very professional and courteous and, within minutes, we were on our thankfully unscathed way.

It dawned on me later that, though I’m certain the money-changing transaction would have taken place without incident no matter the circumstances (an observation proved correct over the course of the next three weeks), there’s little doubt that Maurice considered us to be his charges and under his protection and that he wouldn’t have taken us to a place where our safety was in jeopardy. This is a lesson that people who have traveled to Third-World cesspools know well: Hook up with someone whose very honor hangs upon your comfort and safety.

At that point, it was time for item #4 on our checklist: The tour of Douala. Maurice had upon his dashboard a tattered paperback copy of a third-grade-level French/English dictionary. This served as our Rosetta Stone as we made our slow way along Douala’s crowded byways. Maurice, like many Cameroonians we met, had but one major life goal: To move to America, where he was certain his taxi-driving expertise would be much in demand. To that end, he was extremely interested in any help I might lay on him in his earnest quest to master our lingo. Several times, as a matter of no small interest, he pulled out his pocket notebook and a pen to jot down whatever nuggets of vocabulary-and-grammar-based wisdom I might lay of him. I should point out that at no time did Maurice feel compelled to pull over, or to even slow down, as he was jotting down my contributions to his education, most of which consisted of such useful phrases as “WATCH OUT!!!” and “FUCK!!! YOU JUST RAN OVER AN OLD LADY!!!” (This is a somewhat primitive example of why people ought not combine texting and driving.)

Here would be a good time to point out that I am in no way, shape or form a city person. It would bother me not one whit if I never ever stepped foot again in an urban area. I hate traffic, I hate congestion, I hate sprawl, befouled air, noise, the whole over-populated enchilada. But, like most folks with a propensity to travel internationally, I realize that city/Fayhee interface is oft times unavoidable. So, you might as well make the best of it, and the way to make the best of those unavoidable interfaces with cities is to take advantage of the types of offerings generally found only in cities: museums, art galleries, well-coiffed parks, symphony orchestras and ballet. And doing so does not always suck, though I have — and my wife understands this about me — pretty much a two-cultural-activity-per-day-limit. I can handle one art gallery and one museum, or two museums and two art galleries. Then that’s it. Then it’s time to find a bar and start drinking. As long as we do not exceed that writ-in-stone limit, I can generally not only handle a day or two dealing with an urban environment, but I can usually have a good time. I have lived in two cities: Chicago and Denver, and I’d like to think I took advantage, in a “well, since I’m here … ” kind of way, of the cultural offerings. I have been to the Chicago Art Institute. And whatever museum it is in the Mile High City that had all the old Egypt shit that one time.

During our various travels, I’ve voluntarily signed on for some very rewarding cultural experiences while in urban environments. When we were in Paris, we went to the Louvre and the Picasso Museum. When we were in Rio, we went to the Botanical Gardens and the National Museum to check out an ancient map exhibit. I’ve been to the Smithsonian. All pretty cool shit, but, when you get right down to it, I’m tapping my foot and eyeballing my watch and counting the minutes before we can get out of town and back into more backcountry, or, failing that, more rural, settings.

There was no avoiding the fact that we had a full day to kill in Douala, so we might as well make the best of it. I thumbed through Maurice’s third-grade-level French/English dictionary and pointed to musee. Maurice took his eyes off the road yet again, ran over yet another old lady and shook his head. OK, no museum in the entirety of Douala. I then pointed to parc. Again, he shook his head. OK, not even a goddamned park. Let’s try monument. None. What do you fucking mean, there’s not even a fucking monument in this cesspool of a city? I had never been to any city that does not at least boast some over-the-top sculptural ode to some horrible despot or to a horse-mounted general who never in his life won a battle and whose only military claim to fame is that he violently repressed his own people.



Jardin zoologique?


What then?



So Maurice just drove us through his city of nothing. He drove us by the city’s industrial manufacturing area, which was one of the most-dismal places I had ever seen. I mean, this was the kind of place that would convince anyone subscribing to the notion of karma to mend his or her ways pronto lest he or she get resurrected here. It was the lunch hour, and hundreds and hundreds of filthy, rag-wearing workers were sitting on the sides of potholed streets eating bowls of god-knows-what next to outdoor food stalls that did not look as though they would pass a health department inspection in a sewage treatment plant in the Mississippi Delta. We saw no smiles at all, only grim grimaces as these workers eyeballed us with disdain as we passed far too slowly for my taste.

Then Maurice drove us to the harbor area, Douala being Cameroon’s largest port city. We had visions of maybe sipping a beer or two on some terrace above a tropical beach. The harbor area was even more-grim than the industrial area. The closest thing to a terrace on the beach were barely standing shacks populated by some of the most-hopeless-looking human beings I have ever laid eyes on. The stench was overwhelming.

A relaxing taxi ride through the cesspool.

And here I guess I need to point out two things. First, I have visited some shitholes in my travels. Places where dirty-faced, naked toddlers with bloated bellies sit staring listlessly into the distance while flies gather around their eyes. In other words, it’s not like all my travels have been to Newport, Rhode Island, and Hampton Court. I have seen some funky shit. But, man, the harbor area of Douala was a horse of a whole nuther dispirited color.

Second, I need to stress that the blatant dispiritedness we witnessed in the industrial and harbor areas of Douala were not indicative of the rest of Cameroon, where, by and large, the people seemed lively and happy.

Maurice asked if we wanted to stop for a beer at the harbor. I told him I was not right then thirsty, but thanks for the thought.

Then he took us to what might, in some far-reaching stretch of relativity, be considered a borderline tourist destination: Douala’s crafts market. Ours was the only car in a parking lot adjacent to what looked to be the kind of worn wooden building where one would expect to enjoy a cock-fighting spectacle. The dimly lit interior was yet another petri dish of synonyms. Airless. Stuffy. Stifling. Sultry. Oppressive.

It was apparent that we were the only potential customers to have arrived in this facility for eons. Maybe forever. The market consisted on extremely small corridors that were lined with small rooms, each being its own separate business with its own proprietors who sat desultorily nearby. These various shops contained everything from paintings to wood carvings to jewelry to musical instruments. Pretty much what you would expect from a crafts market. Thing is, first, it was almost impossible to actually see what each of these unlighted cubicles offered. Second, the heat and humidity were so oppressive that, within minutes of entering, it was our sole objective in life to egress the premises at a full gallop. Third, the method by which the shop owners, all of whom were like six-eight, attempted to entice us into their diminutive boutiques was disconcerting in the extreme: They would rise from their positions of repose (seemingly, for the first time in their lives), then stand in front of the entryways of their stifling, lightless rooms, blocking the way, then, with a raised arm, pointing toward their wares while sporting scowls that indicated potential violence should we opt to pass by without making a purchase. Or at least that’s what those facial expressions would have looked like had any of these business owners seemed like they actually gave a flying fuck. They, like us, were obviously too hot and sweaty to care.

And, since there were at least 200 of these shops and shop owners lining the maze-like corridors of the crafts market, it took us a sold year before Maurice led us finally out into the open air. I thought Gay was going to expire on the spot. Under every other circumstance I can think of, being outside in the middle of the day in Douala — located at 4 degrees north latitude — is scorching and muggy. After leaving the claustrophobic confines of the crafts market, it seemed as though we had just stepped onto a glacier in Greenland. Which is a shame, because, with a little air conditioning, or hell, even with a little airflow, we would have been interested in doing a little gift shopping. As it was, all we could do was gasp for air.

Maurice opted to end our tour with a drive by Douala’s most-upscale neighborhood. Though the capital of Cameroon is Yaounde, five hours away by road, Douala is the economic hub of the country. Consequently, it is home to many foreign bigwigs who, it’s my guess, got sent here not because of the economic opportunity, but, rather, because they had committed some sort of corporate faux pas, like maybe sleeping with the boss’ daughter, and this was their punishment. Douala’s affluent neighborhoods were actually decent enough. The streets were a bit tidier and more orderly. The vendors lining the sidewalks had noticeably fewer scars on their faces. There was less traffic and noise. And each and every house was surrounded by a fence taller and more fortified than the U.S./Mexico border fence. There was razor wire and video surveillance cameras and armed guards who squinted threateningly as we passed.

Maurice was beaming. He was obviously very proud of this, the nicest part of the city where he was born and raised.

At the Hotel Bano Palace, there was a very interesting group of guests. They were from all over the world — Canada, Scotland, Spain, the Philippines — and they worked for a company that serviced marine oilrigs. They worked on a boat that dropped deep-sea divers over the side, and those divers would be lowered into the depths to repair the underwater parts of the rigs. These folks were currently in bureaucratic limbo. They were scheduled to go to work in neighboring Nigeria, but their visa situation was somehow fucked up. They were waiting for their company to sort the mess out (a process, I should point out, that took more than two weeks). Because they had been issued transit visas for Cameroon, they were essentially imprisoned in the Hotel Bano Palace; they were only allowed to travel between the hotel and the airport. Were any of them caught wandering around Douala, they would have been arrested and taken to a Cameroonian jail, which I’m certain would have been very pleasant.

We drank beaucoup beverages with these folks, who assumed we, like them, were in Douala for work-related reasons. When we told them we were on vacation, every proximate jaw dropped. “On holiday here?!?!?” was the unified response. We explained that, no, we were in Cameroon mainly to visit the game parks up north, that our short time in Douala was due to waiting for a connecting flight to the sub-Sahara. This did little to assuage their incredulous curiosity, as we came to learn that none of them, ever, in all their years of working on marine oilrigs in exotic, off-the-map countries I would love to visit, had ever done anything save go to the rig, work, go home. None had ever ventured forth into the places they worked. They were shocked to learn that Cameroon was home to some of the best national parks in West Africa.

“When I vacation, I take my family to Disneyland,” one Scot said, almost dismissively.

But, then again, their stories about their work life perhaps put their detachment into context. When they fly into Nigeria, for instance, they do so on a chartered plane in the bright light of midday, so they have plenty of time before darkness falls to get to the harbor. They are escorted every inch of the way by armed guards and travel only in a military convoy. The boat from which they work, even when it is out at sea, is protected 24/7 by scores of naval vessels. The threat of piracy, kidnapping and execution is very real. Were I to work under those circumstances, perhaps I would be inclined to visit Disneyland while on vacation as well.

And here would be the prefect time for some profundity about the yin-yang nature of travel, something about how superficial travel can be and often is when all you do is hit the cool shit, the museums and game parks and oceanfront terraces. I have no such profundity here. I am sure there are people who, when they hit the road, eschew all tourist spots, who concentrate solely on the Doualas of the world and who maybe find so much beauty that they write poems and songs about life in the chaos bedlam disarray mayhem pandemonium havoc. I am not such a person. Places like Douala, for me, exist most comfortably in the past participle. I am glad to have visited them. Then I am happy to move on the greener pastures. Though travel, at least intense travel, is a series of individual experiences layered atop one another like a veneer, eventually, it becomes a composite, where those individual experiences melt into one another in such a way that they become “the trip” or “the journey” that we took to Cameroon. Without Douala, our trip would have been something entirely different. It is impossible to say in what way.

We bought Maurice a beer, thanked him profusely for the tour — which seemed to make him happy — tipped him well and told him that, next time we happen to be in the neighborhood, we’ll be sure to look him up. Then we retreated to our fortress-cum-hotel and wiled away the rest of the day, sipping ice-cold beverages next to a rooftop pool with a slew of oilrig workers who were perfectly content to recline in comfort until the moment when they had to enter what to them is a very real world.

The rooftop pool at the Hotel Bano Palace.










Cameroon Diary, Writing

Cameroon Diaries, Part 1: Window Seat

It would be both trite and stylistically derivative in the extreme to remark how airplanes have altered the landscape of travel, how the gradations of gradual orientation long ago dissipated into the ether of contrails. Travel is disorienting enough without, as but one random example, waking up in a snowstorm and sub-zero temperatures in the Colorado High Country and bedding down while swatting malaria-carrying mosquitoes in the lowlands of Brazil. But in a travel world defined by trips rather than journeys, by vacations rather than expeditions, by long weekends rather than pilgrimages, it has almost become passé to ponder the implications and ramifications of bypassing transitional waylays while sipping $6 beers at 36,000 feet.

Still, it might have value to mull for a moment that which we pass over at least as much as we contemplate origins and destinations and the oppositional connections between the two. I have spent enough time with my nose buried in atlases of the world that I pretty much have the planet memorized. Even before the beverage tray had arrived at our side, I knew our flight from Brussels to Douala, Cameroon, would take us over the Alps, over the Mediterranean, over the Sahara and finally into the heart of the Congo Basin.

Peering out the small window, I mentally laid out a surface map of Planet Earth, and, try though I might, I could not recreate a reasonable aerial route that passed over such historically important and geographically superlative terrain. The Alps are one of the most noteworthy mountain ranges in the world, especially if you overlay history with topography. The Mediterranean forms the saltwater soul of that which we now, for better or worse, call Western Civilization. The Sahara is the only desert whose name is synonymous with aridity so expansive it cannot be fully fathomed. And the Congo Basin stirs the heart of darkness in a way that no other tropical rainforest — not even the Amazon — does.

It took six-and-a-half hours to fly from the lowland civility of Belgium across the snow-covered summits of the Alps, across Mediterranean waters so deep blue I had to open and lay out my mental Thesaurus next to my mental world atlas in hopes of finding appropriate descriptive alternatives — azure? cobalt? sapphire? indigo? — across Saharan scenes of splendid desolation so severe and extensive that it made my lips shrivel and my tongue swell and parch, until, finally, across and into the living green monster, where dwell gorillas and pygmies.

At the time, I was unable to find upon my mental atlas another reasonable six-and-a-half-hour flight route that could match that stratospheric traverse. You might be able to go from the Gobi across the Himalayas to the Mouths of the Ganges, but what airports would you connect? You might be able to leave the Amazon Basin to fly across the Andes. But, again, where would you be coming from and where would you be going? Maybe from Anchorage across the vast Pacific to Hawaii. Maybe from Melbourne to Port Moresby. Maybe those routes, those origins and destinations would come close to equaling a single-leap half-day flight over the Alps, over the Mediterranean, over the Sahara, over and into the Congo Basin. Maybe. And maybe there are others I am not thinking of. Maybe not.

What is not maybe is: This morning I was sipping coffee in the cultured heart of northern Europe. Tomorrow, I will be searching for lions in the rich bleakness of the sub-Saharan Sahel among colorfully attired tribesmen carrying water buckets atop their heads five miles through the heat to their mud huts.

There are times when I lament what airplanes have done to travel. This is not one of those times.