I am a writer living in Baltimore. I worked as a reporter at The Washington Post from 1991 to 2013, writing mostly about medicine, public health, epidemiology and the life sciences, and occasionally about history and art. I am also a physician, a graduate of Amherst College, and a native of Framingham, Massachusetts.
A glen is a straight narrow valley with a river, or sometimes a long lake, running through it. One of the appeals of walking in Scotland is that there are so many of these geological features here and so many are nearly empty of human beings.
I just spent two days in one, Glen Strae.
I began in Dalmally with a fancy cup of coffee and as piece of cake served by a man named Paul.
To enter the glen, I had to walk around the western end of one of the two parallel ridges that formed its walls. At the the foot of the glen, in a sheep meadow, was a 40-foot tall stone monument to a man who had once been a leading light in Edinburgh. Perhaps he’s still remembered here. I suspect, however, that this memorial, like so many others like it, is now mostly a tribute to a time of large egos and low wages in rural Scotland.
I’d passed a huge monument on a hill earlier in the day, for a poet, Duncan Ban MacIntyre (1724-1812), which seemed to epitomize this phenomenon. It didn’t contain a verse of his work, and you couldn’t get up into it to take in the view its builders coveted.
A couple of days later I passed a more modern and modest, not to mention informative, monument. It was for Robert Campbell (1808-1894), born near the site (Dalchiorlich).
A lichen-stained photolithography plaque next to the road said he “earned his place in history by opening the way to the riches of the Klondike” and bringing “Canadian authority to the Yukon” during 40 years with the Hudson’s Bay Company. His monument didn’t have a single notation on it.
As I entered Glen Strae I saw two all-terrain vehicles climbing a hill track. The drivers were the last people I would see for two days.
There were plenty of animals, of course. This is family season (alas, single-parent) in the hills.
It was a steady uphill walk; a glen, after all, is what a river flows down. Tributaries to the River Strae flowed from the bare hills, forming pools of icy green water.
It was a sunny day, as all of the days of this crossing have been. It was also long—long in distance, long in daylight, and long in time alone. The last, in my case, leads eventually to rumination, the replaying of mistakes and bad behavior, the self-pity of disappointments and injustices, the tachycardic thrill of unwreaked vengeance.
There are many therapies for this. Mine is cheap—podcasts.
I had not brought podcasts on previous Challenges. (I’m barely capable of downloading them). But my sister, Ellen, suggested this would be a good opportunity to catch up with the rest of the digital world. So I took some suggestions from her and my son, Will.
Soon, I was listening to the Ezra Klein Show. This may not be in the spirit of the Challenge. But you know what? I have plenty of time with the landscape.
I eventually got to the show in which the host talked with David Brooks, the New York Times columnist and PBS commentator, who has a new book entitled “The Second Mountain.” In it he talks about the four commitments of adulthood that he came to understand after he’d been “broken open” by divorce and a failure of confidence in what he’d thought were worthy goals. (I believe the book’s title obliquely references “The Seven-Storey Mountain” by Thomas Merton, although neither of them said that.)
The episode was called “The Disillusionment of David Brooks,” but should more properly have been called “The Enlightenment of David Brooks.”
It was a revealing interview, in part because Ezra Klein didn’t just ask questions. He talked a fair amount about himself and what was on his mind—and he’s a thoughtful person. On their minds were: democracy, meritocracy, community, capitalism, the new “socialism,” friendship, altruism, unselfconscious self-abnegation, work and over-work, the ridiculousness of religion, the appeal of religion, and a lot more.
It went on for one hour, 41 minutes (including advertisements). That was long enough for me to get to a place where I decided to camp. It wasn’t my intended destination, but it was close to it (and I Iearned the next day, better). A single battered tree had survived beside the stream. Next to it was room for a tent.
I listened to the podcast as I put up the tent, took out all the stuff I would need (which is to say, almost everything in the pack), and fired up the stove to boil water.
Brooks’s and Klein’s message—and they wouldn’t say it was a message, I’m sure—was about modesty, uncertainty, provisionalism, confidence, hopefulness, and honesty.
I sat in the tent vestibule and looked down the glen I was only half-way up, sipping whisky and waiting for dinner. The sub-arctic sundown—so long that it seems to be one long offer of extra time or a second chance—slowly raised a curtain of shadow on the brown hill to my left.
A feeling of the benign nature of things settled on me.
It’s been a while. It’s amazing how time runs together even when you’re only talking about three days. Part of the reason is that this is what’s been on my mind.
I won’t belabor the point, especially given the subject. But let me just say that pain in the feet when you’re supposed to walk 241 miles with 38 pounds on your back is a concern.
When I left Kilmartin I was on roads for most of the day, the exception being a few stretches of what the UK topographic maps (called Ordnance Survey maps) call an “old military road.” In most cases, they are roads created by the English army when it suppressed the Jacobite Rising for Scottish independence in the mid-18th Century.
(This, by the way, is not just a historical irrelevancy. Scotland has a history of being allied with France ((read: Europe)) against English domination. It helps explain why Scotland opposed Brexit.)
I was in enough pain that I stopped a mile and a half before my intended destination at an ancient boat ramp on a loch that is the site of the first photograph of this post. I looked around, not very hard, for someone to whom I could ask permission. Finding no one, I relied on “The Scottish Right of Public Access,” which allows people to walk across private land, and camp on it too (away from animals, habitations, military reservations, airports, and Queen Elizabeth’s estate Balmoral). It turned out to be far better than where I would have been if I’d gone the distance.
(I should say at this point that, four days in, I have not met a single other walker on The Great Outdoors Challenge. Three miles before the aforementioned stopping point I saw a man setting up a Hilleberg tent—the most popular shelter among Challengers—on a flat piece of ground next to the loch the road was skirting. I don’t know if he was a Challenger, although I suspect he was. I would have liked the company, but it was too early, for me at least, to stop.)
The next morning, the owner, a man named Richard—he didn’t offer his last name—appeared. I told him who I was and what I was doing and he was non-plussed by my pitching a tent near his derelict boats.
This is the Scottish way.
We chatted about the weather and I asked him about sheep; his is a working farm. He mentioned that the reason one sees so much wool on the ground this time of year—frankly, it reminds me of cotton on the road during harvest time in the Mississippi Delta—is that wool grows year-round, but when spring comes, with high-protein new grass for feed, the fibers become thicker and the fragile winter growth drops off. This is why you find random gouts of wool out in the hills.
I thanked him and headed down the road. The macadam—and, by the way, “macadam” is named after the Scottish inventor of road asphalt—was hard on the feet.
This was a one-lane road with frequent “passing place” pullouts. It was Sunday. Not many cars passed me. I heard a quiet one behind me and figured it was a Prius. It turned out to be four bicyclists. By the third mini-peloton that came by I had my phone out.
I trudged on. I forget the details.
My right foot is turned outward slightly and I have blood under four nails. An attentive fourth-year medical student would detect “antalgic gait.” But like I said, I won’t belabor things.
I was scheduled to stay in a B&B that night, and I did, finally reach it. It is in the village of Cladich, which has nothing other than two B&Bs. “Cladich” means beach in Gaelic, and refers to a sandy strand on the loch above the village that has been extirpated by a hydroelectric scheme (as they call them here).
The proprietress, Sarah, kindly washed my clothes.
So I got off a little before 11 o’clock in the morning, the last of five people to sign out from this particular starting point of The Great Outdoors Challenge.
Here I am. I promise there won’t be many of these.
As you can see, it was a beautiful day. There’s supposed to be more of them ahead.
I got up onto the towpath of the Crinan Canal as soon as I could. It gave a great view of low tide in Loch Fyne.
There were a few walkers, but I was pretty much to myself. It wasn’t a bad way to start, although I do hope I run into some other Challengers. But I may not. I’m near the border of the event territory and the distribution of walkers pretty much follows a bell curve, with the majority in the middle of the territory, north of where I am.
The Crinan Canal opened in 1801, a time of great canal building in Britain. It’s only nine miles long but it served a useful purpose. It allowed vessels to avoid going around the Mull of Kintyre, which is the southwestern tip of the Kintyre Peninsula, which hangs down like a flaccid penis over Northern Ireland. Something to avoid! (And the seas can be rough there, too).
Steam-powered vessels—“puffers”—carried coal and other goods inland along it for a long time. Now, its water is navigated by pleasure craft. I watched several sailboats go through the openings of swinging bridges, and into locks, which are still opened by human muscle power.
There are 15 locks and seven bridges. It seemed that all the lock-keepers houses were still standing. In places the canal widened into large ponds the color of over-steeped tea. It was an area somewhat out of time.
I talked with a canal worker named Russell Livingston, and threw a well-chewed chunk of wood into the canal for a retriever named Rufus.
The antique feel of things was aided by some of the berthed boats I passed, which could have been left over from “The African Queen.”
My original route did not have me going to Crinan, the terminus of the canal. But Mr. Livingston convinced me it was worth it, and the detour was only three miles round trip. Plus, I was getting hungry and he said there was a coffee shop there.
I hid my pack in what appeared to be a closed car-repair business—lots of cars, no people—and walked up to Crinan. I encountered Rufus and his master again (they’d driven there) and one of the sailboats I’d watched go through a lock earlier in the day. I had lunch and two cups of coffee—good, put perhaps not worth three miles.
Finally I headed away from the canal, crossing a large marsh on a straight, hard road. I passed a tree plantation where a clawed crane was loading logs on a truck. I walked down a farm road and passed the first sheep and lambs of this crossing. I eventually saw the ruins of a manor house, and closer to the dirt road I was on, a church with a sign that said “Dangerous Building.”
Feeling courageous and sore of foot, I took the road into the church. A red car was parked in front of it. In the churchyard was a woman named Christine Young, who was tidying up the plantings in front of the gravestone of her husband, who died four years ago.
She told me the church, St. Columba’s, was Episcopal and the home church of the Malcolm family, which had been lairds of the Poltalloch Estate for fourteen generations. The estate house hadn’t been occupied since 1954–the family couldn’t afford the roof tax—but the church still had a service one Sunday a month.
Christine, who was about my age, lived in an estate cottage near the church. She’d moved up from southern Scotland in her thirties to do her internship for nursing school, which she’d gone to after an earlier marriage had ended. Her late husband was a psychiatric nurse. She’s a general medical nurse at a hospital about 10 miles away, a year and a half from retirement.
She let me into the church, which she said is always open. It was dusty and suspended in time.
On the back wall were two framed “rolls of honor,” one from each world war. They listed members of the Malcolm family and workers on the estate that had served overseas or in the home services. I didn’t count, but there were probably a hundred from World War I, and half that many from World War II.
In the sacristy was a framed broadside under broken glass thanking the king, workers in munitions factories, and “the heroism of our civilian population under the bombs of the enemy.” It was obviously from World War II.
After a while I headed up the dirt road toward Kilmartin, my destination for the day. It has a museum devoted to Neolithic, Bronze Age, and medieval Scotland, and a hotel where one can buy dinner, and a sports field where walkers are allowed to camp.
Along the way I passsed a stone circle, of which there are many in Scotland. Their function isn’t fully understood, but appears to involve astronomical or seasonal observations.
And several cairn-covered graves, called “cists.”
At last I got to Kilmartin. I set up the tent and went inside the hotel for dinner, and to write this.
I’d walked 14.1 miles, according to the walking app on my phone. My feet are not quite up to this yet. Tomorrow I’m heading into the hills—it’ll be a while before the next post—and the distance will be greater.
This is where I’m starting—a depopulated village on Loch Fyne, which is one of the west coast’s many “sea lochs,” long arms of the Atlantic Ocean that invade the mainland like fjords. It took a little over three hours to get here from Glasgow by bus.
As with all places of habitation in Scotland no matter the size, Ardrishaig is rich in history, and especially the history of the country’s diaspora. Which we’ll get into, of course.
But first, here are a few statistics about this year’s Great Outdoors Challenge, thoughtfully compiled by Sue Oxley and Ali Ogden, the event’s indefatigable coordinators.
There are 379 walkers from 16 countries. The vast majority are from the United Kingdom, but there are also 29 from the United States, 21 from the Netherlands, seven from Denmark, six from Canada, five from Germany, and one each from Austria, Barbados, Belgium, Finland, France, Ireland, Poland, Sweden, Uganda—and the first person ever from Japan.
The youngest walker is an 18-year-old man from Oregon. The oldest are a couple, the Borwits of Laurel, Maryland, whose combined age is 176. The median age looks to be about 60.
One person is making his 29th crossing, and another his 28th. (This is the 40th year of the event). 103 people are doing it for the first time. 77 people are leaving from the most popular starting point, a place called Shiel Bridge. Only five are leaving from Ardrishaig.
Which gets us back to the subject at hand.
The village is a couple of streets clinging longitudinally to the western shore of Loch Fyne. It has two hotels (only one of which—mine, luckily—serves dinner), two convenience stores, a “hair-and-health” salon, a bar that appears to be closed, a flower shop, a second-hand store, a Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall, and lots of places for rent or sale.
Directly across from the hotel, next to the loch, is a small memorial to James Chalmers, a missionary and son of Ardrishaig who was killed by natives in New Guinea in 1901–a member of the diaspora who didn’t fare well.
Farther down the road is a cenotaph to the dead of the Great War, which every Scottish village has because none was untouched by that conflagration. Forty names are listed, the officers named first—a protocol abandoned in late-constructed monuments because of complaints from veterans.
The names include three John McGregors, and two Grahams (Hugh and Colin), who served in the New Zealand forces. Perhaps they were brothers who’d emigrated together.
The monument gazes at the loch, as the men it memorializes did.
There was still a little activity to be viewed, even after 5 o’clock. I wandered down to the shore and found a 47-year-old fisherman named David Russell (camera-shy), who was power-washing his langoustine traps.
The langoustines are off shedding and hiding for a month, so this is the time to pull the traps, scrape off the barnacles and slime, and make them look good (which they do).
This is a year-round fishery. Russell runs about 1,000 traps, which seemed like a lot to me, although he said some operations have more than 4,000. They’re fished once every three days. The bait is hard-salted herring. Rotten or soft bait isn’t used because the crabs take it all. Ten in a trap is a very good haul. The average size of his keepers is 100 grams (although frankly that didn’t give me much of an idea of size).
The shellfish are sold live, exclusively to Spain, he said. You mean I can’t buy a dinner of langoustines here? I asked.
“Not here you can’t,” he said. “But when people from Scotland go to Spain, it’s the first thing they order.”
David Russell is Ardishraig’s only fisherman. He said there used to be a big herring fleet here, but that fishery collapsed a half-century or more ago.
“In the harbor you could walk on boats all the way to the lighthouse,” he said, pointing to a sea wall behind him. When I walked over and looked, there was one forlorn motorboat and five unused mooring balls.
A canal enters Loch Fyne in Ardrishaig. It looks to be still operating, although too small for modern shipping. I’m walking up it for part of today, so I may soon know more.
Several sailboats were berthed in a basin near the first lock. Some were a few weekends short of presentable, but one was a showpiece. I admired it with an okay sign, and the owner, Jackie Kay, stepped out of the cabin to greet me.
We talked for a bit and then, as it was cold, he invited me inside.
Mr. Kay is 80, a widower. He runs a small boatyard in town that specializes in refurbishing “classic boats”—wooden vessels from yesteryear. Among his accomplishments are two 26-foot steam launches, now plying the River Thames in private hands. He also builds small wooden boats, mostly dinghies.
He built his boat himself. It took seven years. He’s lived on it since his wife died, although he lived ashore in his house last winter and had the boat under cover, so he could get all the varnishing done at once. I told him I’m always amazed when I see a wooden boat with spotless bright work.
“I keep on top of everything. That way it’s easy,” he said, although I was not entirely convinced.
The boat’s name, Juliet Kilo, is the letter-naming protocol for “J” and “K,” his initials. In the summer he takes it out for a sail “about once a fortnight,” he said. He has three children, two of whom like to sail. I told him he was kind to interrupt his reading to invite a stranger aboard.
“Well, it’s always nice to hear a compliment on the boat,” he said.
He’s still working, and I told him I might stop by his boatyard tomorrow to see it. He said that’d be fine. But it won’t happen, I’m afraid.
Before each of my treks in The Great Outdoors Challenge I’ve stayed in a hotel one block west of the Glasgow School of Art. My first year, 2014, I also stayed there for a night after the walk. When I arrived back, the streets around the school where cordoned off and crowded with fire trucks and cranes.
Glasgow’s most famous building had burned while I was away.
The Glasgow School of Art Building, finished in 1909, is the masterpiece of Charles Rennie Mackintosh who, with a few others (including his wife, Margaret), invented the “Glasgow Style” just before and after the turn of the 20th Century. It epitomized the city’s ascendancy as a center of design and craftsmanship in the era of Art Nouveau along with its older identity as a builder of ships, bridges, and heavy machinery. (And to drive home that analogy, consider that Glasgow launched more new-vessel tonnage in 1913 than either Germany or the United States.)
Now known as the Mackintosh Building, it housed classrooms, studios, and work rooms. The east end had an oversize door through which circus animals were led into a studio where students could draw them. In the cavernous library of dark wood, every appointment–chairs, tables, shelves, desks–had been designed by Mackintosh.
The fire, which destroyed the library and about 30 percent of the building, shocked Britain’s architectural community, and especially the graduates of the School of Art.
One of them, Clare Wright, wrote of the building: “For many, especially those of us who experienced our adolescent creative coming-of-age there, it is like a parent . . . It validated our creativity and moulded our architectural outlook irrevocably. It was the powerful presence we could kick against and throw paint at, climb over and revel in, which it seemed could not easily be damaged, even by 100 years of teenagers’ artistic mess. It had places we could go to be calmed and soothed.”
There was little debate about whether to rebuild it, although everyone agreed the work would take years. Money was being raised within days of the fire, which investigators determined started when flammable gases from an aerosol can were ignited by the hot bulb of a projector.
Here is a model of the building, with the real thing through the window across the street.
Here are two pictures I took in 2014, a few days after the fire.
When I returned in 2015, barriers were still up the and rehabilitation was underway.
Then on June 15, 2018 the unimaginable happened. The building burned again. This time it was much, much worse.
Early press reports were that 80-90 percent of the building was destroyed. The roof collapsed. The building is on a hill and the downslope facade was rendered unstable and eventually had to be taken down. Both the east and west facades were also damaged, but not irreparably.
The Glasgow School of Art had allocated £49 million for reconstruction after the first fire. The second one destroyed £24 million in restoration work.
A fire suppression system had arrived at the site a few days before the fire but wouldn’t have been up and running for months. The one fortunate thing was that architectural features and furniture salvaged after the first fire were in storage and safe.
The school and the lovers of the building vowed it would rebuilt. Repair was no longer the right word.
“Beyond that it is too early to say much,” the School of Art press person, Lesley Booth, told me in an e-mail. “You will appreciate there is a complex mass of permissions that will be required before we can actually begin the process of the rebuild.
“In terms of cost, about which there is much speculation, again it is too early to assess what this is likely to be, but we were insured and it is our aim not to take any public money for this project.”
This is what the west end looks like now.
And the east end.
More than 450 tons of “retention scaffolding” has been erected to stabilize the walls. In places it’s turned the Mackintosh Building into a piece of environmental art–Christo goes tubular.
Glasgow, in fact, appears to be in a frenzy of rehabilitation. Walking one evening I passed another building, itself a piece of art.
The cause of the second blaze is uncertain, although it too has been declared an accident. Miraculously, nobody was injured in either fire.
Needless to say, with or without his building, Charles Rennie Mackintosh lives on.
This is the reconstructed Willow Tea Rooms where I had a 1,000-calorie snack a few days ago. Mackintosh designed four tea rooms in Glasgow, down to the dishes.
One floor above is his Chinese Tea Room, a fusion of east and west.
Time will tell whether the Mackintosh Building’s library will be reconstructed. Detailed drawings and laser-based measurements exist, so it’s possible.
There are several Mackintosh buildings in and around Glasgow, and an extensive collection of architectural sections, furniture, and art at the Kelvingrove Museum and the University of Glasgow.
One can’t do justice to Mackintosh’s indiscriminate genius, so I won’t try. Here are a few of his pieces of furniture, at the Kelvingrove.
And here, a decorative architectural panel, done in collaboration with his wife, Margaret:
Mackintosh spent the last decade of his life in Southern France, mostly painting.
Mackintosh’s output was prodigious and first-rate across many disciplines–Leonardoesque to a degree. Nevertheless, he died in 1928 at age 60 relatively unknown and not wealthy (and also childless).
In biographical materials much is made of the fact that Mackintosh had a serious drinking problem much of his life. Although not to embrace that, it does bring to mind Abraham Lincoln’s supposed comment about General Grant’s drinking: “Find out what brand of whisky he drinks so I can send a case to my other generals.”
Residents of Baltimore and its environs may be happy to learn that the Walters Art Museum will be one of three American museums to host “Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Making the Glasgow Style,” a show with more than 250 objects now touring the world.
It will be in Baltimore October 6, 2019 to January 26, 2020.
I’m back to do The Great Outdoors Challenge a fourth time.
As some of you may know, this is a two-week backpacking hike across Scotland. About 300 people leave from various places on the West Coast on the same day—Friday, May 10 this year—and finish 13 or 14 days later at various places on the East Coast. Traditionally, they take by off their boots and wade into the North Sea.
There is no set or required route for this crossing. Each route is “bespoke” (as the organizers like to say), crafted from the skein of hiking paths, farm roads, ATV tracks, drover’s trails laid down in medieval times, modern paved thoroughfares, and in some places trackless land. Devising a route, describing it to the organizers and their committee of vetters, and getting it approved (often with revisions) takes almost as much time as the walk.
It’s what Challengers (as we’re called) do in February.
Here is a map of most of Scotland, with the territory in which the Challenge occurs denoted in green. It’s a lot of territory.
One of the many appeals of the Challenge is the opportunity to explore some of the Highlands, the sparsely populated, largely treeless, unquestionably legendary region that comprises the northwestern part of Scotland. However, there’s no avoiding the less hilly and more thickly settled eastern half of the country (which is beautiful in its own right).
This year I’m starting from Ardrishaig, Number 13, in the lower left corner of the map.
In my first crossing I started from Maillaig, Number 7, which is midway up the West Coast. The second time I left from Strathcarron, Number 2, the second-most northerly departure spot. The the third time, in 2016, it was from Torridon, Number 1, the most northerly.
Here is a detailed view of the route, in pink. The blue sections are “foul-weather alternatives” that you have to file (and use) in case weather doesn’t permit following the trackless or high-altitude intended route.
Montrose, on the east coast, is where we all gather for a post-walk banquet. You don’t have to get there by foot. Most people put their feet in the sea somewhere else, and get to Montrose by bus or car.
This crossing will be less wild than the previous ones. I am staying in B&Bs or guest houses five nights—which is either a concession to age or an adjustment to a civilized route, take your pick. Many Challengers would call me soft.
The route borrows heavily from one taken in 2011 by Jean Macrae Turner, a wonderful Scotswoman whom I met on my first or second Challenge. She’s a surgeon, now retired, who’s done the Challenge with her husband, Allan (also a surgeon), and one of her sons, but in recent years has been doing it alone, as she is again this year. Her 2011 route had a historical theme, passing Neolithic and Bronze Age sites and ruined castles, which appealed to me. I’m thankful for her advice.
While I’m at it, let me once again thank Roger Hoyle, a retired lawyer and Englishman whom I met by chance in Moscow in 2013, for telling me about the Challenge and advising me on routes, gear, and people in each of my crossings. I couldn’t have done this without him.
As I write this I’m in Glasgow, by now one of my favorite places.
It’s the Baltimore of Scotland—once a great builder of ships, the medical capital of the country, home to unwell-known art museums, post-industrial, full of row houses and heroin deaths.
I’m staying at the same low-rent hotel—the Victorian House—that I’ve visited in the past. It’s one block from the Glasgow School of Art and the beleaguered Mackintosh Building, of which you’ll learn more if you stay tuned.
I’m trying to make this crossing lighter. I’ve spent hundreds of dollars to buy dozens of ounces in weight-reduction. I have a new backpack—my 20-year-old one developed a tear from overeating—as well as new “waterproofs” (as they call rain gear over here), a new stove, and a few other items.
I’ve just mailed four envelopes overstuffed with freeze-dried food and topo maps to places I’m stopping at along the way. I’m carrying two—two—canisters of propane fuel for the stove because the camping store man convinced me that where I was going they wouldn’t have any. (Macbeth, take note.) And of course the five pounds of electronics, which is my concession to me (and you, if you’re still listening).
That said, my backpack is lighter this time (even without all the food I’ll be carrying) than it was in the past.
Whether it’s light enough: we’ll see.
In the meantime, there are things to see and do in Glasgow.
We were surrounded by trees that could have been drawn by Dr. Seuss. A desert hare had just crossed the trail in front of us, its ears translucent in the still-rising sun. But it was something else that caught my 28-year-old son’s attention.
“I can’t believe how silent it is out here,” he said.
This was an offhand comment. I agreed, but said nothing. We walked on.
So I think I know the answer to the questions I brought with me to Joshua Tree National Park that Sunday morning. Can a person find isolation, silence, and beauty in a visit measured in hours? Is it possible to experience a national park’s wildness in the time usually allotted for a blacktop tour?
Speaking only for myself, this is useful knowledge when vying with work, friends, sleep, and entertainment for the attention of a person in his late 20s.
My son, Will, works for a start-up in Los Angeles. When I visited him recently, he’d had the job less than a year. He’d recently moved from a house-and-yard neighborhood to a loft in the Fashion District. I’d be there five days, but he’d only have the weekend off, and he’d graciously reserved it all for me.
He and I had done a fair amount of camping when he was younger – backpacking on the Long Trail in Vermont, kayaking on the Chesapeake Bay, that sort of thing. His enthusiasm had waned with age. I was a bit surprised when he said yes to my proposal that we visit Joshua Tree, where I’d never been.
He’d been to the park while he was in college in California. He was not only willing to go back, he was even willing to camp. But I didn’t press my luck. (In truth, the logistics required for a one-night backpacking trip is hardly worth it.)
I booked us rooms at a bed-and-breakfast called the Campbell House in Twentynine Palms, a town outside the Oasis Visitor Center on the park’s northern border. “This made my evening!” he texted after I informed him of the plan.
I think he was eager for a break from the hyper-urban neighborhood of repurposed factories, crowded restaurants, and sidewalks lacquered in dog urine. It wouldn’t be a big break, but more like a surgical strike. We’d do a short hike on Saturday after a two-hour drive to the park. On Sunday morning we’d do one of the “challenging hikes” listed on the park’s website – the eight-mile Boy Scout Trail. Will wanted to be home by 4 o’clock so he could get a head start on the work week.
We left Los Angeles at 10:58 a.m., an hour later than planned. Twenty miles west of the park we began seeing Joshua trees.
They’re not actually trees, but a species of yucca. One could be forgiven the confusion. Their trunks are shaggy with the dessicated foliage of previous seasons, which eventually falls off to reveal treelike bark. The new growth at the ends of branches looks like exuberant pineapples. They’re a kindergartner’s version of a tree.
We arrived at the visitor center with 15 minutes to spare before the 2 p.m. start of my choice for the afternoon activity. It was a tour of the abandoned Keys Ranch, one of the few successful homesteads in the pre-park desert. Unfortunately, the rangers stopped selling tickets at 12.30 p.m., a mildly annoying fact not mentioned on the website.
We came up with an alternative – hiking the nearby Split Rock loop. After a lunch at a kebab shop in town we drove there, arriving at 3:30. Our phones no longer had service, but the stored temperature prediction was for 96 degrees at 4 o’clock.
A half-dozen cars were parked in an unpaved lot next to a map board and a kiosk with a composting toilet. Will got out of the car. While I changed shoes and stuffed a day pack with water bottles, he ran to the closest ridge of rocks. Soon he was up 60 feet. “Oh, man, I forgot how cool a place this is,” he called down.
The trip was already worth it.
The Split Rock Loop was 2.5 miles long.
The dominant geological feature is a fine-grained rock – sometimes tan, sometimes gray – called “monzogranite.” It’s the cooled and weathered remnant of magma that welled up from deep in the earth more than 100 million years ago. The boulders, ranging from basket- to building-size, awake the imagination.
A few minutes after we started, I took a picture of an inclusion running through a rock, and above it a jet contrail of the same shape. We stopped at one formation that looked like bread dough from a kitchen with no pans. Elsewhere, I saw the head of a dinosaur whose chief feature was nostrils. And a whale with a racing stripe.
I’d heard that Joshua Tree was a favored destination for people taking hallucinogenic drugs. I was starting to see why.
The rock also invited climbing. About 300,000 of the park’s 2.8 million visitors last year were rock climbers. Will, who’s done some climbing, got to the knife-edge top of a group of boulders next to the trail. He announced he was going to stand up, but not proceed along the edge “because it’s a long way down.”
Suddenly, I felt like my long-dead mother, watching me do something stupid like this and wondering what to say that wasn’t alarmist. I was communing with two generations.
We’d hardly seen anyone by the time we got back to the car at 5:15. It was a great warm-up, and we had another half-day ahead of us.
Our bed-and-breakfast, the Campbell House, is a “sister property” of the 29 Palms Inn, which was a few miles away and full. An 11-room stone house finished in 1929, it was the architectural embodiment of a love story of Hollywood dimensions.
William Campbell, a California orphan, and Elizabeth Crozer, the daughter of a Philadelphia banker, met in 1917. They fell in love. Soon after, William enlisted in the army and was sent to Europe to fight. Two days before the armistice, he was gassed. A pulmonary cripple, he married Elizabeth, whose father then disowned her.
In 1924, the couple moved to the Oasis of Mara, near Twentynine Palms, on the advice of a doctor who specialized in the care of mustard gas victims. They lived in a tent. William’s breathing improved. Then his $95-a-month disability pension came through. They built a cabin, put up a windmill, and planted a garden.
In late 1925, Elizabeth learned that her father, on his deathbed, had restored her to his will. She was beneficiary of a trust worth $6 million. They built a stone house, where they lived for much of their lives.
Today, the couple greets guests inside the front hall in a half life-size photograph, although their eyes are for each other. An adoring Elizabeth gazes at her war-damaged William, in uniform and puttees.
Outside, shaggy palms and tamarisks shaded the raked-gravel yard. Chairs and tables sat on islands of fieldstone. Behind the house were cottages and a picket fence. At the edge of the property a wooden water tank stood next to a headless windmill tower. The place was a cross between a Zen temple garden and an abandoned set for “Oklahoma!”
My son and I had the master suite upstairs, whose decor was haute grandmere.
It featured a large bedroom with a fireplace, a smaller one next to it, and a bathroom in Eisenhower-era blue tile. My bed had 10 pillows. On the bedside table was a tray with two Old Fashioned glasses and a bowl for ice. A mahogany china cabinet– a refugee from downstairs, I guessed– held pitchers and sugar bowls. On the mantel were six volumes of Readers Digest Condensed Books.
A relic from a couple of eras, the Campbell House looked like a great place at which to spend a few days. Too bad we had less than one.
We slept in the beds, but left long before the breakfast. An afternoon temperature of 101 degrees was predicted and we wanted an early start.
We arrived at the parking area for the Boy Scout Trail at 7:12 a.m. The plan was to get a ride back to the car from the other end. I’d been told that Uber drivers operated inside the park. We’d see if that was true.
There were 18 cars at the trailhead – a surprisingly large number. It seemed unlikely they were all day hikers who’d risen earlier than us. Soon, it was clear who they were.
To our right, a woman with pink hair, carrying a sleeping child, made her way through the spiky scrub, followed by a man clutching sleeping bags to his chest. We stepped aside to let five people pass; they were pulling two blue plastic wagons piled with stuff. Soon after, two more men passed us, hugging a tent and sleeping gear.
Car camping out of sight of the car – but not so far that a backpack was a worthy investment – appeared to be popular in Joshua Tree.
After that we had the trail to ourselves. This has been my experience in national parks. You don’t have to walk far to get away from people.
The trail was flat for a while, and then climbed gradually. The Joshua trees became bigger and more evenly spaced the deeper we went into the park. They were also more extravagant, as if finally free to do what they wanted.
“How well do you remember your Dr. Seuss?” Will asked at one point. “These trees remind me of the trees in ‘The Lorax.’ It’s an allegory of environmentalism.”
I’d forgotten, if I ever knew.
Soon, we crossed a ledge. Across it ran a strip of white quartzite, segmented and raised from the surface. It looked like the fossil backbone of a creature from the Seussian Epoch.
For a while the trail was a dry streambed, channeling us between gigantic hills of rock. I suggested we leave it to get a taste of exploration. But I didn’t want to go far.
A couple of weeks earlier, the New York Times Magazine had run a story about a 66-year old man who went backpacking alone in Joshua Tree in 2010. The headline read: “Two hours from Los Angeles, it’s still possible to completely, tragically disappear”. No trace of him was ever found, despite many searches.
Our destination was a high spot about a half-mile up a slope to our left. The land was a boulder garden, every step an invitation to twist an ankle or fall into a crevice (which, of course, is what makes it fun). I looked back toward the trail several times, taking visual bearings in case we needed to retrace our steps. The landmarks disappeared into the geological jumble as I climbed; it wouldn’t have been easy.
Will scrambled straight up. I walked in switchbacks. He stopped before the final pitch and gave serious thought to his route. When he got to the top he spread his arms out, haloed in the sun. “Take a picture of me like the statue in Rio de Janeiro,” he called back.
We sat at the top, ate energy bars, and drank from our water bottles. The trail, sandy and serpentine, was in plain view. Beyond another ridge was a basin and, far away, a few hazy buildings. There’d be no getting lost today.
A truth about walks in the wilderness is that they’re not only invitations to silence and contemplation, but also to conversation and self-revelation. Two people walking single-file on a trail have a perfect balance of intimacy and distance.
They can speak in ordinary tones. They don’t have eye contact. They can stop a conversation because of real or feigned distraction. They can resume it without asking permission. Say what you want about Freud, he was onto something with his rules for the psychoanalytic encounter. And you don’t have to stop after 50 minutes!
In our two walks, my son and I talked about many things. He told me what he wanted to change to get ready for his thirties. I told him things I’d never mentioned before about mistakes and bad decisions I’d made. We talked about money. We talked about generosity. We talked about what was around us.
“This looks like it could be Tatooine from ‘Star Wars’,” he said, stopping to face a tawny wall of rock with gravel at its foot. “Like you could see droids and Sand People coming around the corner.”
On our hike there was no music, nothing to read, nobody to visit, no shortcut, no responsibilities. (True, he did check his phone a few times.)
But there was an end.
A long switchback took us down to a plain where the trail was wide and indistinct. We saw a road and estimated how long it’d take us to get there. Soon, we had a cell signal. We called an Uber.
Fifteen minutes later, a man named Greg picked us up. He was my age. He’d grown up in Compton. He’d moved from Los Angeles 18 years before, and had supported himself doing plumbing, electrical, and air conditioning work.
“It’s so quiet,” he said.
Soon, we were back on I-10, one of thousands of cars streaming west.
We got back to Will’s apartment at 4.12 p.m. We’d been gone 29 hours. We took showers. Will said he wanted some time to himself.
Mohssine Nachit is a professor of intercultural communication and dialogue at Moulay Ismail University, in Meknes. The university was founded in 1989, although schools of sciences, arts, and humanities had existed as part of a university in Fez since 1982. His wife runs the riad where I am staying.
I contacted him by e-mail before the trip, saying that I wanted to learn something about Berber culture and perhaps visit some Berber towns or villages. This was before I realized that such a request was like contacting an American professor and saying that you wanted to learn about white people, or Southerners, or people with European ancestry. People of Berber blood and Berber culture suffuses Morocco; their influence is as ubiquitous as that of Arabs.
But don’t call them Berbers around the professor. He is one of the people who consider it a disparaging term. The correct one is Amazigh, which he and others here pronounce “Amazeer.” It means “free people” in the Amazigh language. The word “Berber,” however, is universally used in guidebooks and on the web, which suggests to me that Nachit’s view is a minority one.
There are places in the country that are predominantly Berber, the towns of Azrou and Khemisset south of Meknes among them. Many Berbers are farmers and strongly identified with the land. They also have one tradition not shared with Arab Moroccans—dancing in which men and women have physical contact. The dance is called “ahidousse.” It predates the arrival of Islam and is not frowned upon,” the professor said.
The Berbers were the original inhabitants of Morocco (and much of the Mahgreb), which was later settled by Jews, Romans, Arabs, and Europeans. At various times many Berbers were Jewish or Christian; now all are Muslim.
Weaving of both rugs and cloth is a Berber activity important for both economic and cultural reasons. It is done almost exclusively by women.
“To be an Amazigh woman is also to be an Amazigh weaver,” Nachit said. “You are valorized by your culture and society when you weave.”
This is changing, however. Today, young Berber women prefer to study or go abroad and not stay home and weave, he said. The weaving tradition has remained more intact in isolated rural villages.
Regions have their own design traditions. Only in Azrou and areas near it is blue used as a dominant color. A group called the Gerwain is among the few that uses pink. One of the more distinctive designs are made by a group of Berbers called the Beni Ouarain, high in the Middle Atlas.
Beni Ouarain rugs are popular with high-end interior designers in the United States because of their coolness and minimalism. They are almost entirely white and black, which Nachit said references the snowiness of their geographic home. The white wool is often shaggy and the black designs often abstract, like Joan Miro or Paul Klee.
When I told Professor Nachit that I would like to see some Berber weavers and possibly buy a rug, he suggested I go to Khemisset, southwest of Meknes on the way to Rabat. He said I should try to find a woman named “Hada,” who was the grand-dame of carpet making there and from whom he’d bought some carpets over many years. Unfortunately, he added, he didn’t have Hada’s address, cell phone number, or even last name. But he assured me that if I stopped at the large carpet shop you see right when you enter the town, somebody there could direct us to Hada.
A few days later, I set off to look for Hada. With me was Sanaa, a 23-year-old woman, just out of film school, who I’d hired as an interpreter for a few days.
In retrospect, I can’t imagine what Professor Nachit was thinking. I had the impression that Khemisset was going to be a one-stoplight village. It turns out to be a city of 130,000 people. There is no one main road into town that I was able to detect, and there was no carpet store in plain view.
When Sanaa and I got there we saw no obvious place to stop and inquire as to Hada’s whereabouts—the notion was ridiculous, in fact—so we drove into town hoping to find a souk selling carpets, or a crafts cooperative, or some obvious place to inquire. We found nothing but the usual cubical concrete buildings with steel doors; streets, many torn up, with lots of red dust; and small amount of foot traffic, it being Saturday.
We took many turns until we couldn’t have found our way back to the road that brought us into town even if we’d wanted to look for Nachit’s carpet store again. I suggested we ask someone on the street about a place we could get rugs.
We pulled over and Sanaa asked an older man walking by. He was no help. We drove around and stopped again. While I searched on my phone for a carpet shop Sanaa approached a group of young men behind us.
To my surprise, she returned to the car with a 36-year-old man named Mohammed. He said he could take us to a man who was a rug dealer. He had a car (and later told me he buys and sells cars, when I inquired as to his job.) We followed him.
In a short time, we pulled over in front of an unfinished house. It had three gray steel doors on the ground level, which appeared to be a garage. Above it was a wall whose lower half was stucco and upper half exposed brick. There were three window openings with no glass. A red and black rug hung out of one window. Rebar rods stuck from the unfinished second floor. It was impossible to tell if the house had a living quarters. There were a few nice houses nearby, but the unbuilt lots were weedy, and the neighborhood was unappealing.
Mohammed went to a side door and came back and said someone would help us in a minute. Soon, one of the bottom doors opened to reveal a tall man, a white van, and an unfinished room stacked with folded carpets.
We stepped inside and introduced ourselves and said we were looking for a woman named Hada who was a rug expert. Did he know such a person? His name was Kareem and he said he knew two women named Hada who might fit the bill. One of them had two houses, however.
We waited around downstairs while he talked to someone upstairs. Two small boys appeared when he returned. One of them clung to his leg. There was a tray with tea glasses on a table, but he didn’t offer us tea. He did, however, say he was willing to take us to the Hadas.
He put his children in the front seat of his van. The older one, probably eight, sat in the driver’s seat and pretended he was driving. Kareem got in and pulled the van out. I was already feeling bad that we’d imposed on him, his children, and whomever might be unseen in the house. I gave a little money to Mohammed, and Sanaa and I took off behind Kareem.
We drove through a nicer neighborhood that had white stucco walls (stained brown at street level) around the houses, and then into a more modest one. Kareem pulled over, got out of the van and then, halfway across the street, returned to it and grabbed his younger son, who was about three, through the driver’s window. He knocked on a door and spoke with someone, then returned to the van. Whether this was one of the houses of the two-house Hada I never learned.
We followed him into a commercial neighborhood, stopping to let pass a man pulling a cart covered with limes. A block later we did the same thing for a man with a cart with tomatoes on it. By this time, I’d decided that if the next stop didn’t reveal Hada, we’d call it quits and go to some village out in the countryside.
We stopped in on a street of new houses. Kareem got out and knocked on a door. Someone answered and they spoke. Several minutes later, a stout woman in a blue dress with a tightly wrapped head scarf stepped through the door.
Kareem introduced us to Hada. I asked if she was the Hada who knew Professor Nachit from Meknes. She said yes, she had worked with his father, and she knew him. She invited us in.
I couldn’t quite believe that we’d driven to an obscure city and found ourselves within two degrees of separation—Mohammed and Kareem—from a woman whose last name we didn’t even know. We thanked Kareem effusively. He refused money until I insisted he take a small amount as a symbol of my gratitude.
We stepped into the house and took off our shoes. A woman about Hada’s age sat at a table in an anteroom. It was separated by a half wall from the living room, which was darker and had built-in seating covered with cushions along the walls. We sat down.
I wanted to give Hada—whose full name was Hada Ourahou—a sense of me and my purpose before I launched into an interview interpreted by Sanaa. So, I said, in fractured French, that I had heard of her from Professor Nachit, was interested in Berber carpet-making, would love to hear about her work and life. I said I also hoped she might be able to take us to see someone making a rug at home—something that Professor Nachit said she’d probably be willing to do.
She watched me while I spoke, occasionally saying a word or two in French, and nodded her assent when I was finished.
She had an impish smile that was exaggerated by a gray and black scarf that covered her hair and most of her forehead. I sat between her and Sanaa. Partway through our conversation her son appeared with a tray with a teapot and glasses, and she poured all of us the usual sweetened mint tea.
Hada had stopped making carpets five or six years earlier. Making a carpet sometimes took six months, and she no longer had the energy for it. Now, she’s a carpet dealer.
I asked her how old she was when she made her first carpet. She said 21, which surprised me; I would have thought younger. She learned from one of her grandmothers. “It’s like the first day in school,” she said. “It’s hard like that.”
She brought that first carpet with her when she got married and moved to a house with her husband. It’s gone now.
She said it took her about five years to become good at weaving. She guessed she’d made 500 rugs in her life, selling nearly all of them. I asked where she got the designs, and she tapped her head. She selected colors that went with each other, “like putting on clothes, matching shirt to pants.” If a client wanted a rug that looked like one she’d made, she was happy to weave a duplicate.
Only women and girls are still making rugs, she said. It was always women’s work because it could be done in the home and fitted into the tasks of homemaking and childrearing, which were women’s responsibilities. Children also used to make rugs, but no more.
I asked her how far she went in school. She said she left at age 19. I asked her how old she was now, and she said 64.
“Nearly the same,” I said. “I’m 66.”
“And still working!” she said with a laugh, reaching out to shake my hand in solidarity.
Girls who want to go on to higher education have no interest in weaving, she said. Today, only five percent of girls learn to weave, although when she was a child nearly all did, and also learned ancillary skills such as spinning and dyeing.
“In the villages, people now have cell phones, Facebook, WhatsApp. The old people have the time, the young people don’t,” she said.
I asked about her own family. She’s a widow; her husband, a career soldier, died seven years ago. She has three sons and four grandchildren—three boys and one girl. The girl’s mother doesn’t want her daughter to make carpets. “Of course, I’m sad. This will die,” she said.
Partway through our conversation, Hada had gotten up and stepped back from the living room to make a phone call to a woman she knew who might be making a carpet in her home. Sanaa later said that before making the call she’d said to the woman in the anteroom, in Arabic, “It’s not a good plan.” The woman gave Sanaa an embarrassed look when she realized she’d heard the comment.
But it turns out the weaver was at home and willing to have us visit. Hada put on a djellaba. Four of us—we were joined by a woman named Taaroucht, Hada’s best friend, who’d appeared at the house at some point—got into the car and drove off.
We arrived at a house in a more modest neighborhood. Hada knocked on the door and was let in. We followed.
The entranceway led to a small living room with a couch and a few low stools. On the wall were five bouquets of artificial flowers. Off the living room and parallel to the entranceway was a room that was both kitchen and workshop.
The weaver was a woman named Fatima Belaamri. She had a red, blue, and tan headscarf. At one point in the visit I asked her how old she was. She said she didn’t know but would show me a card that might help. She went into one of the two bedrooms and returned with an identity card that had her birth year as 1964. So, she was 54 or thereabout, although she looked older than me.
She went into the weaving room, sat on the floor, and knotted a few rows of the rug, which was stretched vertically against a wall in front of her. She cut the leftover thread from each knot with knife wielded with lightning speed.
The rug was white with a sparse black design—a sort of Beni Ouarain knockoff. It was for a client in Marrakesh. She’d been working on it intermittently for three months and expected to finish it in a week. Working fulltime, it would have taken about a month, but she’d had a busy summer with weddings and other activities. She would get 1,300 Dh for it—about $140. I asked her where she got her designs, as I could not see a pattern in front of her.
“Just always in the head,” she said.
She asked if we wanted tea. We couldn’t refuse, so she made it and brought it out into the living room, where we talked.
Her parents had lived in a village, but she’d grown up in the city with an uncle. (No reason given, and I didn’t ask.) The uncle, who was in the army, had no children, and she considered him her father. She’d gone to school for only two years and didn’t know how to read or write. She’d learned to knot and weave carpets starting at age 12. She has seven children—five daughters and two sons. All the daughters make carpets, as do seven granddaughters.
Her husband, a truck driver, had died a year ago.
Another woman, younger than the weaver, was also there. As we were waiting for the tea to arrive, she went into the second bedroom and brought out four rugs that were rolled up and tied. I always feel bad when someone starts unbundling carpets to show, but there was no stopping her.
Two of them were black-on-white designs like the one in the works, and two were made from scraps of old carpets. As an example of frugal recycling, like New England oval rag rugs, they were interesting, although they were also pretty ugly. If I’d had more room in my suitcase I might have bought one as a gesture of thanks.
We had tea and some cookies. After a while, the woman asked us if we wanted to stay for lunch. We thanked her profusely but said absolutely not.
“When you come back to Morocco, this is your home,” she said.
I thanked her for showing us her work, and for answering my questions. I gave her 100 Dh, but she would have taken nothing.
As I waited to get into the car in the alley out front, a girl in a red dress with beautiful dark hair came by on a scooter.
We returned to Hada’s house and got serious about looking at—and buying—rugs. We stepped into the garage next to the house where they were stored and she began unfolding and shaking ones into full view. There was a lot of conversation, not on price but on what members of the group thought about each of them. I finally bought three: an orange knotted one fron Ait Yadine that was about two years old; a red one from Ait Abbou that was about five years old; and a tan one from Khemisset that was 2 years old. I did not try to argue down the price on any of them.
We thanked Hada for all she had done, and also thanked her son and Taaroucht. Then we left.
Driving back to Meknes we passed plowed fields that were dry and devoid of vegetation; a few had also been burned. We passed olive groves, some with netting over the trees. We passed donkeys burdened with goods or riders. We passed a man walking a bicycle up a hill with four sacks of onions, two on the front and rear forks, like makeshift saddlebags. We passed roadside stands with vegetables, bags of nuts, and bottles of yellow olive oil.
Sanaa, who doesn’t drive, spent a fair amount of time looking at her Android phone. It had a dog on the home screen, which seemed unusual for someone in a country whose main religion considers dogs unclean. On the back was a sticker of Jimi Hendrix.
I asked her how my introductory speech in French to Hada had gone.
The water was high, but not so high that we couldn’t get under the Frederica Road bridge with anything more than a duck of our heads as the just-turning tide carried our kayaks toward Delaware Bay.
It was a spring tide in late spring. We were an armada of 15 boats. We were here to watch what happens when the full moon calls to one of its oldest listeners.
Each May and June, millions of Atlantic horseshoe crabs come ashore along the East Coast to spawn. The invasion is most dramatic when there is a full moon or new moon, creating the highest tides of the month. When it’s over, the beach is littered with the helmet-shaped shells of the Atlantic horseshoe crab, Limulus polyphemus, and trillions of its greenish eggs.
While these animals spawn from Maine to the Yucatan Peninsula, Delaware Bay is the center of activity. Exactly why isn’t certain, but warm water and sandy shores without big surf are part of the reason. Some swim and crawl more than 60 miles – from the continental shelf off the mouth of the bay – to get there.
We came farther to see them.
Thirty of us, from New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, spent three days and two nights on the Delaware side of the bay on a trip run by Upstream Alliance, an environmental education nonprofit in Annapolis. It’s not a trip you can duplicate exactly (more on that later), but a destination worth getting to nevertheless.
The group included numerous people from places upstream of the bay, including a legislator and a staff committee director from the Pennsylvania General Assembly, an official of the Camden County, N.J., parks department, and an executive of Philadelphia’s William Penn Foundation. They were curious about the condition of an estuary fed by a once notoriously polluted river.
How polluted did the Delaware River used to be? In 1943, Pennsylvania’s governor loudly complained that his state’s National Guard had embarked for Europe from New York, not Philadelphia. The reason: the Navy refused to send vessels up the Delaware because of its corrosive effect on hulls.
Today, the Delaware River is not what it used to be. What it empties into – Delaware Bay – is no longer the stinky little sister to the Chesapeake Bay, which is five times larger and one peninsula to the south.
Delaware Bay is a gem hidden in plain sight.
The Murderkill River (roughly, “muddy river” in Dutch) carried us to the bay through a marsh in the full flush of spring.
On one bank the empty seed heads of wild rice stood above the new growth, while on the other bank the feathery tops of the reed Phragmites fluttered. Where the bank was higher, cedars grew. Red-winged blackbirds flashed their shoulder patches, and a pair of ospreys rubbernecked us as they glided overhead.
Soon we passed through Bowers Beach (pop. 360) with just enough time to exchange greetings with diners on a restaurant balcony before the current swept us into Delaware Bay. In the distance, a half-dozen container ships were making their way northward to Wilmington and Philadelphia.
We came ashore on a beach just to the south to eat lunch. As we finished, a wooden boat appeared out of the distant haze. Don Baugh, our leader and the president of Upstream Alliance, identified it as the Maggie S. Myers, built in 1893 and Delaware Bay’s last oyster schooner. It was returning from a day of fishing for conch. But with a dirty hull, a furled black sail, and tattooed men stowing gear on deck, it looked like a pirate ship returning from a raid.
After a while we pushed off and headed south. Our leader had secured permission for us to camp on private land a few miles away.
There, after setting up tents, collapsible tables and chairs in the hot sun, a few of us headed for the water for a swim. As we waded in, our feet bumped against – or were bumped by – things hard and rough. Soon it was clear that on the bottom was an invasion force of horseshoe crabs, lying in wait.
We’d stumbled into an underwater D-Day. Thank God for water shoes!
There was plenty of time to talk in the long pre-solstice evening before the moon’s pulling power brought the horseshoe crabs onto the beach. Much of the conversation was about water.
The people from Philadelphia noted that while the water quality of the Delaware River and its tributaries had improved greatly, that fact hadn’t made it into public consciousness. Swimming in any of the city’s waters was illegal, except for organized events such as triathlons. Baugh said he’d been accosted by police while kayaking and told even that wasn’t permitted. “People are still turning their back on the water,” said Maggie McCann Johns, the Camden County parks official.
The bad reputation was understandable. A few decades ago, striped bass and shad wouldn’t swim past Wilmington because oxygen levels in the water were too low for survival. In the tributaries of the upper Delaware Bay, fish kills of a million or more menhaden occurred about once a summer.
“I can’t remember the last time that happened,” said Robin Tyler, an aquatic ecologist at the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control.
After dinner, Tyler (who has since retired), delivered a brief lecture on the history of bay cleanup after dinner. He said the Clean Water Act of 1972, and economic change, are the big reasons things are different now.
Kent County – the middle of Delaware’s three counties, and where we were camping – used to have four city sewage plants, and an equal number of cannery and factory outfalls. None of them did a good job cleaning their effluent.
Today, there’s only one “point-source” discharge in the whole county – a sewage treatment plant outside Milford fed by 500 miles of pipes and 85 pump stations. The water it discharges is cleaner than many of Delaware’s streams.
“Although we hear a lot about environmental degradation, I would say in the last 25 years things have gotten better out on these waters,” Tyler said.
By the time the lecture was over the moon had appeared, a pale disk on the horizon, then a bright orb in full geographic display. We sat around a bonfire until high tide, and then wandered down the beach to see what was happening.
We found a strange sight.
In groups separated by only a few feet, horseshoe crabs were swimming ashore, milling in the shallows, and climbing on each other. The females of the species are larger than the males, and the clusters of crabs often centered on a large individual, presumably a female. We checked a few – you can tell their sex easily by examining their forelegs – but in general didn’t disturb the foreplay.
Males can hold onto a female and ride her to the egg-laying site on the beach. A few had succeeded in this. Some females, however, were heading back to deeper water to shake their dates. Others were leading suitors in a conga line.
Round-backed and shiny, they looked like giant ticks, to which they are distantly related. Randomness and confusion was the order of the hour. It seemed an odd behavior for an animal that’d had 450 million years to perfect its mating dance.
Alas, what they had to look forward to was underwhelming. There’s no actual copulation. Instead, horseshoe crab mating is glorified onanism. The female digs a small depression in the sand, deposits about 200 eggs, and the male on her back releases sperm onto them. The “satellite” males trailing behind then get their chance. In horseshoe crab society, the also-rans get a chance to procreate, too.
This mating ritual goes on several times a night. We watched by moonlight and flashlight, took pictures, and made a lot of off-color jokes. Someone said it was too bad we’d all be asleep when the crabs lay back on the beach at 3 a.m. and smoked cigarettes.
The next morning, I climbed out of the tent and took a walk. The sand was pockmarked with depressions and the marks of scrabbling appendages and digging tails. The shoreline was like a low-rent motel with an unmade bed in each room. Housekeeping – the rising tide – wouldn’t be there for hours.
Horseshoe crabs are said to be “living fossils,” but that’s not quite true.
They’re related to trilobites, which lived 550 million years ago, and have existed as a distinct species for at least 450 million years. But they’re not unchanged. A fossil found in England from the Silurian period (425 million years ago) revealed an animal with more legs than its modern descendants.
The animal’s utility to human beings has also evolved.
From the 1870s through the 1930s, up to five million horseshoe crabs a year were collected and ground up for fertilizer and animal feed. That use ended in the 1960s. But in the 1980s a new harvest began as they were caught for bait for eel and conch traps.
In the 1990s, scientists noted a decline in the numbers of red knots, a migratory bird dependent on refueling on Delaware Bay’s horseshoe crab eggs on its flight from South America to the Arctic. (These days, about 45,000 red knots stop; they can double their weight in two weeks.) Reasoning that overharvesting might be responsible, the federal government created a reserve off the mouth of Delaware Bay where horseshoe crab harvesting is prohibited. That was followed in the early 2000s with a shortening of the season, and then a two-year moratorium.
At the moment, the Atlantic coast quota for horseshoe crabs is about 1.6 million animals. (Only males can be taken.) The Delaware Bay quota is 500,000. How much of the population is that? It’s hard to know, but a mark-and-recapture project in 2003 estimated there were 20 million spawning crabs in the bay that May.
A whole new use for Limulus polyphemus emerged in the 1970s when the Food and Drug Administration licensed a medical test that employed horseshoe crab blood as its main component. The blood coagulates on contact with endotoxin, a biochemical component of certain bacteria, including many that cause disease. The blood-based test is used to detect contamination in injectable drugs and on surgical implants. People who get hip replacements can include horseshoe crabs on the list of beings to thank.
Coastwide, about 600,000 horseshoe crabs are captured, scrubbed, and bled each year. About one-quarter of the animal’s blood is collected. The procedure kills about 15 percent of them, “and there may be sublethal impacts like failed spawning,” said Stewart Michels of Delaware’s Division of Fish & Wildlife.
Spawning appeared to have its own mortality, judging from the beaches we paddled past the next day. Many horseshoe crabs were lying upside down, their stiletto tails (called telsons) standing vertical. I learn later that they are not dead, just stranded and folded in a position that protects their gills. (Turning them over or carrying them to the water, not by their tails, may save them). Nevertheless, from a distance they brought to mind battlefield graves marked by a gun stuck on its bayonet.
As we headed south on the bay’s western shore, we passed Big Stone Beach. It has one of the few remaining World War II-era “fire control towers” on the Delaware shore. Their purpose was to help direct artillery fire on enemy ships (which, of course, never appeared). Caught at the right angle, it looked like an upright, three-tooth jawbone.
Soon after, we headed offshore to get around a jetty built at the mouth of Mispillion River to protect a prime spawning beach behind it. A pair of dolphins passed us, also heading south.
We spent the night on a sliver of private property inside Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge – another stretch of beach available only to people with connections. As we wandered down to the water near midnight, the horseshoe crabs were out in force once again. But there was less pursuit and little mounting, and in truth they looked a bit tired.
We headed back north the next morning. As we tucked into the Mispillion River to go to the takeout, we came upon a muddy delta with hundreds of horseshoe crabs mating in broad daylight. They clunked and rumbled against the hulls of the boats. Modesty, it seems, wasn’t key to surviving 450 million years.
I’m not worried about their future. Fifty percent of Delaware’s bay shore and 25 percent of New Jersey’s were judged “optimal” or “suitable” for spawning in 2010 – an amount unchanged since 2002. (Hurricane Sandy, however, did considerable damage to the New Jersey side in 2012, reducing habitat suitability by 30 percent.) What’s problematic is public access to the Delaware Bay shore. While significant stretches are publicly owned, there’s no place for people to primitive camp as we did, without making special arrangements.
The horseshoe crabs can come ashore for a good time. Why not the bipedal primates?
In the 14-day sailing course run by the National Outdoor Leadership School, students take the helm the first day. (David Brown/For The Washington Post)
Eight days into a two-week sailing course in New Zealand, I felt like the young and ineffectual officer in “Master and Commander” who ends his troubles by jumping off the ship holding a cannonball.
Over the course of the day in an otherwise beautiful place, I had made a half-dozen mistakes. When we shortened the mainsail, I failed to recognize the tack — a grommet at the corner of the sail — for the first reef. I asked how to read the jib’s telltales, something we had been taught three days before. One time, I wrapped the jib sheet on the winch counterclockwise, the opposite of the way it should go. In a man-overboard drill, it took me three tries to snag a life ring named “Frank” with a boat hook as one of my fellow students, with great effort, got me within reach.
Maybe I was too old to learn to sail, I thought to myself after we rafted up with our companion boat at a mooring ball at the end of the day. I badly wanted a beer, but had to settle for one more cup of tea as I and the rest of the crew retreated below deck to review each others’ performance.
Sailing once was an important occupation in America; in 1870, 1 percent of working men were sailors. Today, it’s entertainment. People are born into sailing by proximity to water, wealth or an antiquated view of a well-rounded education. I learned to sail at a summer camp in the 1960s. It was kind of like learning to swim.
I knew, however, that real sailing wasn’t holding the tiller of a 10-foot dinghy. Real sailing happened in boats with keels and sails so big you couldn’t control them just by hand. It involved knots, lore and history. I had the sense, too, that real sailing was more than work or play. It was also a cramped and dangerous version of life.
Last fall, I learned that the National Outdoor Leadership School — an organization headquartered in Wyoming with branches around the world — offered a two-week, learn-from-scratch sailing course in New Zealand. Most students at NOLS are in high school and college. This one, however, was for “adults,” which at 65 described me well. I didn’t have a moment to lose. Plus, I’d get to see one of Earth’s most exotic places.
In one of the periodic sessions to review my progress during the course, the instructor, a 49-year-old Australian named Stephanie, brought me to the foredeck late one afternoon. We sat in the sun. A few days had passed since my day of mistakes, but I was still discouraged. She stopped me as I recounted my deficiencies.
“Instead of learning to sail three hours a week over nine months, we do it in two weeks,” she said, stating the obvious. “It’s hard work, confusing and overwhelming. But we find it works.”
She was right, as she was in just about everything on board. And you can even learn to sail.
Cass, a New Zealander back home after years of itinerant teaching, explains the physics of sailing. (David Brown)
As its name suggests, NOLS is a school. It’s not an outfitter or a guide service. (Although, it resembles them in certain ways.) It teaches backpacking, rock climbing, sea kayaking, sailing and skiing at 17 locations, among them India, Tanzania and Chile. The courses last from one week to five months; some colleges give credit for them.
In addition to outdoors skills, NOLS aspires to teach more abstract ones — judgment, self-awareness, clear communication, tolerance for adversity and other traits of good leaders. It contends that a group of people working together has needs, like an individual, and is nourished by healthy “expedition behavior.” NASA routinely sends new classes of astronauts on NOLS trips, so I knew this would be an ambitious course in a beautiful place.
That place was the Marlborough Sounds, a ragged collection of straits, channels, reaches, bays, inlets and islands at the north end of the South Island. The sounds open onto Cook Strait, the notoriously rough passage between the South and North Islands. Across it and out of view lies Wellington, New Zealand’s capital.
We sailed on two chartered Marconi-rigged sloops, one 35 feet long, the other 39. They had diesel engines, the usual electronics and self-furling jibs. Nothing fancy. The group consisted of nine students (six men, three women), two instructors and one instructor-in-training — six people on each boat.
Stephanie had sailed everything, including stripped-down racing yachts, tricked-out catamarans, a schooner taking naturalists to Antarctica and the 143-foot replica of British Navy Lt. James Cook’s HM Bark Endeavour. She’d worked for NOLS part-time for 18 years while teaching elsewhere, on and off the water, around the South Pacific. As of mid-November she’d spent five weeks at home in the year.
Her fellow instructor, a 38-year-old New Zealand woman named Cass, was similarly itinerant. Since 2003, she’d led expeditions in nine countries. Between courses, she explored on her own, staying with friends and relatives or sojourning in hostels and hotels. She’d just moved back to New Zealand. “It’s been almost 15 years since I paid rent,” she said at one point.
They knew everything about sailing. Their judgment was good. They never sidestepped a teachable moment. They were patient and indefatigable. They showed that, despite heroic efforts to shoehorn it into a curriculum, leadership is best taught by example.
They also embodied the truth that sailing is one of the few activities in which unrelated adults can tell each other to do things without decorous preliminaries, including saying “please.” This could be jarring at times.
There were other things to get used to as well.
NOLS likes hardship. If there’s a difficult or old-fashioned way to do something, NOLS will choose it. This builds character. Up to a point, I agree.
The course forbade alcohol. This wasn’t a surprise, even though it was an adult course, not one for high school or college students. We had to leave our cellphones on shore, which was good for all sorts of reasons. The boats had handheld showers in the heads, but we didn’t use them because we were conserving water. To freshen up, we swam off the boats at the end of the day. The water was in the mid-60s, which made this form of hygiene extra virtuous.
The food, however, was bad.
NOLS outfits its courses as if they all took place in the Wind River Range in winter. We had pasta, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, quinoa, rice, oatmeal and flour. We made bread, scones and muffins. We had vacuum-packed tuna that smelled like cat food and vacuum-packed beef that looked like dog treats. Our weekly vegetable-and-fruit ration for six people consisted of three onions, two heads of garlic, one cabbage, one pumpkin and a dozen apples and oranges. But it was late spring in New Zealand. Berries were coming into season. There were greens galore!
I have a friend who wrote a book about Martin Frobisher’s search for a Northwest Passage to China in 1576. I consulted him about the rations for that Arctic voyage. They included oatmeal, “wheat meal,” “biscuit bread,” dried peas, rice, salted beef and “stockfish.” Elizabethan sailors would have been right at home on a NOLS trip.
There was one thing I wasn’t prepared for, although maybe I should have been.
For people my age who aren’t already sailors, the most consequential nautical decision they’re likely to make is what size cabin to get on a Viking cruise. I realized that my $5,619 bill was for tuition, not a vacation. Nevertheless, I thought there might be a few other late-life novices. There weren’t. I was twice the age of the other students.
Dennis, recently off a 700-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, shoots a bearing with a compass. (David Brown)
So, all you Sunfish sailors may be asking, what’s so hard about sailing a 35-foot boat?
I’m a (nonpracticing) physician and I can best describe it this way: It’s the difference between doing a finger-stick to check a patient’s blood sugar and putting a central line into his subclavian vein.
Learning to sail, in fact, is a bit like learning medical procedures.
Both require doing things in a specific sequence (and not being able to consult a cheat sheet while you’re doing them). They demand that you know what’s happening to objects — lines threaded through mast and boom, needles, guide wires and catheters — even when you can’t see them. Both favor “situational awareness” and decisiveness, and punish dawdling. Both are done in front of an audience — the patient or the crew — and can do damage.
One secret of NOLS’s pedagogy is that it lets students do things before they are competent or confident, but always with an observer ready to step in and help. That’s similar to the “see one, do one, teach one” culture of medicine — learning in which there is little actual teaching.
Students each day held one of five roles — mate, engineer, steward, navigator and navigator’s assistant. While the mate’s job was the most demanding — deciding when to raise and shorten sail, taking the helm for docking and mooring — there was no place to hide in the rotation. Every role was essential. The navigator and assistant, for example, were responsible for planning the day’s passage, marking it on the chart, estimating distances, informing the person at the helm of landmarks and hazards, and recording speed and position in the log.
But it wasn’t all work.
One day, we were catching 25-knot gusts on whitecaps at the edge of Cook Strait. People were getting worried as the boat heeled over more than it ever had before. “Let the boat tell you what to do,” Stephanie said in an uncharacteristically Zen pronouncement. A little while later, two members of the crew, simultaneously and unprompted, let out whoops of delight. Everyone else joined in, thrilled by the forces we had, for the moment, harnessed.
And then there was New Zealand all around us.
Although the South Island is temperate, not tropical, the forests are jungle-thick. The treetops are so tight against each other that the land appears to be clothed in a sweater of nubbly yarn. Many of the trees are exotics I’d never heard of — tree ferns, tea trees, cabbage trees.
The fauna was pretty exotic, too.
Four times, we encountered Hector’s dolphins — a small, rare species. We got into a pod of bottlenose dolphins, one of which probed the rudder with its snout. We sailed past blue penguins. When we went ashore one afternoon to talk about changing the crews, a flightless bird called a weka wandered out of the woods and started foraging on the beach. It’s in the rail family, whose American cousins are among our most secretive birds. In New Zealand, they don’t seem to have gotten the message that human beings could be a problem.
Marlborough Sounds is far from being the most isolated part of New Zealand. But it still offers visitors a sense of discovery.
At the place where one of the waterways, Queen Charlotte Sound, meets Cook Strait, uninhabited islands and rock formations rise out of the sea. We sailed near them one day. I looked toward the North Island. The land was out of view, but hovering over it was a cloud bank that stretched along a tenth of the horizon.
This is what the Polynesians saw. Their name for New Zealand — the Maori name — is Aotearoa, which means “long white cloud.”
Sarah, an urban planner from Denver, paid for the course with an education award she earned from a year of work with AmeriCorps. (David Brown)
Sailboats are famous for not wasting space, and sailors are famous for keeping the space tidy, but there’s no getting around the lack of privacy.
I slept on the banquette and table in the “saloon,” the common area below deck. The phone booth-sized head opened into this space. At night, a stumble going topside was likely to wake the whole boat. But we all got used to it, and to each other.
It helped that, the first week, we gathered around the table after dinner and told our stories. This was both bonding and entertainment.
For me, it was also a view on millennials, a chance to hear about other roads taken by people who were the age of my only child.
When I learned that my fellow students were all Americans no older than 30, I figured they might be preppies right out of a Vineyard Vines catalogue. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Five of them were paying for the course from AmeriCorps education awards —$5,900 tuition vouchers earned by 10 months of subsistence-wage service work. The best student among us had gone to a vocational college and was a diesel mechanic. One student had lived three months in a house without electricity or hot water during her senior year in high school. Two weren’t college graduates.
They brought a cornucopia of experience. One had already been a foster parent. One was a former massage therapist, now working for FEMA. One had just come off 700 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. One had learned rudimentary plumbing and wiring while putting up low-income housing in Utah. One was an actor who’d worked in a fish-cleaning plant in Maine; he regaled us with accent-perfect stories.
Stephanie, the Australian instructor, held us rapt one evening describing a trip on the tall ship Endeavour. The vessel, with a 56-person crew, was sailing off the west coast of Tasmania. In that part of the world, the fetch—the distance wind can blow over water without being obstructed by land—is essentially the circumference of the planet. The seas were so big it took two people to turn the ship’s wheel.
On every swell, Stephanie and her partner surfed the ship diagonally down the wavefront in order to keep the bow from submarining. At the trough, the masts nearly disappeared from view. As the following swell lifted the boat, they straightened it (“two spokes back on the wheel”) until it was perpendicular to the crest. Every swell took concentration. She did this for two hours.
“It was a lot of fun. But tiring,” she said modestly.
These device-free evenings connected us with a seafaring tradition — long monologues. We were like Joseph Conrad’s Marlow telling the story of Lord Jim or the doomed voyage from “Youth” (although we lacked the cigars and claret.) The evenings were one of the best things about the course. And age didn’t matter.
Students calculate the route and distance of the next day’s travel as part of “passage planning.” (David Brown)
Two weeks goes faster than you think. There were life lessons right up to the end.
On the last day, the wind died. We had a schedule to keep, so we motored. Not wanting to waste a final teaching opportunity, Stephanie cut pieces of cord and showed us how to make Turk’s heads, a form of decorative rope work often used as bracelets.
We all sat in the cockpit twisting and weaving the line. I had a hard time doing it as soon as I took my eyes off her demonstration.
“Let me guess which way it goes next,” I said, trying to lure her over for help.
“No guesswork. Just do it right,” she said curtly.
I thought of something Clifford W. Ashley (1881-1947) wrote in his famous book of knots: “A knot is never ‘nearly right’; it is either exactly right or it is hopelessly wrong.”
Stephanie took about a dozen turns out of my work. It was a while before she got things straight and could proceed.
“Bit hard, isn’t it?” she said, as much to herself as to me.
A bit hard. Yes.
We can be thankful that life is more forgiving than sailing, and sailing is more forgiving than knot-tying. Also, that it’s never too late to get better at all three — and practice helps.