A blog about a hike across Scotland (and possibly other things)

Category: Journalism (Page 1 of 2)

Most of these are travel stories that appeared in The Washington Post.


From The Washington Post, September 30, 2022

Some cities have a past that is beautiful in the present. Old buildings and public spaces effortlessly become tourist attractions long after their reason for being has disappeared. Venice is like that. So is Paris.

Other cities carry their past into the present as an unavoidable burden, sprucing up their edges with beautiful things, new and old, to distract attention. Dundee, on the east coast of Scotland, is one of those. So is Baltimore, my home.

I spent most of a week in Dundee last spring while doing archival research in St. Andrews, 13 miles to the south across the River Tay, Scotland’s longest river. Every day I commuted to my hotel — 40 minutes by bus — in a “real” city, as I had between Washington and Baltimore for 22 years.

And I came away a fan. More than a fan, actually. When I left, in my breast was the defensive love felt by people who stumble into has-been cities and stay, as I’ve done in Baltimore for more than half my life.

Dundee, like Baltimore, is a city whose great days are a century gone.

It has a world-class industrial past, and a vast inventory of vacant industrial buildings in the present — like Baltimore. Both cities have a dominant and oppressive building material — red brick in Baltimore, and in Dundee a local sandstone that can’t make up its mind whether it’s tan or gray. As in Baltimore, some of these buildings — wonderful ones — have been repurposed, like the hotel I stayed in, an old linen mill.

Both cities have signature culinary products — crabs in Baltimore and marmalade in Dundee. Both have a lot of litter. Both are defaced or decorated with graffiti, depending on your taste. Dundee has the highest crime rate of cities in Scotland while Baltimore ranks third in the United States.

Where does one begin to learn about Dundee’s history and heart? Luckily, for a tourist, there is a place.

It’s called Verdant Works, a former jute mill in a part of the city known as Blackness. (Dickens couldn’t have come up with a better name.) Once the employer of 500 people, the mill is a keyhole through which most of Dundee’s history can be descried. Unlike many factory museums, its story is made vivid by docents only one or two generations removed from its inescapable clutches.

But before we spend an afternoon there, let’s look around.

A vibrant maritime history

Dundee is a port on the Firth of Tay, the place where the river widens into a tidal estuary before entering the North Sea. It was built on trade, and for many centuries it was Scotland’s second most important city, behind Edinburgh. Its maritime past is telegraphed in street names (Chandlers Lane, East Whale Lane), stone workshops along the waterfront, a compact Maritime Trail where its piers and shipyards once stood, and a small collection of historic ships.

Of the last, the most notable is the Discovery, a three-masted sailing vessel that also had a steam engine. Billed as the first ship designed specifically for scientific research — there was no iron or steel within a 30-foot radius of its “magnetic observatory” — it was built in Dundee in 1901 and owned by the Royal Geographical Society.

The Discovery’s most famous voyage was a four-year trip to Antarctica featuring two of Britain’s legendary explorers — Robert Falcon Scott, the captain, and Ernest Shackleton, the third officer. Visitors are allowed to go almost anywhere on it. (In that regard it’s better than Baltimore’s estimable Constellation, built in 1854 and used to catch slave traders, among other tasks.)

On the pier next to it is V&A Dundee, an offspring of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Like its parent, it’s dedicated to design, decorative arts and performance. Opened in 2018, the V&A is the antithesis of Discovery — no vertical lines in view, and clad in what looks like a grate from a pier. But it’s just as interesting, with a wonderful collection that includes a salvaged tea room from Glasgow that was designed by Scotland’s art nouveau genius, Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

The ship and the museum are the most visible pieces of a 30-year, nearly $2 billion development project along five miles of waterfront.

A 15-minute walk inland is the McManus, a gallery and museum that’s a good place to see art and artifact telling Dundee’s story. That includes eras as Britain’s most important whaling port; a textile and shipbuilding center; and, in the second half of the 20th century, the British home to American companies, including Timex and National Cash Register.

As in Baltimore, Dundee’s shipyards and factories eventually closed. (The city lost 10,000 manufacturing jobs in the 1980s.) Like Baltimore, it’s now trying to cobble a future out of tourism, biotech and lots of little companies.

There’s a lot to see in Dundee’s environs, including castles and archaeological sites. But if you have time for only one stop, make it Verdant Works. The museum stands in for the more than 100 jute mills that once operated in Dundee and employed, by the late 1800s, 40,000 of the city’s 170,000 residents.

The jute era


It’s a fiber made from the middle layer of a 12-foot-high grass that grows mostly in India and Bangladesh. Its closest competitor is hemp.

You make burlap from jute. From burlap (in the old days) you made the binding of cotton bales and sacks for coffee, cocoa, sugar, potatoes and lots of other things. Woven tighter, it became cloth for tents and the covers for artillery pieces. War was good business for jute. In one two-week period during World War I, 150 million jute sandbags were shipped out of Dundee.

Ian Findlay

So how did a city on the North Sea come to process fiber grown in South Asia?

In the 1700s, Dundee developed a linen industry, importing flax from the Baltic states and other high-latitude countries where it grew. By 1840, the city had overtaken Leeds, in England, in the production of coarse linen. The Crimean War (1853-1856), however, interrupted the flax trade.

Dundee’s industrialists realized they had the knowledge and labor to process, spin and weave other fibers. Imperial Britain had access to a flax alternative growing in its colony, India. Add a little time and Dundee became the jute capital of the world.

A small thing that made a big difference was Dundee’s whaling fleet. At some point the mill managers discovered that washing the raw fiber in a mixture of 90 percent water and 10 percent whale oil made raw jute less likely to snag in fast-moving machinery. This 10 percent solution was enough to keep Dundee’s whaling industry alive 50 years longer than in almost anywhere else in the world.

‘Only show in town’

The first docent I encountered at Verdant Works was Ian Findlay, a 73-year-old retired civil servant. His mother’s mother was a jute weaver. His father’s mother was a jute spinner. His father’s father was a maintenance engineer in a jute mill.

“It was the only show in town, to be honest,” he said.

On the factory floor I met another man, Iain Sword, also 73, whose jute pedigree wasn’t as long. His father left school at 14 and was a jute salesman, mostly to the carpet industry, his whole life.

Sword had been a banker around the United Kingdom before retiring to Dundee, his hometown. He was a jute Wikipedia, and no apologist for the mill owners. He told me that when Britain finally required public education, Dundee mill owners successfully petitioned to be an exception. They got permission to employ “half-timers” — children who’d work 30 hours a week in the mill for minuscule pay and go to school for half days only. They were so good at crawling under machinery and pulling out dust and fibers!

Iain Sword

In fact, 70 percent of mill workers in Dundee were women and children, who were paid less than men. The city was known as “She Town” and was the first place in Scotland where jailed “suffragettes” went on hunger strike. It was also full of men raising children and drinking too much.

In part as a consequence of these conditions, 63 percent of Dundee’s eligible men fought in World War I, where they were slaughtered in droves. A battalion known as “Dundee’s Own” sent 423 men and 20 officers into battle at Loos, France, in September 1915. All but one of the officers were killed, as were 230 enlisted men. The McManus has a spectacular painting of two dozen Dundonians — that’s what the city’s residents are called — standing in the ruined landscape after another battle, Neuve Chapelle. The painter, Joseph Gray (1890-1962), had been a newspaper artist in Dundee; everyone in the painting is identified.

“Working conditions were just very, very hard. It’s very difficult to think of what life was like,” Sword said, between explanations of how various pieces of machinery operated.

A glimpse of that life, however, comes through in a remarkable piece of public health research published by the Royal Society of London in 1886. The authors were three men — Dundee’s health officer; a chemist at University College in London; and a second scientist from that institution, J.S. Haldane, who would become the most important respiratory physiologist of his generation.

The team took air samples from tenements occupied by mill families — 29 one-bedroom and 13 two-bedroom dwellings — and from 18 dwellings of four or more bedrooms occupied by middle- and upper-class families. They measured temperature, carbon dioxide (a product of respiration and a measure of crowding), as well as “organic matter” (basically dust), and bacteria and mold.

“The samples were taken during the night, between 12.30 A.M. and 4.30 A.M.,” the scientists wrote. “The houses were visited without warning of any kind to the inhabitants, so as to avoid the risk of having rooms specially ventilated in preparation for our visit. In every case but one we were most civilly received.”

The average number of sleepers per room in the one-room flats was 6.6; in the two-room ones, 6.8; and in the houses of four or more rooms, 1.3.

At 52 pages, it’s a long and complicated study that highlights the dramatic effects of crowding. Compared with four-room houses, one-room ones had air with twice as much carbon dioxide, four times as much dust and seven times as many microorganisms.

The most important data, however, was provided by Dundee’s health officer.

The death rate of children was four times higher in one-room tenements than in four-room houses. Residents living in one room “have the chance at birth of living only one-half as long as those in better-class houses, or they die nearly 20 years sooner, on the average, than those of the better class.” At this the scientists couldn’t restrain themselves: “This is an enormous difference.”

Other research found that teenage boy mill workers were 4½ inches shorter and “a stone lighter” — that’s 14 pounds — than rural teenagers in Scotland.

Haldane’s more famous son, mathematician and geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, later said of his father: “His experience of the Dundee slums may not have made him a radical, but it kept him one.”

What Dundee needs is its version of New York’s Tenement Museum, or even Baltimore’s modest Irish Railroad Workers Museum, to bring these conditions to life.

The jobs leave

Jute mill owners eventually found a way to make even more money: They moved the business to India, closer to the fiber’s source. Dundee lost a whole industry, much of its culture and untold thousands of people. Before, it had been a place where a boy with mechanical aptitude could advance — even if he left school at 14. “The loss of the textile industry pretty much led to the loss of all that,” Iain Sword told me.

But remnants of the jute trade are still visible in Dundee, if you keep an eye out. Passing a trash-strewn factory yard early in my visit, I saw at the far end a sign over a door: “Drivers should not stand under slings while bales are being hoisted.” Jute bales — compressed rock-hard to save space on shipment from India — weigh 400 pounds.

The city is also full of concert halls, parks, pools and other public amenities that might not exist but for the barons. They gave generously while mercilessly exploiting their workers — like Andrew Carnegie, a Scot whose wealth paid for more than 1,500 libraries in the United States.

Verdant Works shows this story and doesn’t just tell it. The exhibits are clever and moving. Physical objects butt up against photographs of people doing work with those same objects. You feel as if you’re in a diorama or onstage in a play. Mural-size photographs make faces larger than life. You can’t help pondering the individuality of the people staring at you.

It’s a place to feel the beating heart, and the stony heart, of a city.

Orwell’s Last Neighborhood

The American Scholar magazine published a version of this story, about one-third shorter, in the Spring 2019 edition. This is the original version. Think of it as a “director’s cut.” It was a “Notable” essay in both Best American Essays 2020 and Best American Travel Writing 2020.

It’s hard to know what would be a good place to imagine a future of bad smells and no privacy, deceit and propaganda, poverty and torture.  Does a writer need to live in misery and ugliness to conjure dystopia?  

Apparently not.

We’d been walking more than an hour.  The road was two tracks of pebbled dirt separated by a strip of grass.  The land was treeless as prairie, with wildflowers and the seedless tops of last year’s grass smudging the new growth.

We rounded a curve and looked down a hillside to the sea.  A half-mile in the distance, far back from the water, was a white house with three dormer windows.  Behind it, a stone wall cut a diagonal to the water like a seam stitching mismatched pieces of green velvet.  Far to the right, a boat moved along the shore, its sail as bright as the house.

This was where George Orwell wrote “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”  The house, called Barnhill, sits near the northern end of Jura, an island off Scotland’s west coast in the Inner Hebrides.  Given that it was June 2, sunny, short-sleeve warm, with the midges barely out, it’s fair to say it couldn’t have been more beautiful.

Orwell lived here for parts of three years, the last of his life.  He left periodically (mostly in the winter) to do journalism in London and, for seven months in 1947 and 1948, to undergo treatment for pulmonary tuberculosis.  Although he rented Barnhill and didn’t own it, he put in fruit trees and a garden, built a chicken house, bought a truck and boat, and invested numberless hours of labor in what he believed would be his permanent home.  When he left it for the last time, in January 1949, he never again lived outside a sanitorium or hospital.

I came to Jura after a two-week backpacking trip across Scotland.  My purpose was to drink single malt on Islay, the island to the south, and enjoy two nights of indulgence at Ardlussa House, the estate house where Orwell’s landlord lived.  I was not on an Orwell pilgrimage.  Barnhill is not open to the public, and no one among the island’s 250 residents remembers him.  

Nevertheless, it’s hard not to think of him here. With a little work, a person can almost retrace his steps day by day.

Orwell kept a diary from at least 1931 until four months before his death in January,1950.  In his introduction to a 2012 edition of the diaries, the late Christopher Hitchens—Orwell’s biggest contemporary champion—wrote that they “enrich our understanding of how Orwell transmuted the raw material of everyday experience into some of his best-known novels and polemics.”  

The entries from Jura, however, are an exception. They offer no look into Orwell’s mood, thoughts on politics, or difficulties with his novel. The only hint he might be a writer is the entry of August 31, 1947, when he wrote: “Most of afternoon trying to mend typewriter.” Instead, they’re an account of seedlings planted, eggs collected, fish caught, and gasoline lost from a leaky tank; of the depredations of birds, rabbits, deer, and slugs on the garden; of his walks, his guests, and their outings. 

The conventional wisdom is that Orwell’s years on Jura killed him and almost robbed the world of “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”  None of his biographers or friends seem to consider that Jura, despite or because of its harshness, might have extended his life and given him the psychic space to imagine a place utterly unlike it.

The island is just as empty, and life only a little less difficult, than when he was there. The 21st Century has moved closer to “Nineteen Eighty-Four” than it has to Jura.

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George Orwell didn’t like the Scots and was embarrassed that his real name—Eric Blair—led some people to believe he was one. Nevertheless, he’d had the idea of moving to a Hebridean Island for at least five years before he set foot on Jura in September 1945. 

The place was recommended to him by David Astor, an editor at a London newspaper, The Observer, for which Orwell wrote reviews. Astor’s family, wealthy as few others, had a summer estate on the island. (On holidays, his father, Viscount Astor, brought a cow from England so he could have the milk he liked). He arranged for Orwell to stay with a farm family. While there, the writer made plans to rent a vacant house near the northern end of the island the following year. “I was horrified when I heard this,” Astor later said. He called Jura “just the most remote place you could find almost in the British Isles.”

Orwell wouldn’t seem the best candidate for life there. 

He was tired from work as a broadcaster at the BBC, as a war correspondent in France, and a member of the Home Guard, during World War II.  He had a chronic form of tuberculosis; nearly everyone remarked how thin and ill he looked.  In a few months he would suffer a pulmonary hemorrhage.  His wife had died in surgery earlier in the year.  He was raising their son, a year and a half old, with the help of a housekeeper.

At the same time, Orwell was famous for love of adversity. He’d made his name living rough with migrant farmworkers and coal miners in England. Destitute, he’d worked as a dishwasher in Paris, and almost died in a paupers’ hospital there. He’d fought in the Spanish Civil War. Less known to his admiring readers was a fondness for gardening, do-it-yourself furniture-making, and rural life. 

The house he rented was part of a 20,000-acre estate, Ardlussa, that comprised one end of the island. The estate was owned by Margaret Fletcher and her husband, Robin, who had moved there after the war and were trying to restore its economic viability. They were happy to have another tenant even if he wouldn’t be a farmer. Fletcher had been a housemaster at Eton, the boarding school Orwell had attended, which gave the two men a bond beyond the obvious one.

What must have been most striking, however, was not what the war had done to Jura but to its inhabitants.

Robin Fletcher had been in the Gordon Highlanders, was taken prisoner in Singapore, and had worked on the Burma-Siam Railway (of “Bridge On the River Kwai” and “Narrow Road to the Deep North” fame). His wife received three postcards of 12 words each—the limit the Japanese allowed—during his three-year captivity. Three weeks after the war ended in August 1945 she received word he was alive.  Her two brothers had died during the war. One, a worker in a Glasgow aircraft factory, collapsed mysteriously at 22. The other, who had owned Ardlussa, was killed in Belgium.   

Among the estate’s tenants were two men who landed at Normandy, two who’d fought in Italy, and two who’d also been prisoners of the Japanese.  At the end of the island near Barnhill lived a single man, Bill Dunn, with a below-the-knee amputation from a war wound. He’d placed an advertisement in the Oban Times seeking a farm tenancy that Robin Fletcher had answered. In a nearby croft was a former Polish soldier, Tony Rozga, who was married to a Scottish woman.

Orwell hadn’t been wounded in the war, but he had been in its rehearsal. He took a through-and-through sniper shot to his neck in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. The bullet damaged his right recurrent laryngeal nerve and the C7 nerve root, but miraculously didn’t kill him. Its only permanent effect was on his voice, which people reported was high and soft. (Curiously, despite Orwell’s long employment at the BBC, no sound recording of him is known to exist.)

Jura had one store, one telephone, and one physician, at a village called Craighouse, 16 ½ miles south of Ardlussa House. Mail was delivered to the settlement there three times a week and forwarded on to Barnhill, seven miles farther north, each Thursday. Food-and-fuel rationing was in full-swing. The store in Craighouse kept the ration books and island residents put in their orders by mail.

Orwell spent one night at Ardlussa House after a 48-hour trip from London.  Interviewed decades later, Margaret Fletcher remembers that “he arrived at the front door looking very thin and gaunt and worn . . . a very sick-looking man.” The next day she and her husband took him up to Barnhill and, worried, left him alone in the four-bedroom house. They’d scrounged up a little furniture to tie him over until his own was shipped up from London.  But the place was cold and almost empty. 

Orwell got to work. 

On May 24, 1946, in his second diary entry on Jura, he wrote: “Started digging garden, ie. breaking in the turf.  Back-breaking work.  Soil not only as dry as a bone, but very stony.  Nevertheless there was a little rain last night. As soon as I have a fair patch dug, shall stick in salad vegetables.  This autumn shall put in bushes, rhubarb & fruit trees if possible, but will need a very high & strong fence to keep the deer off them.  Shot a rabbit in the dusk & missed him.” 

A few days later, his sister, Avril, five years younger, arrived.  She’d spent the war as a factory worker and was ready for a long vacation.  Soon she decided to stay for good, too. 

Many people, both friends and biographers, have speculated about why Orwell decided to move to Jura. They came up with a list of reasons, although Orwell himself never addressed the question.  

He sought a place lacking distraction, which would let him write a book he’d been thinking about for a while.  He was pessimistic about the world’s ability to avoid nuclear war and a Hebridean island would be far from first-strike targets. He wanted to raise his son where the boy could run around outdoors. Some people also thought he feared Soviet agents might try to kill him as they had Trotsky, another of Stalin’s sworn enemies. He always kept a loaded Luger close by. 

Richard Rees, the editor of a magazine that published Orwell’s essays and reviews, saw in the writer a streak of self-punishment that a Hebridean island satisfied perfectly. Years after Orwell died, he told an interviewer: “I fear that the near-impossibility of making a tolerably comfortable life there was a positive inducement to Orwell to settle in the remotest corner of the island of Jura.” 

Perhaps his neighbor Tony Rozga summed it up best.

“I didn’t ask him why he came to Jura, but the impression I got was that he came for much the same reasons I did,” Rozga said.  “Hiding from people, fed up with the war, fed up with people. Hiding oneself in a corner and enjoying life.”

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The current laird of Ardlussa is Andrew Fletcher, the grandson of Orwell’s landlord. He’s 46, wiry, and not afraid to wear pink running shoes around the house.

He and his wife Claire, moved to Jura from Glasgow in 2007. He’d been a landscape gardener and she a programmer at a radio station; together they have four daughters, all still at home and in school. 

The house is a cream-colored, vaguely Georgian structure with a forest of chimney pots on the roof. (Parts of the building are older, dating from the 1600s). The front hall is what you might expect from a Scottish estate house—the resting place of dozens of rubber boots and waxed cotton coats, with houndstooth hats and canvas field bags hanging on hooks and a bouquet of bamboo rods sticking out of a bin.

Inside the big doors is a bookcase filled with bound volumes of agriculture and estate management periodicals from another century. Farther in is a 3-D relief map of the estate in a glass case, two shelves of Orwell literature, and a tray holding a bottle of single malt that’s always open for business. Upstairs are rooms down little corridors that seem not to connect to other parts of the house.

Orwell had spent time in the house. After finishing the first draft of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” in October 1947, his health worsened. A physician in Glasgow was called. Orwell came to Ardlussa House for the consultation, which lasted several days. There is no plaque denoting the room where Orwell sojourned in bed.

In truth, there’s almost no mention of Orwell on Jura today. So, it’s not surprising there’s little Orwell memorabilia. Barnhill (which is owned by Andrew Fletcher’s aunt and uncle) has a rusting claw-foot bathtub that reputedly dates from Orwell’s occupancy. But the writer’s motorbike was junked more than a decade ago because—Andrew recalled his uncle saying—“It was damaged beyond repair.” 

Like Andrew’s paternal grandparents, Andrew and Claire are trying to reinvent Ardlussa as a sustainable business. Hunting (“stalking” in local parlance) and a small hydroelectric plant (“hydro scheme”) are the main sources of income. The estate also gets a conservation subsidy as a “Site of Special Scientific Interest” (mostly because of its mosses and lichens), and an agricultural subsidy for 65 head of cattle. 

The land supports about 1,000 red deer, a large elk-like species, and hunters take about 130 a year. The estate charges £600 to hunt stags and £400 to hunt hinds, or females. That doesn’t include room-and-board charges. Most hunters stay a week, and there’s no shooting on Sundays. The estate keeps the meat. The best cuts are sold to London restaurants, the rest to supermarkets. Clients can keep the heads, although getting them home may be difficult. 

Stalking is all about the experience, walking the hills or, if the weather is bad, going over them in an ATV. (“If the deer are in the pouring rain, we should be in the pouring rain,” Andrew says). 

My companion, Judy, and I were there a half-year off hunting season and we didn’t see a single deer. Jura’s latitude is above that of the Aleutian Islands and the days were arctic-length. It was sunny and warm, but not so warm that a fire in the fireplace wasn’t welcome as we dined on the estate’s venison and salmon. Quilted window coverings blotted out the sun, which was up until 10 o’clock. We were there for the best part of the year—the cozy winter nights of June.

When the sun woke us early the next morning, we looked out one window and saw a red-haired girl leading a pony. Out another, her red-haired sister was herding ducks. The daughters are also in charge of 25 sheep. Jura is a place where you take responsibility. 

Andrew has a 22-year-old Massey-Ferguson tractor, “the last one you can get spare parts for on eBay,” he declared. He’s learned to repair other machines too, and roofs and drains. “You either learn or it doesn’t go.” Claire Fletcher and two other women recently opened a one-pot distillery. They make gin from grain alcohol flavored with 15 botanicals they gather or grow on the island. The enterprise, Lussa Gin, has made living in the middle of nowhere more interesting.

Nevertheless, to stay on the island a person must have a sense of destiny as well as something to do. Or so believes Alicia MacInnes, a 40-year-old Australian, one of Lussa Gin’s partners. She has a broad, smiling face. She remembers the evening when she arrived long ago. 

“It was absolutely pelting rain. The woman picking me up, from the Jura Hotel, had backed the car down to the ferry. The boot was up. I could see her smiling face,” she told us one evening. After a pause, she switched to the second-person, as if she were describing someone no longer herself. “You’ve been on a long journey.  The car’s warm.  Soon you’re traveling along single-track roads, exactly where you wanted to be.”

Her memory might be called Orwellian, in a pre-“Nineteen Eighty-Four” sense of the word. 

*                            *                      *

The road from Ardlussa House to Barnhill is seven miles.  The last three were what Susan Watson, the young woman who’d been Orwell’s housekeeper and nanny to his son in London, called “impassable to normal traffic.” While the mail delivery from Ardlussa, and Orwell’s motorcycle and a pick-up truck (neither of which worked reliably), traveled it regularly, walking was the default mode of travel. 

Orwell walked the track—like all non-American dirt roads, it’s always called a track—many times. A few weeks after moving in, he returned to England to get his son and Susan.  When they returned they walked the last three miles, Orwell carrying Richard on his shoulders.  When Susan’s lover, David Holbrook, visited in August 1946, he walked the last miles carrying his luggage, fending off biting midges and listening to the bugling of deer in the rut. “I kept walking and half-running and then walking, and eventually I came over a little hill and there was this fellow shooting this goose,” he recalled. 

It was Orwell.

You can now drive to a dirt parking lot four miles from Barnhill and seven miles from Corryvreckan, the headland overlooking Scarba, the next island to the north. Both are worth the walk. There’s a whirlpool below Corryvreckan, in the strait dividing the two islands, that’s the second biggest in Europe and the third biggest in the world.  The Corryvreckan Whirlpool is as much a tourist destination as anything Orwell-related on Jura today. It was a destination for us, although we were looking to get a non-windshield tour of Barnhill enroute.

We parked the car and headed up the road. We soon came to a padlocked gate. The gate was not attached to a fence, but with ditches on each side there’s no need for one. You can’t go off-road in Jura in a car. Even on foot it’s a slog, given the exuberant grass and ferns. Orwell, however, enjoyed bushwhacking. 

Two weeks after moving to Jura in June 1946 he walked across his end of the island, a round trip of 10 miles. At that point in his life he had an eye for menace. One wonders what he thought about a relic he found on the far side. 

“Old human skull, with some other bones, lying on beach at Glengarrisdale,” he noted in his diary. “Said to be survivor from massacre of the McCleans by the Campbells, & probably at any rate 200 years old. Two teeth (back) still in it.  Quite undecayed.”

Soon we passed a rusty pavement roller whose drum was as wide as one of the ruts. The ruts were as hard as concrete, although there was a grassy strip between them. Had Orwell tread here? It seemed unlikely the road had been moved. He walked to Ardlussa, he noted soon after arriving, in “exactly 2¼ hours,” a healthy pace for a seven-mile trip, and given how he was described, a surprise. So the answer was, “Probably yes.”

The stones underfoot might also have tormented his motorbike, his preferred mode of travel when it wasn’t broken down. His neighbors said he sometimes strapped a scythe to the rear seat in case he had to cut the track’s grassy middle. It must have been a sight—the cadaverous Orwell as the Grim Reaper assigned to an RFD route.

The road rose and fell along a low ridge. When Barnhill came into view it was far off and far below, its whitewashed face looking toward the mainland. A spur road led down to it through a sea of ferns and cottongrass. Stone barns sat on either side. You can’t go up to the house without opening a fence, guarded by a blooming foxglove, which we didn’t do. 

Barnhill is available for vacation rental, starting at £1000 per week. We saw no people. As in Orwell’s tenancy, it has a coal-fired stove, now supplemented with electricity from a generator and a gas refrigerator. Trip Advisor reviews and pictures suggest it’s still damp and shabby.   

A connoisseur of discomfort, Orwell never planned to leave. He landscaped Barnhill as if he owned it, and with a touchingly optimistic view of his life expectancy.  

In his first weeks, he planted a garden with lettuce, radishes, onions, watercress, spinach, turnips, and seven types of flowers. The next month, he ordered four dozen strawberry plants, two dozen raspberry bushes, a dozen black currant, red current, and gooseberry bushes, a dozen rhubarb plants, and a half-dozen apple trees. On January 4, 1947, he planted “1 doz fruit trees” and more currants gooseberries, rhubarb and roses. On September 19, 1948—three months before he left Jura to enter an English sanitorium—he wrote: “Planted peonies (six, red) . . . Pruned raspberries. Not certain whether I did it correctly.”

The house is back from the water. One renter said it was a 20-minute walk, but you wouldn’t guess that from Orwell’s diaries. He and his sister, and later Bill Dunn, the amputee farmer who married her in 1951, spent a lot of time messing around in boats. Fishing was particularly good at dusk, which in June lasted until after 10 o’clock. Some hauls were gluttonous. One evening in 1947, they caught 31 fish. But this wasn’t for sport. 

Orwell’s Jura diary reads like a survivalist handbook. In his entry from August 18, 1946, he described the method of preserving pollock.

“Gut them, cut their heads off, then pack them in layers in rough salt, a layer of salt & a layer of fish, & so on. Leave for several days, then in dry sunny weather, take them out & hang them on a line in pairs by their tails until thoroughly dry. After this they can be hung up indoors & will keep for months.”  

We imagined Orwell digging in the garden and hanging his fish out to dry. Then we headed back to the main track. We had a way to go.

     *                                *                                 *

Hillwalking is Scotland’s national pastime. It knows no age limits. A mile up the road we ran into four people, age 67 to 74, who were lounging in the grass eating snacks. They, too, were on their way to see the Corryvreckan Whirlpool, but were more ambitious than us. A day earlier they’d visited Jura’s other natural oddity—three bald, scree-sided, 2,500-foot hills called The Paps, a Norse-derived word for breast. 

“The highest one, funnily enough, is the easiest to walk up,” said Kate Robinson, a teacher of dyslexic children from the north of England. “Not a total doddle, but if you’re used to mountains it’s fine.” It was 7 ½ hours round trip from the road. They could see Ireland from the top.

I asked if Orwell had drawn them to Jura. The answer was no, but that was no reflection on Orwell. Bill Scott, a retired professor of linguistics from Glasgow with hawkish features and wrap-around shades, recalled that a collection of Orwell’s essays “was the first book I bought when I’d left school and had a few coppers in my pocket. I had it until quite recently.”

We chatted for a while. “You do know this isn’t usual Scottish weather,” Wendy Scott said as we all lay in the noontime sun. We knew that much, and also enough to move on before we were tempted to nap. 

Soon, we reached several buildings, the settlement of Kinuachdrachd to which Orwell regularly came to get milk for his son before Barnhill secured its own cow. There, the road ended. A sign lying on the ground pointed us up a trail to “Gulf of Corryvreckan 2 miles.” 

As we walked up the hill we saw beyond the last house a rocky cove of Caribbean color and clarity. As we climbed higher, we could make out the incoming tide’s chaotic embroidery on the water. Soon, we could hear the maelstrom itself, a distant sound of water running over pebbles. 

The hillside was covered in bright green cottongrass, horsetail, and sphagnum, with dark patches of heather here and there. As we reached the top, we looked to our right and got an aerial view of the Sound of Jura. Rocky, flat-top islands looked like a fleet of battleships lying in wait. Beyond them was the mainland, furrowed by fjord-like “sea lochs.”

We stopped at almost the highest spot, with a spectacular view of Scarba, the next island to the north, which hasn’t had permanent residents since the 1960s. It was impossible to tell whether the grassy terraces lead to the water or cliffs. Birds were gliding in long arcs below us. We took off our shoes and got out our Ardlussa-packed lunches. 

In front of us was the passageway between Jura and Scarba, called the Gulf of Corryvreckan. Water moved from the sound on the eastern side of the islands to the Atlantic Ocean on the west, and back, twice a day. Two miles long and three-quarters of a mile at its narrowest, the gulf is some of the most dangerous water in the United Kingdom. The tidal current can reach 10 miles per hour—the same velocity as in the Bay of Fundy, whose tidal height is four times Corryvreckan’s 13 feet. 

The speed and turbulence are partly due to the strait’s irregular depth—200 to 350 feet in most places, but with a 640-foot trench and an underwater buttress that near the Atlantic end rises to 90 feet below the surface. Wildly deflected water creates the whirlpool. It is sometimes a picture-book vortex, but more often standing or breaking waves. Even on windless days there’s whitewater. Corryvreckan is a corruption of a Gaelic phrase meaning “cauldron of speckled water.” 

Ardbeg, a distillery on neighboring Islay that makes some of Scotland’s peatiest (and best) whisky, has a version named after the whirlpool. “Corryvreckan” is 57.1 percent alcohol and costs about $90 a bottle. The description of its nose begins: “Swirl the glass for torrents of tarry creosote.” Taste? “The first plunge is deep, peppery and chewy with crispy seaweed.”

Sitting there eating lunch, however, the most remarkable thing wasn’t the whirlpool. It was the rest of the stream. The deep turbulence was projected onto the surface in the form of upwelling water that formed areas that looked like giant thumbprints or amoebas, which floated past us out to sea.

Soon, two Zodiacs appeared. Spectators in yellow helmets and orange life jackets sat on benches, like snapped-in Lego people. One boat cut its engine and drifted quickly along the far shore before resuming under power. The other, after detouring into a cove, approached the breaking water of the whirlpool from below. The boats came and went from the edge of the rough water, like children tossing sticks into a bonfire. After 15 minutes, they disappeared around the Atlantic side of Scarba.

            “That may have been the show,” Judy said.

            Ours was just as good.

            George Orwell’s was better than everybody’s, by a long shot.

In the middle of August in 1947, two of Orwell’s nieces and one nephew—the children of his deceased older sister, Marjorie—came to Barnhill for a vacation. Orwell took them, his three-year-old son Ricky, and his sister Avril, to the Atlantic side of Jura on a camping trip. They stayed several days in an abandoned cottage. When it was time to go home, Avril and one of the nieces, who’d been spooked by the boat ride over, chose to walk back. “Uncle Eric” (as they called him), and the three others returned in the dinghy, which was powered by an outboard motor.

Orwell, however, had misread the tide table. They entered the gulf halfway between high and low tide, when the current was fastest. 

“Before we had a chance to turn, we went straight into the minor whirlpools and lost control,” Henry Dakin, who was about 20 and on leave from the Army, recalled years later. “Eric was at the tiller, the boat went all over the place, pitching and tossing, very frightening being thrown from one small whirlpool to another.” 

The chop bucked the outboard off the transom. It went into the water, and to the bottom. Nobody was wearing a life jacket. “Eric said, ‘The motor’s gone, better get the oars out, Hen. Can’t help much, I’m afraid’.” He pointed to his chest.

Dakin maneuvered the boat to a rocky island called Eilean Mòr, the last bit of land before the open ocean. Tossed against it by waves, the boat capsized. Orwell rescued Ricky from under it. Everything but a fishing rod and a couple of blankets was swept away.

The island was occupied by nesting puffins. Orwell got a fire started after his cigarette lighter dried out. A few hours later, they got the attention of a passing lobster boat by waving a piece of clothing from the end of the rod. The fisherman offered to take them to Barnhill, but Orwell said all they needed was to get to shore, even though he was the only one who still had shoes. A half-century later, his niece and nephew were still stupefied (and mad) at having to walk back barefoot.

Many versions of this calamity have the boat capsizing at the edge of the whirlpool. (“Their motor-boat was drawn into one of the smaller whirlpools and overturned. Fortunately, with Mr Blair’s help, they all reached a small islet . . . ” read the account in the Glasgow Herald 11 days later). However, anyone who’s sat where we did knows that if that had happened, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” would have ended in 1947. 

There’s one more unusual feature of the Gulf of Corryvreckan. 

The water flows with such force that it has swept the bottom down to bedrock. Like a desert wind, the tides have deposited sand and shell in underwater dunes at both ends of the strait. Below a stretch of water called the Great Race at the Atlantic outlet, bathymetry has revealed a lightless Sahara, 400 feet down. Dunes rise 30 feet off the bottom, measure 200 feet from crest to crest, and are three-quarters of a mile long.  

Buried in one of them is George Orwell’s outboard.

*                                     *                                    *

If you write in a diary almost every day and are famous enough that all your house guests are asked to record their memories, the world is going to know a lot about you, including some of the embarrassing stuff.

That is certainly true of George Orwell’s years on Jura. 

The writer’s diaries provide a record of his daily life in odd and exquisite detail. The entries invariably begin with a phrase or sentence about the weather. Most end with the number of eggs collected that day, and the total since the flock was acquired. The day after the Corryvreckan mishap it was “5 eggs (291).” 

Coal, propane, kerosene, and gasoline were rationed. Orwell was frugal. He kept an account of how much of each fuel the household was using, the rate of loss or leakage, and whether the supply would last until the next delivery. He noted when to change the battery for the radio, the only connection to the wider world besides the mail.

He did a lot of tinkering and building, often without the right materials and adequate skill. “Put up sectional henhouse,” he wrote on April 13, 1947. “Wretched workmanship, & will need a lot of strengthening & weighting down to make it stay in place.” Two weeks later, his son recuperating from the measles, Orwell noted: “R. better. Tried to make jigsaw puzzle for him, but can only cut pieces with straight edges as my only coping-saw blade is broken.” When he lost his tobacco pouch, he made a new one out of a rabbit skin, lined with an inner tube. 

He was an unsentimental naturalist. 

Rabbits were a scourge of the garden. One spring day while digging his recently plowed potato patch, Orwell uncovered “a nest of 3 young rabbits—about 10 days’ old, I should say. One appeared to be dead already, the other two I killed.” 

He could show flashes of cruelty. 

On a picnic to a nearby island one time the party encountered an adder, Scotland’s only venomous snake. Bill Dunn, the farmer who married Avril, recalled that Orwell held its head down with his foot and “deliberately took out his penknife and opened it and slit the snake from top to bottom. He degutted it, filleted it.” Orwell always disliked snakes, but one can’t help wondering what part of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” he was working on that week.

He could also behave in a way that doesn’t comport well with his reputation as the tribune of the working man and everyone’s favorite socialist.  

In 1946, a few months after Orwell arrived in Jura and assembled his household, David Holbrook, the lover of nanny Susan Watson, came for a visit. He’d been a tank commander during the war and had attended Cambridge. He was also a member of the Communist Party, which made Orwell immediately suspicious. During Holbrook’s stay, the owner of the estate and Orwell’s landlord, Robin Fletcher, visited Barnhill to discuss hunting. With him were several “beaters”—hired men who flush game. Orwell’s nanny and her boyfriend were given strict instructions to make themselves scarce.   

“The laird was going to be entertained in the sitting room, which was not very often used, and they were going to have tea there, and we were not to appear,” Holbrook recalled in a 1984 interview. “Susan and I had tea in the kitchen with the beaters, and Orwell and his sister had tea in the sitting room with the laird, which we thought was very comic.” 

Elsewhere in the interview Holbrook describes his disappointment at meeting Orwell, whom he described as “this miserable, hostile old bugger that we just had to put up with.” He faulted Orwell for giving up on the world, which is how he interpreted the move to Jura. “It was disturbing to see this man shrinking away from humanity and pouring out all this very bitter hopelessness.” That hopelessness, of course, was “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

Orwell doesn’t mention this, or other domestic dramas, in his diary. Nor does he talk about the progress of his novel (although he does occasionally in letters). He doesn’t describe a daily schedule. We don’t know how he divided his time between writing and planting peas, poisoning rats, cutting peat, hauling lobster pots, fixing his motorcycle, and playing with his son. Visitors remember hearing him type in a room over the kitchen many mornings, appear for lunch, and then sometimes return upstairs to type some more.

He came and went from Jura numerous times, for both work and medical care. He spent November and December of 1946 in London doing journalism, returned to the island in January to plant trees, went back to London, and returned (he thought permanently) in April 1947. 

By then he was well into “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” He finished the first draft on November 7, 1947, typing in bed because of illness. From Christmas until mid-summer the next year, he retired to a hospital outside of Glasgow, where he was treated for tuberculosis. He started a second draft of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” there.

His strength somewhat restored, he returned to Jura on July 29, 1948. He finished the rewrite in early November. He was unable to find a typist willing to come to Barnhill, so he retyped the manuscript himself, again mostly from bed. He wrote a letter to a friend on November 15 saying that he was so weak he couldn’t pull up a weed. 

His final Jura entries are short. They describe no activity. On November 24 he wrote: “Cold during the night. Today fine & sunny, but cold. Wind in the East. Wallflowers keep trying to flower.” Four days later he wrote: “Beautiful, windless day, sea like glass. A faint mist. Mainland invisible.” They’re like Chris McCandless’s one-sentence journal entries as he was dying of starvation in Alaska in “Into the Wild.” Their message was: “I am still alive.”

Orwell left Jura for the last time just after New Year’s Day 1949. He went to a sanitorium in Gloucestershire, England. In September, he was transferred to University College Hospital, London. He died there on January 21, 1950 after bleeding from one of his TB-damaged lungs.

                              *                                         *                                       *

So, is there anything about Orwell’s time on Jura that informs the book he wrote there? Or is the mystery of “Nineteen Eighty-Four” that it bears so little relationship to its creator’s life?

The answer to both questions is yes.

Although “Nineteen Eighty-Four” begins on April 4, 1984 in the dystopian empire of Oceania, its setting is clearly England in 1946. The food is bad and there isn’t enough of it. (Meat was rationed in England until July 1954). Whatever your vehicle, you’re constantly worried about running out of gas. Your house is cold, the plumbing leaks, and privacy is hard to find. 

Winston Smith, whose evolution into an enemy of the Party is the novel’s narrative backbone, has more than a little of Orwell in him. 

Both have an aversion to sulfurous odors (cabbage, feces). Winston’s first transgressive act—starting a diary—is something Orwell had been doing for years. As Winston stares at his book’s blank pages, it’s hard not to hear the author talking to himself: “For weeks past he had been making ready for this moment, and it had never crossed his mind that anything would be needed except courage. The actual writing would be easy. All he had to do was to transfer to paper the interminable restless monologue that had been running inside his head, literally for years.”

There are other grains of autobiography. 

When Winston goes to help unclog the sink of the woman in the neighboring flat, he hopes he doesn’t have to bend down, “which was always liable to start him coughing.” This was a problem Orwell had when gardening. Winston ruminates early in the novel that “in moments of crisis one is never fighting against an external enemy, but always against one’s own body.” Orwell must have felt the same when he twice left Jura to seek treatment for his failing lungs. 

The inadequacy of Barnhill’s “paraffin”—kerosene—lamps whispers in the description of how “the feeble light of the paraffin lamp” didn’t permit Winston to see that the prostitute he hired was a toothless woman in her fifties. The trysting place where Winston and Julia first make love is described with a bird-watcher’s eye: “A thrush had alighted on a bough not five metres away . . . It spread out its wings, fitted them carefully into place again, ducked its head for a moment, as though making a sort of obeisance to the sun, and then began to pour forth a torrent of song.” 

Even in the famous scene in which Winston is shown the torture device made for him—a facemask attached to a cage of hungry rats—there’s a precursor on Jura. In the diary entry for June 12, 1947, Orwell noted: “Five rats (2 young ones, 2 enormous ones) caught in the byre during about the last fortnight . . . I hear that recently two children at Ardlussa were bitten by rats (in the face, as usual.)”

But that’s about it. Which is no surprise. 

“Nineteen Eighty-Four” is an extreme product of the imagination. It didn’t just render life under totalitarianism (which Orwell hadn’t experienced), it imagined the R&D that would go into the totalitarianism of the future. That included the purging of the historical record, state control of procreation, government surveillance of public spaces by camera, and the invention of electronic screens that both project images and record activity occurring in their presence. 

Most of that has come true, which is one of the reasons the novel, despite its wooden characters, still finds readers.

One of Orwell’s insights was that there’s no best place in which to imagine such a world, so you might as well do it where you want. For him, that was Jura. 

But if he thought it would be a quiet place without distraction, he was wrong. There were endless chores, things to fix, plans to bring to (literal) fruition, and a child to educate and entertain. Also, endless guests. When he returned to the island in July 1948 after seven harrowing months in the hospital—he’d endured a painful reaction to the drug streptomycin called Stevens-Johnson syndrome—Orwell soon had so many summer visitors that he erected a tent in the garden to accommodate them.

His willingness to persevere on Jura in spite of ill health was almost universally criticized by his friends. Many felt guilty about his presence there. However, Paul Potts, an eccentric poet who met Orwell during the war, idolized him, and visited him on the island, made an observation that gets closer to the truth: “Ever since I had known him he’d been given up as hopeless. During that time he’d lived a fuller life than a whole company of A.1 recruits.”   

Jura was a strange choice, but almost certainly not one he made for show. 

When I think of Orwell and Jura now, what comes to mind is not the Corryvreckan calamity, or him tapping away in his upstairs aerie, or the image of a pulmonary cripple cutting 150 blocks of peat (which he did one June day in 1947). It’s an event on his next-to-last day on the island, sometime in the first week of January 1949. 

He’d been confined to bed for a month. (“Have not been well enough to enter up diary,” he wrote after a 12-day gap in the record). He was once again leaving to be treated for tuberculosis. The plan was to go to Ardlussa, spend the night with a villager, and travel south to the ferry terminal the next day. 

His sister Avril and Bill Dunn, her soon-to-be husband, drove Orwell and Richard in Dunn’s ancient Austin. On the way, it slid off the road into a ditch. That’s an accident from which there’s no self-rescue. I have a friend who twice went into a ditch on Jura, requiring extraction by tractor each time.

Avril and Bill walked four miles back to Barnhill and got the “lorry”—a kind of pick-up Orwell owned—and drove it south. Orwell and Ricky stayed in the car.

“We just sat there together, talking,” Richard remembered years later. “It was raining. It was cold, and I do remember my father giving me boiled sweets. He was a very sick man, but he was quite cheerful with me, trying to pretend that nothing was wrong. It was getting dark by the time Avril and Bill got back with the lorry.” 

Richard Blair was about to be orphaned a second time. This was one of his last memories of his father.  

The lorry couldn’t pull the car out of the ditch. But as it happened, the accident was at one of the few places where a vehicle could detour onto the heath for a few yards. Orwell and his son were rescued and delivered to Ardlussa. From there, Orwell moved onward to Cranham Sanatorium.  

Judy and I passed that spot in the road as we walked back from Barnhill on our endless June afternoon. I have no idea where it was. At this point, probably nobody does. But it’s there someplace, a symbol of love and optimism, which are just two of the things defeated by the end of “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”  

Off the road

A shorter version of this post appeared on the website of The American Scholar in August, 2021, as “A Tall Order.”

“Do you want to go down there and get a better picture?” I asked from behind the wheel.

“Yes,” said Virginia from the passenger seat.

We turned off Montana Route 228 onto a gravel road and drove a few hundred yards to get a better look at a wooden grain elevator rising flèche-like from a sere plain. Its top was narrower than its body and had a single square window, like a window in a cupola.

Most of the building’s skin was made of narrow horizontally laid boards painted white, with half the paint gone. The bottom fifth, however, was barn red and brought to mind the color discontinuity in the Washington Monument that occurred when construction was stopped and resumed with different-colored stone 23 years later.

As I drove toward the elevator and prepared to park a respectable distance away I saw a man disappear around the corner of the building. Virginia and I got out, took a few iPhone pictures. As I walked toward the building, the man reappeared.

“May we take a few pictures of your wonderful building?” I asked. He said we could. His assent began a two-hour encounter too good not to record.

The day before, Virginia and I had come off a four-night trip through the lower Missouri Breaks. Now, we were heading to the Little Big Horn battlefield, with an overnight first in Billings. We were taking non-interstate roads and stopping at any historical marker, visual attraction, or weirdly named burg that caught our eyes. Later that day, we visited Two Dot, a town so nearly abandoned it should be renamed One Dot, or possibly Dotless.

The wooden grain elevator, near Highwood, Montana, was our first detour.

The man who greeted us is named Michael Benzinger. He’s a 66-year-old, mostly retired house painter who’s restoring the elevator as a home for himself and his wife (who’s younger than he, and still working as a house painter). They hope to make a rentable guest apartment in the elevator too; there’s plenty of room.

Mike bought the grain elevator in 2001 for $1. It came with one acre of ground. It’s part of a settlement of a half-dozen houses that’s now occupied by one other person, an 87-year-old man. The place is called Big Sag, which is a reference to its geological history as a former bottom of the Missouri River.

Mike learned of the grain elevator from someone whose house he was painting in Fort Benton. That person was willing to let it go if Mike was willing to try to save it. “They’re burning roughly one of these a day in the West,” Mike said. He later added that was mostly happening in Canada.

With a beaked nose and a mouth that turns down at the corners, Mike bears a considerable resemblance to George W. Bush. He has a brush cut. He was tanned, but not overly so, and wore a white tee shirt with a logo from the California burger chain In-N-Out. He gave off none of the exhaustion or second thoughts one might expect from a person who’s single-handedly repurposing an 70-foot industrial building that had been abandoned for 30 years when it became his.

He’s not certain when the elevator was built, but guesses it was 1911, the date stamped on the lightning rods on the roof. He’s found grain receipts from 1912, so it was in business at least by then.

Mike and his wife have lived in a building next to the grain elevator for three years. It’s 400 square feet and used to be the power plant of the operation. “It’s one open room–and not a lot of room for two people, two dogs, and two cats,” he said without complaint. I asked if it had a wood stove. “No,” he said. “One spark and the whole thing could burn up.” He nodded next door as we stood on the stone deck around the tiny building. You could tell the grain elevator was already a pillar of sweat and blood, almost a child, he’d protect any way he could. They heat the house with electricity.

He took us into the main room on the ground level, which was the full depth of the building. He’d put in three cathedral windows on the far wall; they looked up the brown grass slope to the road from which we’d seen the building. On the left-hand interior wall was a basketball hoop, on the right shelves with objects he’d found in the elevator or gleaned from trips to the dump.

Notable among the latter was a collection of oil cans, reminiscent of (and larger than) a dozen I bought at an auction in Philadelphia in the 1980s. I find old oil cans mysterious and poignant. They’re often all that remains of machines they once kept running. Many are stamped with the names of companies that themselves no longer exist.

Left over from the elevator’s active days of was a sign proclaiming that it wouldn’t accept “treated grain”–referring to it as “poison”–and a set of New York-made weights for weighing samples. The most beautiful objects were paddles with single oval holes in them. Inserted into chutes, they were used to control the flow of grain.

Mike said the building was in surprisingly good shape despite its long vacancy when he took possession of it. Only the top had let in birds (he mentioned flickers) and needed serious repair. The structure had survived because of skilled construction from massive lumber that arid climate and grain dust had dried into the equivalent of petrified wood.

Inside, it appeared as if the walls had been refinished, but all he’d done was power wash them, rappelling from the top through each bin. The only visible wear to the wood was in a few places where gravity-fed grain had inadvertently come into contact with a wall for years, sculpting patterns of flow the way water does to rock. The interior is Douglas fir, the exterior siding is cedar.

The most interesting thing in the main room was a feature still in use–a “man lift” that allows a person to ascend to the top of the elevator. Mike had replaced the cables and refurbished the brake, but it was otherwise little changed.

It consisted of a small, unenclosed platform with cable that went up the to the top floor of the elevator, through a pulley or shackle of some sort and then back down to a counterweight. Without a passenger the platform is at equilibrium. When a person stands on it and pulls a rope that also goes to the top, the platform rises with little effort. Stop pulling, and it slowly descends. It can be stopped anywhere by holding the rope, and can be locked in place for work with a brake.

Mike demonstrated it and then graciously allowed Virginia and me to take beginner spins, up about 20 feet. Neither of us was seriously tempted to take it to the top. The alternative route is on a vertical ladder built into the corner of the main shaft, which is scarier.

Most of the interior space of the building is divided into bins about 10-feet square. Mike is turning those on the two levels above the ground floor into living space, and invited us upstairs to have a look. As we ascended the railless staircase, the treads squeaked. He told us he’d put the squeaks in intentionally.

“Let’s you know if someone’s coming,” he said with a smile.

He’s removed the walls between some bins to make large rooms, but keeping others intact. He likes the intimacy of the spaces, and the fact they telegraph the building’s original use. He showed us the library, and a meditation room for his wife.

“The biggest part of the job was taking out the floors,” he said. Why take out the floors? we wondered. Because they all sloped–intentionally, to facilitate the flow of grain in and out of them. Some bins had three layers of floor, each on a slant.

Of course, the interior isn’t the only part that needs work. Many boards in the exterior siding need replacing. Mike plans to put a new skin on much of the building–tar paper over the wood, and galvanized tin over the tar paper. It will then look a little more like its modern descendants everywhere on view in Montana’s wheat country. On the east side of the building he’s already finished about 30 feet up.

“I got the metal from a farmer on that first farm up on the bench,” he said, gesturing out a window. “I helped him harvest one season. He said I could have it for free, but I wanted to give him something. Plus, I got to learn how to drive a combine, which is trickier than you’d think.” I commented on the amount of scaffolding he has up, and how much, much more he’ll need.

Even when the carpentry is finished there will be more work to do. Plumbing will be a big job. At the moment, Mike and his wife get water from a spring on a rise in the land behind the settlement. It’s delivered by gravity through a hose, and they carry buckets of it into the house. There’s no running water inside and they use an outhouse next to the elevator. On the deck was a black rubber bathtub full of water, warming in the sun. “That’s where we bathe,” he said. I didn’t ask about winter.

It’s a hard life, and sometimes a dangerous one.

A year or so ago, Mike’s wife was bitten by a rattlesnake. She was flown to a hospital in Great Falls. Physicians initially thought the strike had been dry, and hadn’t given her anti-venom. The next day, however, her leg began to swell so much she had to have a fasciotomy to relieve the pressure.

It turns out an underground delivery bin for grain near the elevator’s front door was a cool and damp home for snakes. It took five dumptrucks’ worth of gravel to fill it.

It’s also a lonely life. Mike works alone most of the time, his wife away during the day earning a living. His dogs, a border collie named Smokey Bear and a border collie mix named Arrow, follow him room to room. Two days before we met him, however, he finally got an internet connection. Next task: an e-mail address.

So, he’s happy to have visitors. “I’m kind of proud of it,” he said as we played with the dogs a final time before leaving. “If it inspires someone, I’m happy. It shows what’s possible, even if you’re working by yourself.”

That’s not the only lesson.

Keep the travel plans to a minimum. Turn off the road. When in doubt, stop and look around. There’s always something interesting over the next rise.

At least in Montana.

Remembering a Victory for Human Kindness

WWI’s Puzzling, Poignant Christmas Truce

This is not a travel story, unless perhaps it’s time-travel. I wrote it for The Washington Post on the 90th anniversary of the Christmas Truce on the Western Front in the Great War. My one-sentence interview with Europe’s oldest man, Maurice Floquet, was a memorable moment in my journalistic career! Revisiting this event is never out of season, I think.

By David Brown

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 25, 2004 

Nobody knows where the Christmas Truce of 1914 began. Nor is it certain, even today, whether the truce began in one spot and spread, or broke out simultaneously in many places, the convergent evolution of numberless human hearts.

What is known is that 90 years ago today — four months into what would eventually be called World War I — thousands of British, French and Belgian soldiers spent a cold, clear, beautiful Christmas mingling with their German enemies along the Western Front.

The mysterious beginnings are fortunate. For want of the name of the first person (probably German) who proposed fraternization, or the place where it occurred (probably somewhere in Flanders), the Christmas Truce has acquired the aura of a miracle. In lacking a hero or sacred site, it has kept a single emotion at its core — the desire for peace of the most literal and personal kind.

It began in most places with nighttime singing from the trenches, was followed by shouted overtures and then forays between the lines by a few brave men. There followed, in daylight, a burying of the dead that had lain for weeks on the denuded ground called no man’s land. After that, large numbers of soldiers poured over the front lip of the trench.

Throughout the day they exchanged food, tobacco and, in a few places, alcohol. Some chatted, usually in English, a language enough German enlistees spoke to make small talk possible. In several places, they kicked around a soccer ball, or a stuffed bag functioning as one, although contrary to legend there appears to have been no official, scored matches.

Mostly, the soldiers survived, which is what they wanted from the day. They did not shoot each other.

Almost everywhere the truce was observed, it actually began on Christmas Eve, the high point of the season for the Germans. In many places, it lasted through Boxing Day, the day after Christmas observed by the English as a holiday. In a few parts of the line, hostilities didn’t recommence until after New Year’s Day, a holiday with special meaning for Scots and, to a lesser extent, the French.

War did resume, though. It was a truce, not a peace. What followed was misery, waste, loss and degradation on a scale that is difficult to imagine.

By the end of World War I in November 1918, the dead numbered: 1 million soldiers from the British Empire, 2 million Germans, 1.7 million French, 1.5 million soldiers of the Hapsburg Empire, 1.7 million Russians, 460,000 Italians, hundreds of thousands of Turks, and 50,000 Americans. The political and territorial consequences were numerous and complicated. The certain one is that the Great War did not end war, but instead laid the foundations for another one a generation later.

Against that background, the Christmas Truce of 1914 stands out with particular poignancy. While there had been truces for religious and secular holidays since classical times, the events that occurred 90 years ago this week were a spontaneous, unled cry for sanity before the advent of industrialized war.

“It is the last expression of that 19th-century world of manners and morals, where the opponent was a gentleman,” says Modris Eksteins, a cultural historian at the University of Toronto, who has written on the truce. “As the war goes on, the enemy becomes increasingly abstract. You don’t exchange courtesies with an abstraction.”

There were a few brief, scattered truces in 1915, and virtually none thereafter. The reason was not simply that commanders were on the lookout. The soldiers themselves had become emotionally hardened by years of fighting.

“The ones who survived, who lived to see other Christmases in the war, themselves expressed amazement that this had occurred,” Eksteins said. “The emotions had changed to such a degree that the sort of humanity seen in Christmas 1914 seemed inconceivable.”

What’s curious, though, is that in some respects the Christmas Truce is now moving toward us, not away.

In both Germany and France, where the truce was largely unknown to two generations, it is being studied and celebrated.

A book published in 2003, “The Small Peace in the Great War,” is the first to fully exploit German source material on the truce, including previously undiscovered diaries and letters. A French production company has made a feature-length film, “Joyeux Noel,” that depicts the events. It will be released next year.

Last Sunday, two soccer teams whose members included people from the nations whose soldiers faced each other 90 years ago met in Neuville-Saint-Vaast, a village 100 miles north of Paris. They played a match that commemorated the soccer-playing in the Christmas Truce.

An all-star team of retired French players, Varietes Club de France, beat the international team, which called itself the Selection of Fraternity, 5-2 before 2,000 spectators. It was a clear day with the temperature hovering at the freezing point, like 90 years ago.

The game was held to raise money for a monument to the Christmas Truce. The village was chosen because it was where French soldier Louis Barthas, who proposed such a monument in a famous postwar memoir, was serving in December 1914.

“I am very touched by this idea,” says Christian Carion, the writer and director of “Joyeux Noel,” who organized the event. “Because on the Earth there is no monument to fraternization. There is always a monument for victory. And where there is a victory there is a defeat. But a monument about fraternization — there is not one anywhere.”

It’s an assertion difficult to prove. But even if there is, somewhere, a monument to making unapproved peace with the enemy, it’s hard to believe the world couldn’t use a second one.

Hold Your Fire 

It appears there are no surviving participants of the Christmas Truce among the roughly 100 living veterans of World War I.

There is at least one man alive who witnessed it from a distance. He heard the silence.

Alfred Anderson was a “territorial” — the British equivalent of a national guardsman — serving in the 5th Battalion of the Scottish Black Watch Regiment in France. On Christmas he was “in reserve,” behind the front lines, part of a complicated rotation that limited soldiers’ time in the front-line trenches to three to seven days.

“It was very cold and very still. He said he could hear these voices shouting, carried over on the night air. What he could hear was total stillness, which he found very eerie,” says Richard van Emden, an English television producer and historian who has interviewed him.

Anderson, who was wounded by an artillery shell in 1916 and discharged, is now 108. He worked as a joiner in a carpentry shop for much of his life. Today he lives by himself in a village near Perth, Scotland. “He is incredibly fit. If you met him you’d think he was about 85,” van Emden says.

Also in uniform in December 1914 was Maurice Floquet, who turns 111 today and is the oldest living French veteran of World War I. He was on the Western Front in Belgium, but his part of the line did not fraternize with the Germans. What he chiefly remembers of Christmas is the menu: bread, soup, a few dates, and a bottle of red wine split among four soldiers. He was wounded twice in 1915 and discharged. He worked for many years as an auto mechanic.

In a brief interview conducted Wednesday via fax machine through a translator, Floquet said he did not learn of the truce until many years after the war.

“Such a thing could not be told to the soldiers, for how would they pursue the war if they knew?” he said from his home in a village near the Cote d’Azur.

Recent research suggests that in 1914 at least 100,000 people participated in the Christmas Truce, directly or indirectly.

Since the start of war in August of that year, German troops had advanced west across northern France and Belgium, expecting to be victorious in six weeks. But they failed to reach Paris and by late September had withdrawn from some of the captured territory and began to dig trenches. The trench line of the Western Front, still under construction at the end of the year, eventually snaked 475 miles from the North Sea to the border of Switzerland.

Two months of fighting in Belgium that became known as the First Battle of Ypres ended in late November. Sniping and scattered efforts to capture enemy trenches continued. 

Historians believe that many conditions came together in December to make the truce possible.

Losses since the start of the war were already huge. According to historian John Keegan, the French dead numbered about 306,000 (including 45,000 teenagers). The Germans had lost 241,000, and the Belgians and British each about 30,000.

Except for some Indian troops in the British Expeditionary Force, virtually all combatants came from countries where Christmas was widely celebrated. On the German side, many units were from Saxony and Bavaria, and shared Roman Catholicism with their French and Belgian foes. (German troops from those regions, at least by reputation, were also more open to breaches of military discipline than the soon-to-arrive Prussians.)

Pope Benedict XV, who took office in August, had called for a Christmas truce, which was officially rejected. In France, a prominent bishop called for peace and met with the republic’s president, Raymond Poincare.

“This visit is very unusual,” says Pierre Miquel, a historian of World War I and retired professor at the Sorbonne. “The cardinal immediately had to say that nobody in the clergy can speak for a political purpose.” 

Nevertheless, both peace and Christmas celebration were in the air. The German government had sent thousands of small Christmas trees, and candles for them, to the front. On the British side, military shipments were suspended for 24 hours so that 355,000 brass boxes embossed with the profile of Princess Mary, the king’s daughter, and containing a pipe and tobacco products, or candy, could be delivered.

The greatest incentive, though, was the simple misery of the moment — almost continuous rain, foul and muddy trenches, daily killing, and dead bodies in view.

“You couldn’t bury the dead because if you tried, they’d shoot you,” says Michael Juergs, former editor of Stern magazine and the author of “The Small Peace in the Great War.” “So you always had to look on the no man’s land and you can see your own future, which is to lay dead there.”

Merging the Lines 

The history of the Christmas Truce is essentially a compendium of anecdotes gleaned from letters, diaries, oral memories, and, to a lesser extent, official military records. The most complete accounts in English are “Christmas Truce” (1984), written by British authors Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton, and “Silent Night” (2001) by Stanley Weintraub, an American. Juergs’s book has not been translated from German.

A few generalizations are possible.

Fraternization was much more common in the British sector than in the French or Belgian, although contrary to some early reports, it occurred in the latter two, as well. The initiative appears to have been taken most often by the German side. The closeness of trenches — in some cases only 100 feet — allowed gradual escalation of contact. The fact that most troops knew a repertoire of secular and religious songs — including some in their enemy’s language or in Latin — was very helpful. Cigarettes and cigars were the first items to be exchanged in the initial contacts between enemy troops; it may have been tobacco’s finest hour.

In most places, commissioned officers followed the lead of enlisted men, although there were exceptions where the officers were out front. One was Lt. Kurt Zemisch, a schoolteacher who spoke French and English and was serving in a Saxon regiment. His account is in a multivolume diary found in an attic in the 1990s by his elderly son. The entries were in an archaic form of shorthand that Rudolf Zemisch had to teach himself before he could read what his father had written.

“I have ordered my troops that, if at all avoidable, no shot shall be fired from our side either today on Christmas Eve or on the two pursuant Christmas holidays. . . . We placed even more candles than before on our kilometer-long trench, as well as Christmas trees. It was the purest illumination — the British expressed their joy through whistles and clapping. Like most people, I spent the whole night awake.” 

On Christmas Day near the village of Fromelles, members of the 6th Battalion of the Gordon Highlander Regiment met their German enemies in a 60-yard-wide no man’s land and together buried about 100 bodies. A service of prayers and the 23rd Psalm was arranged.

“They were read first in English by our Padre and then in German by a boy who was studying for the ministry,” a 19-year-old second lieutenant named Arthur Pelham Burn wrote to a friend. “The Germans formed up on one side, the English on the other, the officers standing in front, every head bared. Yes, I think it was a sight one will never see again.”

An English captain, R.J. Armes, wrote: “At times we heard the guns in the distance and an occasional rifle shot. I can hear them now, but about us is absolute quiet. I allowed one or two men to go out and meet a German halfway. They exchanged cigars or smokes, and talked.”

According to various accounts, there was at least one pig-roast, at least one session of hair-cutting (with payment in cigarettes), several kick-abouts with soccer balls, and innumerable exchanges of food and souvenirs such as buttons and hats. At one place on the French line, the Germans carried a drunk French soldier back “as far as the limit of our barbed wire, where we recovered him,” wrote soldier Charles Toussaint.

It didn’t work everywhere. There is evidence that in at least two places, soldiers attempting to fraternize were shot by opposing forces. Sometimes this was followed by apologies.

Eventually, the Christmas Truce ended and its participants went back to war.

The General’s Perspective 

The meaning of the truce has been debated for years. 

Perhaps the most eloquent statement came from a British participant, Murdoch M. Wood, in 1930 in Parliament: “The fact is that we did it, and I then came to the conclusion that I have held very firmly ever since, that if we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired.”

There’s a much more recent story, though, that shows the truce has not retreated entirely to the realm of idealism and stirring rhetoric. Its subversiveness — which every participant recognized — is still alive. In some quarters, the truce is still a threat.

Christian Carion, the director of “Joyeux Noel,” wanted to make his movie in France. He researched many sites and found an acceptable one on a military reservation. He sought permission to shoot there, but after many months was turned down. According to Carion, a general told him: “We cannot be partner with a movie about rebellion.”

He made his movie in Romania instead.

Staff researchers Gretchen Hoff in Paris and Shannon Smiley in Berlin contributed to this article.

29 hours in Joshua Tree

From The Washington Post, October 14, 2018

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. 

I did.

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.

It was time for him to gear up for work.

Horseshoe crab voyeurs

April 29, 3018


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?

NOLS for olds

March 22, 2018



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.

Just-in-time paleontology

March 11, 2017



At first, the bones are hard to see in the chunk of fused pebbles that Patrick Sena is holding. But in a minute they appear: a piece of jaw with a yellowing tooth, and a bleached femur whose round end could hide under the head of a pin. They’re 28.5 million years old.

Sena, a paleontologist with the San Diego Natural History Museum, looks up and squints at a hillside in the distance where scrapers and front-end loaders are noisily working. In a few years, these 250 acres will be Otay Ranch Village 3, with 1,200 dwelling units, an elementary school, a park, a swim club, and industrial and commercial spaces. Whatever Oligocene treasures the land may hold — other than the inconsequential ones in Sena’s hand — will be beyond reach.

For the next few weeks, however, the hunting will be good. Sena hopes to bag fossil tortoises, camels and rhinos, along with numberless small carnivores like the one whose bones he’s holding. “They will be cutting down through the richest part of the Otay Formation. That’s why I need to be out here.”

It’s the law. It’s also a terrific deal for the San Diego Natural History Museum, which gets to keep whatever is found.

In California, when governmental agencies, developers and even private landowners dig in fossil-rich soil, a paleontologist must keep an eye on the work. Since 1995, Sena’s museum has provided this service for a fee, competing with private scientific contractors. Any significant fossils that are found must be curated, catalogued and transferred to a museum or university, although in certain circumstances landowners can retain ownership.

This arrangement has filled the San Diego museum’s display cases as well as its coffers. In fiscal 2016, the museum’s PaleoServices business provided $1.35 million, roughly 12 percent of the institution’s operating revenue, and salvaged specimens now make up 75 percent of the institution’s fossils. This win-win arrangement may be unique among American natural history museums.

“I don’t know of any other museum doing it the way San Diego is,” said Scott Foss, senior paleontologist at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Washington.

“They have the perfect combination of lots of construction, the need to mitigate, expertise and the ability to display,” said Kirk Johnson, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

Other museums have occasionally struck arrangements of the sort that San Diego has institutionalized. For example, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science made about a half-million dollars from survey-and-salvage contracts for interstate road projects in the 1990s, said Johnson, who worked there at the time. More often, the museum did consulting work for free. When construction at a resort uncovered skeletons of mammoths and mastodons in 2010, the museum hustled to raise $1 million to recover them.

At a Chula Vista, Calif., construction site in 2000, workers from the San Diego Natural History Meseum’s PaleoServices unit excavate the fossilized skull and vertebral column of a whale that lived about 3.5 million years ago. (Courtesy of Thomas Deméré)

There’s a long history of salvaging fossils from construction sites.


In 1673, a London apothecary and amateur archaeologist, John Conyers, found a tusk of an extinct elephant-like animal during work to divert the River Fleet into an underground culvert. The specimen was eventually acquired by Hans Sloane, whose collection started the British Museum. In the United States, a mastodon skeleton was found in New York in a pit dug to extract limestone fertilizer. The discovery is depicted in Charles Willson Peale’s “Exhumation of the Mastodon” (1806-1808).



Thomas A. Deméré, the 68-year-old head of PaleoServices, is one of the founders of the field. He has a doctorate from UCLA and originally worked in the oil industry. (Fossils help identify geological formations that may hold oil.) He found a lot of great specimens but couldn’t publish anything about them because that might reveal petroleum formations to competitors. “Everything was a big secret,” he said. “It was kind of nonscientific.”

When local governments in Southern California started requiring protection of fossils in the 1980s, Deméré created Paleo­Services while also working part time at the museum. In 1995, the museum took over the company and hired him full time.

The arrangement has proved unusually fruitful for the 142-year-old museum, whose focus is the natural history of Southern California and Baja California.

In San Diego County, the geologic record is most complete for the past 75 million years, with the Pliocene (the past 4 million years) and the Eocene (40 million to 50 million years ago) especially well represented. A building boom that has lasted half a century guarantees there’s always lots of excavation to monitor.

Before the 1980s, the museum’s fossils came from around the world — a “stamp collection,” in Deméré’s words. The arrival of salvage paleontology, ironically, has made the holdings more scientific, allowing scientists to fill in many blanks in the region’s prehistory. The museum’s collection has 154 holotypes — the specimen from which a new species is described — and 50 of them were found in construction sites.

Mitigation paleontologists don’t gather up all the fossils that a road project or housing development uncovers. Instead, they collect samples while keeping their eyes out for marquee items, such as the 3-million-year-old whale skull found during the construction of a bike trail last fall.

The collection strategy is often “driven by a research question,” said Shelley L. Donohue, PaleoServices’ report writer. As an example, she cites the Sycamore Landfill, “a giant hole that will be filled with trash.” Seven years of digging has allowed scientists to answer hard questions such as how ecological niches were filled (or left empty) over the eons. At the moment, there’s a particular interest in insectivorous mammals.

PaleoServices field workers normally haul a ton or two of material away from a site in pickup trucks and sift it for fossils. Occasionally, dump trucks are used. The museum collected 25,000 pounds from one place in the 1990s, looking for prosimian primates, which it found.

This moveable feast of fossils means there’s plenty of leftovers. Surplus specimens are given to schools and even to visitors. A construction site in Chula Vista yielded a load of sand dollars, shells and bird bones. Children were allowed to screen the material and keep what they found.

About a dozen researchers visit the museum each year to use the collection. About 50 papers, from both in-house and outside scientists, have been written based on the museum’s holdings in the past 30 years.

There is a downside, however, to collecting fossils with construction equipment.

“The paleontological monitor noticed an explosion of white when the road scraper tagged that,” Deméré says, pointing to the upper foreleg — the humerus — of a Columbian mammoth now awaiting curation back at the museum’s lab. There’s an unnatural flatness to the end of the bone. The missing piece — a bulge called a condyle — was the price of discovery.

In an exhibit of marine mammal fossils, the top of the skull of an extinct gray whale is prosthetic. Another whale skull is missing part of its underside. The chances of a big, display-worthy piece of skeleton being recovered undamaged are pretty small.

The people at the museum call it the “scraper tax.”

Collection’s manager Kesler Randall and curator Thomas Deméré work together with staff at the Naval Medical Center San Diego to place the partial skull of a Columbian Mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) into a CT scanner. (Robert Rutherford/San Diego Natural History Museum)


In San Diego County, a paleontologist must be present if construction at a fossil-bearing site will move more than 2,500 cubic yards of soil. At Otay Ranch Village 3, 7 million cubic yards will be moved. Pat Sena, who is 48, is going to be there awhile.

Bulldozers and road scrapers — four and eight of them, respectively — were shaving the top off a ridge on this particular day. Their target was a layer of volcanic ash called bentonite, which is a poor material to build houses on. Dump trucks deposited 28,000 cubic yards of the material down in swales at the bottom of the hill each day.

This was once a coastal marsh, with braided streams flowing into a sea. Deluges scoured deep channels. Heavy material from uphill and inland — including the bodies and bones of living things — were deposited there. Most of the skeletons in the museum’s collection are incomplete because the animals weren’t buried where they died. The few terrestrial dinosaurs in the collection bear evidence of having been washed into the ocean. An ankylosaur (armored dinosaur) and a hadrosaur (duck-billed dinosaur) each have oyster shells stuck to their fossil bones.

The excavated ground at Otay Ranch is a mixture of clays and cobbles in gray, white and tan. It’s hard to make out the walls of the ancient channels unless you know what to look for. Sena does. He started young, accompanying his geologist father on outings to search for uranium deposits, work that involved well-logging — recording characteristics of geological formations.

“While he would be well-logging, I’d be collecting fossils. I used to carry a geology book around with me in first grade,” he said. “Nothing’s changed.” A former corpsman in the Marines, he joined PaleoServices 20 years ago. He doesn’t have a college degree. What he does have is an eye for small objects, up close and at a distance.

“He can find fossils where nobody else does. He sees patterns. He just has a feeling for the earth,” Deméré said.

The law requires that grading be suspended “upon discovery of fossils greater than twelve inches in any dimension.” There are few discoveries that big. When there are, they’re removed en bloc, field-jacketed in plaster and taken back to the museum for definitive uncovering.

Such rules sound like a recipe for endless delay, but apparently they aren’t. “Very rarely do we have to move out of an area for any length of time,” said Lance Dougherty, the jobsite foreman for the company shaping the land at Otay Ranch. “Sometimes it’s an hour, sometimes it’s half a day. It doesn’t slow us down because we can work in another area.” He acknowledged, however, that it’s sometimes inconvenient.

For his part, Deméré knows that keeping fossils safe isn’t a high priority for government.

“Obviously, there’s a cost associated with regulations. There’s a cumulative effect when you stack them all up. But I’d hate to see us take a big step backward.”

As a way to thank property owners, builders, excavation contractors, bulldozer drivers, environmental planners and city staff, the museum holds an annual party to display what has been collected in the previous year.

“The idea is that, without mitigation work, all this would be lost — everything from bison heads and whale jaws to mice teeth and tiny shells,” Deméré said.

“One of the showstoppers last year was fossilized foraminifera,” said Donohue, the report writer. “You have to see them through a microscope,” she said of the tiny calcificed organisms.

Some property owners don’t need thanking. During the construction of a high-rise at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in downtown San Diego, equipment operators found a mammoth, a gray whale and a shell bed in sequential strata. “The dean was thrilled. He is a history buff. And Jefferson collected fossils,” Deméré said. The parking levels under the building are named for the discoveries at each depth.

PaleoServices monitors discovered this skeleton of a 3 million-year-old fish during trenching excavations for a sewer line. (Antonio Cusumano/San Diego Natural History Museum)


Paleontological digs are famously slow operations. Scientists sprawl on the ground, uncovering objects with dental picks and sable brushes as if they had all the time in the world.

Salvage paleontology is different. It’s more closely related to chain-saw sculpture and speed chess. And birthday mornings.

In the trailer at Otay Ranch, the project superintendent, Robert Greninger, sat at a desk beneath a map of the development. The house lots on its not-yet-built curving streets look like the vertebral bodies of long-necked, long-buried lizards.

When Deméré greeted him, Greninger mentioned the 10-year-old son of his boss.The boy loves visiting the site. But it isn’t to see the machines with eight-foot tires. It’s to see “what Mr. Pat has found.”

Of such encounters are paleontologists born.

Kayaking around Manhattan

September 7, 2017


Kayakers approach the lower end of Manhattan on the Hudson River, where One World Trade Center dominates the skyline.  (David Brown)

The Hudson River has always seemed like a trench filled with water, its bottom a Stygian tangle of sunken boats and discarded equipment, its water an over-steeped tea somehow brewed from the lives of 8 million people.  By the same token, Manhattan seemed less an island than a moored raft covered with concrete, asphalt, steel and well-tended plants.

So when I eased myself into a kayak one day this summer to start a paddle around Manhattan Island, I was surprised to see a little beach nearby. Water came up from depths onto a patch of sand, with weeds just beyond. It was the geological past sticking its nose out from under 400 years of human occupation.

Circumnavigating New York City’s core by water combines nature’s forces with man’s work in a way that’s as dramatic as any place in America. It’s also a trip strangely poignant and evocative, even for someone with no New York roots or even much knowledge of the city’s history. And the funny thing is, it’s not even that hard.

Each year, the Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club sponsors the “Manhattan Circ”— a trip around Manhattan Island in kayaks. This year, 158 people from 12 states and two foreign countries (Canada and Spain) did it. One-third were women; only one person dropped out.

To participate, you have to apply, attest to your skills, be accepted, and pay $80. Of course, the logistics are considerable if you’re an out-of-towner, what with getting a kayak into the country’s most densely populated place and finding somewhere to stay. But it’s worth it.


I went with a group of people affiliated with an Annapolis nonprofit organization called Upstream Alliance. The Inwood Canoe Club, on the Hudson in far northern Manhattan, kindly allowed us to store the boats overnight and launch from its docks. The Circ’s organizers had divided the fleet into three groups based on anticipated speed; two of the groups launched a few hundred yards from us at a public beach on Dyckman Street.

The Inwood is the only survivor of a string of boat clubs that once lined that part of the island’s shore. Founded in 1902, and the home of seven Olympic canoeists in the middle of the last century, it recalled an era when New York’s waterways were more recreational than they are today, and perhaps cleaner and less intimidating.

The day and hour of the Circ are chosen so that tidal flow will assist participants as much as possible. As we paddled into the eastern edge of the Hudson’s channel, it was immediately clear this would not be a trip for the inattentive. The flow was swift. The river was in full ebb, doubling our paddling speed toward the Battery, the southern tip of island, where we would catch the flood tide that would carry us up the East River.

The group I was in would, in theory, be the fastest of the three. A motor launch appeared on our right. It accompanied us the whole way around, keeping us from straying into the all-business middle of the channel, like a border collie herding a flock of aquatic sheep.

The overcast sky hid the tops of the George Washington Bridge’s towers. We paused briefly just above the bridge and then proceeded under it. A rumbling filled the air and disappeared. White, balloon-shaped buoys — presumably for transient yachts — strained against their mooring chains, the dark water pillowing over them. They were the first of several not-so-obvious obstructions we encountered that could easily have flipped a boat. (Thankfully, none did).

Paddlers pass under the Queensboro Bridge. (David Brown)

On my deck I had an old National Geographic map of Manhattan that I’d cut up and had laminated and spiral bound. It helped me get a rough idea of where we were as we hurried down the West Side on an eight-knot express. I spotted Grant’s Tomb, the Riverside Church, and later the Empire State Building peeking out from the island’s interior. As the haze cleared, the morning sun silhouetted rooftop water tanks, making them look like little party hats. In the afternoon on the East River, I recognized the United Nations headquarters, which in my 1960s childhood was second only to the Statue of Liberty in recognizable New York landmarks. (Such a hopeful time!)

Early on we passed a gigantic concrete structure with half-moon fenestrations lining its waterside front. I asked a fellow paddler what it was and he said it was a sewage plant. To be precise, it was the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant, which processes 125 million gallons of sewage a day and stretches from 145th Street to 137th Street.

Despite being surrounded by it (and partly because of that fact), water has always been a problem for Manhattan. New York City residents consume 1.3 billion gallons of clean water a day (imported from far north of the city), and dispose of 1.4 million gallons of liquid waste. The water was once notoriously polluted, and by a century ago had wiped out commercial fisheries of shad, clams and oysters while spreading cholera, typhoid fever and other fecal-oral illnesses.

Joseph Mitchell, the New Yorker magazine’s famous chronicler of the city, started a 1951 article called “The Bottom of the Harbor” this way: “The bulk of the water in New York Harbor is oily, dirty, and germy. Men on the mud suckers, the big harbor dredges, like to say that you could bottle it and sell it for poison.”


Things are better now. Thousands of people swam in the Hudson the day after the Circ as part of the New York City Triathlon. The Billion Oyster Project is engaging schools (among other groups) to restore New York’s oyster grounds. There were 220,000 acres when Henry Hudson navigated the waters in 1609; the project so far has restored a little more than one acre and planted 22 million oysters. Heavy rains occasionally overwhelm the wastewater treatment capacity, spilling coliform-laden water into the rivers. We got occasional whiffs of sulfurous sewer gas on our passage.

We stopped at Pier 40, at West and Houston streets, in Greenwich Village, where people looking for a bathroom could admire the watercraft in the Village Community Boathouse. It promotes the construction and rowing of dory-like boats of a century-old design called “Whitehall gigs”— one of many examples of how New Yorkers are again turning to the water for recreation.

We approached the Battery with the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island in the distance to our right, and One World Trade Center on our left. The waterway here is New York’s aortic outflow — high-pressure, turbulent, essential. The Circ organizers arranged for us to cross it in 15-minute windows that would keep us safe from the gigantic, orange Staten Island ferry and its wake. By then, our group had caught up with the second-fastest one. We watched its paddlers cross as we milled around near a barge in a man-made cove — in this part of Manhattan, everything is man-made — waving to pedestrians on the waterside promenade.

Eventually, we got the signal to cross. This required hard, no-nonsense paddling. (I was chastised by one of our chaperons for pausing to take a picture.) At one point, we had to hold up unexpectedly to avoid a tour boat. As we headed into the East River, the water became a hectic mix of standing waves, wakes and clashing currents. Nobody appeared to be giving us much quarter. We were like mice crossing a crusty field of snow, hoping not to be picked off by predators.

Safe on the Brooklyn side, we caught our breath and headed up the East River under the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. We passed the blackened stubs of old dock pilings, shuddering in the current like loose teeth.

We paddled the length of Roosevelt Island and at its far end came ashore at a beach in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens. We tarried there until the tide became favorable. Because the beach would flood, we carried the boats — the entire fleet, as the three groups were now together — up the street to Socrates Sculpture Park, a four-acre outdoor museum built on an old landfill. There, an overworked food truck, a small farmers market and a performance of Bengali music and dance entertained us for nearly two hours.

We crossed to the Manhattan side of the river at the lower end of Hell Gate, the most notorious strait in New York’s harbor and the site of uncountable shipwrecks over the centuries. The water was slack; our timing was right. We paddled right over the spot off East 90th Street where the excursion steamer General Slocum, carrying 1,400 people — most of them recent German immigrants — caught fire on June 15, 1904. The death toll of at least 1,021 would not be exceeded in a single disaster in New York until 9/11.

At the north end of Randalls Island, we turned left into the Harlem River, where we were favored by the tidal quirk that makes the circumnavigation such a winning proposition. The tide pushes water that is already in the Harlem River northward, as well as pushing water that is not already in the Harlem River into it. One wouldn’t think it possible! But it happens twice a day.

(Here, it’s worth noting the distance around the island was 30 miles, which we covered in 6½ hours of paddling time. Our average speed was just under 5 mph and our maximum speed an astonishing 8.7 mph. An oceanographer in our group calculated we did the work of a 20-mile paddle at 3½ mph. In other words, one third of the distance we covered was entirely thanks to tide and river flow.)

Paddlers head down the Hudson River, with Lower Manhattan in the distance. (David Brown)

While people came from many places to do the Circ — I paddled on and off with two guys from Los Angeles — there were enough from New York to provide a guided tour for the curious and sociable.

A paddler pointed out the garbage pier, the air vent for the Holland Tunnel and a row of Trump Organization-built apartment buildings recently stripped of their builder’s name. Another told me as we passed under the Queensboro Bridge that it was also known as the 59th Street Bridge. (“Are you feeling groovy yet?” he asked.) I learned about Marble Hill, the Manhattan neighborhood that is no longer on Manhattan Island, thanks to rerouting of the Harlem River at the northern end of the island in 1895.

I was instructed to note the Pepsi-Cola sign in Long Island City in Queens, a landmark that’s both pop-cultural and nostalgic-industrial. From my reading of the aforementioned Mitchell essay, I pointed out to a fellow circumnavigator that the eddies at the bend of the East River between the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges is where corpses that go into the water in the winter frequently surface in the spring.

We paddled under more than a dozen bridges; Manhattan is an island, after all. The oldest is High Bridge, opened in 1848 to carry the Croton Aqueduct that supplied water to the city. Macombs Dam Bridge (1895), near Yankee Stadium, with its stone piers, pyramid-roofed shelter houses and steel camelback in the middle, is my new favorite.

As the Harlem River got narrower and more industrial, culminating in the ship channel of Spuyten Duyvil, I was amazed to see a rocky outcrop on my left, the very northern tip of the island. I paddled over. It was shaded by vegetation growing out of its face and vines hanging down from its top. The air was laden with the smell of moss and mold. I thought to myself: “This, at least, is unchanged. This is something the Lenape Indians and the Dutch colonists might recognize.” Then I thought about the blasting it took to make the ship channel. “Maybe not.”

The rivers the Circ followed were pretty much where they’d been in 1600. The currents and tides were the same (and so, undoubtedly, were some of the water molecules). Flowing water was the changeless New York City, and I’d been looking at it all day.

Time travel at the Penitentiary

January 14, 2016



Interior walkways inside the Eastern State Penitentiary. In the travel industry, prison museums are a growth sector. (David Brown)


I was halfway down Block 1 at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, peering into a cell for a thief imprisoned in 1829, when I realized the place resembled a Carthusian monastery.

Members of Catholicism’s most austere order, Carthusian monks live, eat, work and sleep alone in “cells,” coming out only for church services and a four-hour walk each week. They are forbidden to speak unless given permission. Each man has a tiny walled yard where he can look at the sky and feel the sun. As the wonderful book “An Infinity of Little Hours” (2006) makes clear, it’s a life balanced between sanctity and madness.

In the first era of Eastern State’s 142-year life as a prison, inmates spent 23 hours a day in their cells, with two half-hour recesses in private yards reached by a stoop-through door. Their only reading material was the Bible, and they spoke to no one but guards and the chaplain. If they left their cells, they were hooded. Some spent years inside the massive stone walls without seeing the face of another prisoner.

Today, it seems odd that this was ever viewed as a way to cure antisocial behavior. But it was. In fact, the “Pennsylvania system” was penology’s breakthrough idea, rescuing murderers, burglars, forgers and confidence men from cruel treatment by keepers and fellow miscreants. Eastern State, the idea’s embodiment, went on to be the model for 300 prisons on four continents.

Seeing how “penitence” got into the word “penitentiary” is just one revelation that awaits a visitor to Eastern State Penitentiary, surely one of the country’s more unusual museums.

In the travel industry, prison museums are a growth sector. A book published last year, “Escape to Prison:  Penal Tourism and the Pull of Punishment,” looks at 10 of the roughly 100 of them around the world. Although some (like Alcatraz, or South Africa’s Robben Island) are better known than Eastern State, few can compete with it.

“In its educational and historical narrative, it’s clearly at the top,” said Michael Welch, the Rutgers University sociologist who wrote the book. “It’s not a theme park. It’s not intended to amuse you.”

It is, in the words of Steve Buscemi, who narrates the indispensable audio guide, “a magnificent ruin.”

The architecture is Gothic Revival, with 30-foot walls of Wissahickon schist, faux battlements and two gargoyles over the entrance holding lengths of chain. Inside, the walls are flaking paint and spalling rock dust. Birds swoop in and out of broken windows. Vines and saplings have taken up residence where prisoners worked and lived.

In the Eastern State Penitentiary exercise yard, a sculptural graph shows U.S. rates of imprisonment over time. (David Brown)


One of the prison’s innovations was its hub-and-spoke design, which is still used in many prisons. Cellblocks radiate from a central rotunda, where guards kept watch. Seven blocks are open to visitors, and hundreds of cells have been left as they were when their occupants moved out in 1971, down to tipped-over stools and open drawers.

Guides are stationed around the prison and the grounds. (Several I spoke to were recent Temple University history and archaeology graduates.) They give mini-tours to parts of what was essentially a walled town forced to evolve without changing its footprint.

“Soup Alley” is a covered walkway with cafeteria counters on either side, built in 1924, when inmates started eating together. A stove with an oven door open is covered with dust near where a tarred roof has collapsed. A dining room, created by knocking down the walled yards of the nearby cells, stands empty.

Part of Cellblock 3 was converted to a hospital in 1880. A tree root snakes over the door to the operating room, added in 1910. Inside, a steel IV pole sits in a corner and a surgical lamp the size of a searchlight hangs from the ceiling. Al “Scarface” Capone, who spent time at Eastern State in 1929, had two operations there. One was a tonsillectomy; the other, unnamed, was probably a circumcision. (Capone had syphilis, and circumcision would reduce the chance he’d transmit it.)

It’s remarkable that people are allowed in such places in this era of phobias over lead paint, trip hazards and things-you-may-have-to-duck-under. The museum shows respect for the good sense of its visitors, who numbered 194,000 last year (30,000 in group tours).

The idea for a new kind of prison originated at a meeting of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons in 1787. (Benjamin Franklin was an early member.) Inspired by Quaker ideals and Enlightenment thinking, the prison was designed to induce regret and penitence in prisoners. It was more than 30 years before the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania took the suggestion. Eastern State Penitentiary opened its gate in 1829.

The corridors and cells have vaulted ceilings that suggest an ecclesiastical setting. The single skylight in each cell was called an “eye of God.” The food was reputedly good. Pipes under the floor delivered central heat, and bucket-flush toilets connected to a sewage system. This was a time, the commentary points out, when the White House had neither of those amenities.

However, not everyone agreed that solitary confinement was the route to reformation. Charles Dickens toured the penitentiary in 1842 and wrote: “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body . . . it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment . . .”

The “Pennsylvania System” of solitary confinement didn’t last long. As early as the 1840s some prisoners had cellmates, and in 1913 the strategy was abandoned. New multi-tiered cellblocks were squeezed in between the original ones. By the 1920s, the institution built for 700 inmates housed 2,000.

The walls are flaking paint and spilling rock dust inside the Eastern State Penitentiary, which opened its gate in 1829. (David Brown)


A cell at Eastern State Penitentiary, which was designed to induce regret and penitence in prisoners. (David Brown)


The place is so big and operated for so long that the opportunities for narrative are legion. And the museum takes full advantage of them.

There are displays about women prisoners (who were there until 1923), race in prison, prison gangs and famous inmates. You can see the restored synagogue, Capone’s cell and the place from which 12 people, including the bank robber Willie Sutton, escaped (temporarily) through a tunnel. A dozen cells have been given over to artists for installations. On display now is a reconstruction of a cell from Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay. Another, called “Other Absences,” has pictures of 50 men, women and one child murdered by former inmates hanging from the ceiling of two cells.

What wasn’t addressed for years, however, was the growth of imprisonment in the United States, a trend known as mass incarceration.

“There was this massive blind spot,” said Sean Kelley, the director of interpretation and public programming who was the museum’s first full-time staff member in 1995. “The old ending of the audio tour asked people to reflect on the current incarceration system. But we didn’t give them any facts on which to reflect. It was essentially the same as saying, ‘Drive safe.’ ”

Today, the facts are hard to miss. They take the form of a $100,000 sculpture erected in 2014 in the center of the exercise yard.

The corridors and cells in the Eastern State Penitentiary have vaulted ceilings that suggest an ecclesiastical setting. (David Brown/For The Washington Post)


For every decade since 1900, the number of people imprisoned in the United States per 100,000 population is depicted as a steel box of proportionate height. Through 1980 the rate varied from 100 to 200. Those boxes are a couple of feet high; you could step from one to the next if they let you. Then the rate took off. In 2010, it was 730 per 100,000, and the box is 16 feet tall. Viewed from other angles, the 3-D infographic compares the U.S. imprisonment rate with that of other countries, and it also depicts the racial breakdown of the American prison population over time.

The museum is finding other ways, as well, to engage the subject of crime and punishment.  On the first Tuesday of each month, a scholar, author or public official gives a talk in the rotunda, followed by a reception.  September’s speaker, the Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, was shouted down by Black Lives Matter protesters.

Eastern State Penitentiary, too massive and obsolete to be repurposed after it closed, has found new life helping people, once again, think about the purpose of imprisonment. Its long-dead founders would be pleased.

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