When Eric Jones, captain of Sea Valor, handed me that flag behind us to place in the flag holder yesterday, my first thought was “don’t drop it into the Bay.” The American flag means more to Eric than it does to many of us.
Eric’s story came to me from Tony Green a few weeks ago, as I sat across Tony’s desk at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland learning about his pioneering work with the new AP African-American History course. Tony invited me to join his group aboard Sea Valor, where Eric, Tony’s former student, would contribute to the course curriculum.
An invitation for a day sailing on the Bay is a no-brainer, but that invite grew dear to my heart when Tony told me Eric’s story, adapted here from http://www.SeaValor.org:
Eric grew up in the Bay Area, his mother a social worker, and his father an Air Force Colonel. Eric felt compelled to help people from an early age and became an EMT as soon as he turned 18. That led to him joining the Prince George’s County Fire Department, where he received additional training in firefighting, search and rescue, hazardous materials, and rescue diving. Eric continued by earning his Paramedic certification, and in 1998 graduated from The George Washington University (GWU) with a BS in Health Sciences, with a focus on Emergency Medical Services with a minor in Psychology.
On the morning of September 11, 2001 Eric was driving to class at GWU (he was then working towards a Masters in Public Health), and as he neared the Pentagon, American Airlines flight 77 had just crashed into the Pentagon. Knowing he had the skills to help, he pulled over and ran towards the building. He helped pull and carry five people from the impact zone, and then spent the next four days as a member of the Mortuary Affairs team removing the remains of those killed. On September 14, Eric finally left the Pentagon, and drove to New York Ground Zero, to join fellow members of his fire department who were already there assisting with the massive search and rescue operations. He spent another two weeks engaged in search and rescue, and then search and recovery operations. For his efforts, Eric was one of two people awarded the Medal of Valor from the Department of Defense, the highest civilian award issued for heroism.
Like many of the first responders during 9/11, Eric has struggled with PTSD, and additional traumatic events over the years have made it worse. He has tried all of the traditional treatment methods; therapy, medications, support groups, etc., and found varying degrees of success, however nothing has “cured” the depression and PTSD.
Over the years, Eric has known seven people who have taken their lives as a result of their depression and PTSD. In 2016, his friend Jason, an honorably discharged and highly decorated Army sniper, took his own life. Just a few months later, his friend Andrew Berands, an Oscar-winning cameraman, took his life. Both of these tragic deaths affected Eric very hard. He has known firsthand the deep feelings of hopelessness and despair that result from the inability to process traumatic events. Eric’s fate might have been the same, but believes that sailing and a love for the ocean saved his life.
Eric has always loved all things ocean; scuba diving, swimming, boating, exploring tidepools, but in 2010 he discovered sailing. First, on small sailing dinghies in the Potomac River, then on larger boats which ventured offshore. In 2011 Eric served as crew on his friend’s boat sailing from Miami, Florida to Annapolis, MD. This experience solidified his love for sailing.
For a week, as they cruised up the Eastern Seaboard, Eric felt happy for the first time since before 9/11. His depression was still there, but sailing and being surrounded by the ocean and all of its beauty, brought him a sense of peace that he had been yearning for. This was the first time he realized the healing power of sailing and the sea.
Over the next several years, Eric’s depression grew worse. After his mother died in 2015, followed by the suicides of his two friends, Eric was in a bad emotional state. The only time he felt calm and at peace was when he was near or in the ocean. He started sailing with friends, and over time, he realized that he felt better not only on the days that he sailed, but on the days before and after. Sailing and other ocean activities were helping. Eric founded Sea Valor to bring the same healing to others suffering from PTSD.
Yesterday, I joined Tony, a diverse group of his students, and a few other strays like myself at the Emeryville Marina, where Sea Valor is moored. I asked Tony how Eric might be feeling on the eve of the 21st anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. He said that we may or may not hear from Eric about that, and he reminded me to check out the display below deck of the triangular-folded flag that Eric rescued from his days of service at the Pentagon.
Waiting in the parking lot as Eric and his crew prepared, Tony completed the class’ unit on “The Global Reach of the Mali Empire,” dropping knowledge and calling on students to contribute what they’d learned in his classroom, including the voyage of King Abubakari II, ruler of the Mali Empire, who in 1311 AD, led an African exploration to the New World, sending out 200 ships of men, and 200 ships of trade material, crops, animals, cloth, and African understanding of astronomy, religion and the arts.
Soon after boarding, Eric’s father, a retired Air Force colonel, gave a brief presentation on African-American contributions to our country and gave us each a newly minted quarter commemorating the Tuskegee Airmen. That set the tone for our voyage, mixing education, a celebration of Black excellence, inter-racial exploration, and the co-operation that sailing requires.
Eric put us under engine power until we cleared the Berkeley Pier. Students helped raise and lower sails and took turns at the wheel under direction of Eric and his crew–Heather and Nixon. We tied up at Angel Island, the “Ellis Island of the West,” where many Asian immigrants started their American adventure. There, Eric presented to the students about the technical aspects of currents and navigation, introducing a STEM element to Tony’s teaching and helping students understand what confronted both King Abubakari II and then 300 years later, those who endured the Middle Passage.
From Angel Island, we sailed toward and under the Golden Gate Bridge.
Then we skirted Alcatraz Island, where Tony and our new friend, Wanda, kept conversation real as we drifted past reminders of some other real Americans.
Eric kept us on the water for about five magical hours. Although we never heard from Eric about his trauma, many of us shared stories of our own. Wanda and I compared notes on the Black and Jewish experiences as both friends and foes in this country. Nixon, of Asian descent, explained that his father named him after the former President, dooming him to not only persistent questions about the origin of his name, but also being playground nicknamed “Tricky Dick.”
Exhausted and exhilarated, we arrived back at Emeryville, processing thoughts and feelings that arose from our conversations, none about how to make America great again, most about how to make America America again.
After dark on May 2, D.C. wasn’t overly hot, walking from my de facto headquarters at The Hamilton back to Hotel Harrington. The night held just a hint of humidity, a soft blanket that subtly alluded to the city’s notorious sweat soakings.
Nothing even happening at Harry’s, the often-rowdy dive bar in the Harrington, which is a dive hotel like the one where Robert Blake and Tom Ewell lived in the old Baretta TV series. But it’s worth staying there for the old-school “charm” at half the price of anywhere else such a short walk from the White House and even more importantly The Hamilton.
But up in my room, where the blackout drapes almost met closely enough to keep the light out, CNN let me know we’d feel heat the next day. The news broke about the Supreme Court’s draft opinion re: Roe v. Wade.
Sleep with CNN spicing my dreams segued into waking surrealism. The candidate’s team communications platform overflowed with internal messages, mostly of the wailing-and-gnashing-of-teeth variety. I would have to directly phone the candidate back in Houston to sort this out.
And it would have to happen while walking to the day’s destinations, familiar haunts from my past D.C. visits. I refused to forego the pilgrimages I’d planned on top of a two-day out-and-back from San Francisco to D.C. built around representing my client, Fit Kids, at the Aspen Institute’s Project Play Summit.
The call came at 10 a.m. from the candidate — Cameron “Coach Cam” Campbell, known for the #GridironGrit he brings from his football coaching career to his campaign to “go to state” as the representative for Texas House District 132. Yes, in Texas, it takes nothing less than #GridironGrit grit for a Black man to turn a red seat blue.
Between Coach Cam’s infant and toddler in his office and the street shouts and sirens that started to wane when I walked the gentrified U Street Corridor, we somehow managed to mostly understand each other. I would duck into Busboys and Poets, the progressive bookstore/cafe, for inspiration…
…and I would take my findings — which this time included The Trayvon Generation by Elizabeth Alexander and Create Dangerously: The Power and Responsibility of the Artist by Albert Camus — to a proper office to compose a statement on SCOTUS for Coach Cam’s consideration.
In my booth at Ben’s, fueled by the vibe and an Original Chili Half Smoke, I wrote: The Supreme Court opinion that came out yesterday demonstrates the vast overreach and ruthless power grab of the political right, reaching right down into the most intimate and personal aspects of women’s lives. The right, embodied by the Republican Party, does this against the will of the people they are sworn to represent. It is up to us as individuals — politicians and constituents alike, starting at the local level — to use our voice and our vote to protect our legal rights. The Supreme Court stands poised to trigger the worst of what Texas Republicans already have decided. Our best defense against the violation of our civil rights and human rights is to remove Republicans from power, and I intend do so in HD 132.
With Coach Cam more or less signed off on that, a long, hot walk had me hit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian an hour before closing. On the way there, and then to happy hour at Off the Record in the famous Hay-Adams Hotel, glimpses of the Washington Monument, the U.S. Capitol, and the White House had me feeling some type of way.
The sight of the buildings themselves are so iconic, so burned into my brain as a patriot-in-training from earliest memory, that they raise a reverence. But knowing what their residents and honorees perpetrated is just as breath-taking.
Sitting in Off the Record — elbow-to-elbow crowd clamor drowning out CNN’s continuing coverage of the not-yet-24-hour-old SCOTUS news — I wondered who around me shaped policy in which ways. In those surroundings, politics feel real.
It was nothing a stop at headquarters couldn’t cure. So I walked back out into higher heat and humidity than the night before.
Drugs helped reduce the characters of Jack Kerouac and Hunter Thompson to gibberish in their best-known road books, “On The Road” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” But it wasn’t just drugs. It was also the overwhelm of the road itself, with its expansiveness forcing eyes and mind open and sheer beauty pounding the optic nerve from inside and out until you struggle to share your vision with anyone. Inexpressible intimacies hide under layers but still drive the story like the bass you don’t realize you hear under a band’s thunder.
Drugs played no role in my road trip with my daughter, Eleni, through California, Nevada, Utah and Colorado (CANVUTCO), so if I write gibberish like my writing heroes, it’s only from overwhelm. In my wiser moments, I let pictures speak at least a thousand words, though neither pictures nor words can convey all we saw.
This road trip formed about six months into the pandemic. Eleni’s friends invited her to Colorado, and she asked if I would join her. Restless and road hungry, work schedules scuttled, we would handle our obligations remotely. Zoom let us zoom. We had friends and country to see.
To keep us Covid-safe(r) and cash richer, Eleni outfitted her used Ford Escape with a makeshift bed: four eighteen-inch boards jointed together with a sliding plywood platform on top that created a storage space and left room for a mattress on top of the platform. With the inside loaded and her bike in the roof rack, we headed out on October 16.
She drove us out to Highway 5 via 152 through Gilroy, along the rolling reservoir hills. When her sleepiness settled in, I took over. The car’s ignition challenged me, which brought some daughterly ridicule, so I launched into a quasi-satirical, full Luddite, get-off-my-lawn-guy rant.
“Hybrids have no pickup, and electrics leave us at the mercy of a shortage of charging stations.” Eleni de-bunked that with statistics and said, “but I understand, you’ve already decided not to do the right thing because of the research you haven’t done?” Fake posturing fell into real laughter.
Gauging our time as we sped down Highway 5, we planned to camp at Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada, which came recommended. That way, we could visit St. George, also recommended, early the next morning.
Hunger hit. Las Vegas was an option. Eleni had never been, and a burger stop on the Strip was about all the Vegas experience either of us would want. Whenever we had cell service, she researched restaurants. Pandemic protocol left us unsure of what was open and how limited the seating might be, so we switched Luddite roles, and I convinced Eleni to use her phone as a phone. We settled on a burger joint in the Venetian, and the setting sun in our rearview mirror soon gave way to Vegas neon on the windshield.
The Strip traffic crawled. Crowds on the sidewalks were much thicker than we’d guessed. Only about half the people wore masks, replicating roughly the presidential polling less than three weeks before the election. Covid concerns crept in, but we persisted with our plan even when I missed the turn into the Venetian driveway. It wasn’t until I misunderstood the parking lot directions and tried to ease the car into a garage that threatened to peel Eleni’s bike off the roof and then had to three-point turn out of there with a hundred honking cars behind us that she yelled, “Dad, let’s get out of Las Vegas!”
So we did. Or we tried. With no dinner-worthy food packed and nowhere between there and Valley of Fire even hinting of a hot meal, we turned around just outside the city limits and settled on Raising Cane’s. The kid with the menu board in the drive-through lane earnestly explained that the product was better than Popeyes but not as good as Chick-fil-A and sold us on baskets of tenders that were no good at all.
Leaving the lot, we noticed the Five Guys down the street, whose sign was invisible from the other direction, and which had not turned up on Eleni’s internet search. She yelled again that same yell as at the Venetian, further frustrated by burger misadventure.
The Valley of Fire campground was full, so we boondocked and had a hard night’s sleep.
The park looked promising in the sunrise.
But now we aimed to reach the Denver/Boulder area by nightfall to connect Eleni with her friends on time. We left about 6:15 a.m., stopping for a McDonald’s coffee to keep us from driving off the road between there and St. George.
In Utah, the coffee took full effect. We had to lower those Cane’s. We pulled into a strip mall that had a combination FeelLove Coffee and Be Hot Yoga studio, which met all of our needs from the plush restrooms to the interesting gift shop to the great coffee necessary to fuel us across most of Utah and Colorado that day.
We talked a lot. We took turns driving and reading to each other when the views lapsed into the less spectacular. Eleni read to me from Zora Neale Hurston’s “Moses, Man of the Mountain.” I read to her from the introduction of a book I was writing about Black America and some chapters she suggested from her copy of “Braiding Sweetgrass.”
The need for gas, to lower more Cane’s, to replenish our beef jerky supply, and to stop in a town called Beaver led us to stop in Beaver, Utah. Inside the gas station convenience store with my Rasta-colored gaiter/do-rag now serving as a Covid mask, I made eye contact and raised a fist in solidarity with a young woman wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt. Her eyes smiled back, and I pointed to her shirt and said, “Eleni, look what we found. In Utah!” The other prizes we found there were Scotty’s jerky and an “I Love Beaver” sticker to mail to my father.
Post-Beaver, about twenty-four hours into our trip, the road sensibility kicked all the way in. The scenery swelled my chest. I felt how much I’d missed the road during quarantine and gave thanks in silent prayer.
We next stopped in Fruita, Colorado to eat at an old-school burger joint called Munchies, which also served the first in a series of pumpkin pie flavored shakes we would drink on this trip.
Pushing east across Colorado…
Our last gas stop was at a Kum & Go. When I snapped a photo of the sign, Eleni asked if that was to accompany the Beaver sticker I’d bought for her grandfather.
We landed at the Fetter family household in Highlands Ranch by about 8:30. We had an immediate and delicious dinner with Ross and Karen and their kids, Hayden and Hayley, friends with our family since our children’s grade school days who had left the Bay for Colorado years ago. Eleni soon had to take off to meet her friends in Longmont and left me behind for a few days with the Fetters. Our conversations were deep, intense, personal, and hilarious, not for sharing here. Otherwise, hiking was the highlight. On the first day, Ross took me to Red Rocks for a look-see and then to Three Sisters for more vigorous rises and falls and scrambles.
The next day, we took a five-mile hike in the neighborhood. That night, I convinced Ross to spend the next day helping me tick off a bucket-list item: the Manitou Incline. He researched the pandemic protocol, which demanded reservations and bus tickets from a remote parking lot. We left early the next morning, because Ross decided if we were driving past Garden of the Gods, we might as well stop in. I’m glad he did.
The Incline was spectacular. It’s an athletic challenge I first learned of through a Facebook friend’s comment on a photo I’d posted of myself running stairs. On the site of a former railcar route that was destroyed in a landslide (fact check), the Manitou Incline consists of 2,768 stairs carved into a mile of trail that climbs 2,000 feet to a peak of 8,500 feet of altitude. The average grade for the trail is 45 percent, and sometimes is as steep as 68 percent. The record time of ascent is 17:45. Based on my stair-sprint training, I thought it might take me an hour.
It was a grueling physical and mental challenge. Sweat poured off me. Breath thinned. Quads quivered. Footsteps faltered. I often wanted or needed rest, mindful of incomplete acclimation and hydration and remembering that two years earlier, I’d seized while walking a golf course with Ross. On the Incline, he needed to rest more often to catch his breath, but I couldn’t leave behind the guy who might have saved my life on that golf course, and anyway, resting meant awesome sights.
It took us an hour and forty minutes to summit.
Ross has a few inches in height on me and more than a few pounds, so downhill on the Barr Trail, his momentum through those switchbacks helped him beat me back to the base by about forty-five minutes…including time I took to stop for photos.
Over a well-earned lamb dinner that Ross cooked, he dispensed a life’s worth of advice on National Park choices. Early in our planning, Eleni and I hoped for Bryce, Arches, Canyonlands, and Zion. But our various friend commitments took at least two of those off the table. Then she added Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Mesa Verde as possibilities, and I mentioned that route should include a stop at Woody Creek Tavern for a Hunter Thompson pilgrimage. With one final yawn and groan as he lifted off the couch, Ross urged me to emphasize Arches and to take Highway 128 down from near Grand Junction.
The next morning, Ross reminded me to sign his guestbook, warning in all seriousness that the last person who left without signing suddenly died. So, I made sure to do so.
For the next phase of the trip before Eleni and I headed home, Ross drove me to Denver and dropped me at the Bresler family residence. Eleni would meet me there after breaking from her Longmont friends, and we would spend a couple days in Boulder with my high school friend, Jan Abendroth North. After a too-quick lunch with Justin, Alison, and their son, Charles (elder children Max and Elie otherwise occupied), Eleni and I left for Boulder. Jan could not host us until late afternoon, and Eleni had never seen Red Rocks, so I visited for the second time. After a quick walk, she took a spin on her bike while I walked and ran the amphitheater rows, another workout as famous as Manitou Incline.
That still left time for an enormous dinner of burnt tips, Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale, and a burger on the West End Tavern roof deck above Pearl Street mall. We made it to Jan’s in time for a Zoom call she has periodically with a posse of girls from our high school. When we signed off from Zoom, our conversations became deep, intense, personal, and hilarious, not for sharing here.
The next day, I had a real-live, actual, in-person business meeting with Erin Vito, a website designer collaborating with me on a client project. While Eleni hiked and cycled Boulder, Erin and I had a great, productive, fun first meeting at Rayback Collective, a cool space for beer, coffee, and conversation. Erin recommended I eat at Roadhouse Boulder Depot, so I walked the mile or so on Goose Creek Path. On other visits to Boulder over the years, Jan showed me wondrous places, such as El Dorado Canyon State Park, and on my own I had wandered the CU campus and The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, but I never stumbled onto the more urban beauty that also infuses Boulder.
Dinner done, I Lyfted back to Jan’s for another night of conversation. The next morning, Eleni and I scraped windshields as fall had become winter overnight, said our goodbyes and thanks to Jan, and visited my former work colleague, Amy Manson, for breakfast at her house in Superior with husband, Pat, and son, Max. We left there fueled with good cheer, excellent coffee, and breakfast burritos.
A major accident on Highway 70 slowed us down for a couple hours. We enjoyed views of frosted treetops towering above the freeway and those at eye level, maybe just fifty to seventy feet lower, that were still their usual deep green.
By the time we passed that accident scene, all the National Park possibilities melted into the one that Ross recommended. Passing the junction that leads to the Woody Creek Tavern and eventually the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Eleni and I started making plans for our next trip.
Other specific memorable moments were opening the lid on our hand sanitizer and having it shoot a shot that splatted on Eleni’s passenger seat a few inches from her eyes and our search for fast food in Grand Junction leading to Qdoba until the sudden sight of the sign for Freddy’s Steakburgers dragged me across three lanes of traffic and into two rounds of burgers and chicken sandwiches and pumpkin pie shakes. That held us until we hit 128, which winds about forty-five miles along the Colorado River.
At dark, we drove into Moab for a light bite and drove back out 128 to a boondock site.The next morning, we woke up at 6:30, did gymnastics into the front seat, and bee-lined past the rock faces visible in the dawn for the Denny’s at the edge of town. It was closed. I’d never seen a closed Denny’s. It was open the night before. Maybe it was a fluke Covid-related event. As cosmically disconcerting as a closed Denny’s was, we accepted the universe’s gentle nudge toward the much more mom-and-pop Jailhouse Café for coffee and what their menu listed as “soul bacon,” which was bacon.
Arriving at Arches around 8 a.m., it was too late to hike out to Delicate Arch for sunrise or whatever you’re supposed to do, so we just drove and checked stuff out and stopped whenever something awed us more than whatever else was aweing us. We made friends with random hikers, like the guy in a Bears sweatshirt and Cubs hat, who I talked sports and neighborhoods with, and then a little Latino kid, sprinting ahead of his family in a walking cast for his broken foot, but irrepressible and oblivious to pain just to be free in such beauty.
At one stop, Eleni also took off running, boulder-hopping, scrambling, letting her soul dance, and I watched full of joy and love, my chest swelling like a few days earlier when we first crossed Utah, happy and proud to hug her when she came back.
I had to return to Moab by 2 p.m. to run a Zoom class for The Writing Salon, so we drove back down to the visitor center for gift shopping, and I dropped off Eleni and her bike with plans to meet her at 6 p.m. I had a room reservation at The Virginian hotel so that I could run my class.
At the front desk, I asked for Kate, whom I’d spoken to by phone several days earlier about Zooming from a quiet lobby space that might save me the $200 room reservation. The barefoot lady in the peasant dress said, “I’m Kate.” I reminded her of the conversation. “Oh, I remember. No problem. You can have the room for three hours, no charge. Just don’t mess up the bed. When you leave, it has to look like nobody was there.”
Class complete, I dropped off the key with Kate. She would not accept a tip or other compensation. “Just do something nice for somebody else.”
I drove back through Arches to meet Eleni. We used the rest of daylight to wind back down through the park before a giant burger dinner at Moab Brewery to celebrate her cycling every paved mile of Arches that day, and then we fell into a deep boondocked sleep.
In the morning, we took a last look around camp and left by 7:30.
We lingered at Moab Coffee Roasters, Poison Spider Bicycles, and a rock shop and found a dream house on the way out of town.
In Crescent Junction, needing gas and allured by signage, we stopped at Jackass Joe’s Oasis. It was jerky heaven. We stayed a while. Eleni rehearsed her later line, “Dad liked the jerky store more than he liked Arches.” We left with $90 worth of jerky, including wild boar, Alien Fresh Roadkill, Papa Dan’s Prime Rib, and Oak Barrel Whiskey Rabbit.
We mostly sprinted across Utah, until awe stopped us at Eagle Canyon.
We also slowed through a sudden snowstorm outside Price. Our nav directions put us on some state and county roads, and we ended up at Mom’s Café in Salina, where the waitress asked Eleni to wipe our table and tossed her a rag. We were afraid to eat anything other than cherry pie and coffee there.
Weary, we drove through eerie landscapes, winds howling, temperatures dropping, long horizons of salt or sand or both. Near sunset we had a low-gas scare and held our breath downhill toward a distant Philips 66 sign that belonged to the Border Inn Motel in Baker, Nevada.
It was just across the Utah line, one of the most desolate spots I’ve ever seen. On the way to the restrooms, you pass through a convenience store selling every imaginable vice, and some unimaginable, and then a pool room stuffed with slot machines, but all cordoned off due to virus. It screamed of Sam Shepard, and Eleni didn’t know him or Patti Smith, and I didn’t know some of her artists, so we started a Spotify playlist of stuff we knew and didn’t know.
Making our list and the conversational riffs that came with that carried us through the early night until we got really hungry and stopped at Urban Cowboy in Eureka, Nevada. It was about 19 degrees when we got out of the car. We knew we’d need a hotel instead of boondocking, and we also knew we had to hit Fallon before we could sleep if we were going to get Eleni home in time for her next scheduled shift. I had a Jameson and a huge chicken fried steak.
We shared road talk with a couple from Chico, who thought we were nuts to try to make it to Fallon that night but probably never read Jack Kerouac or Hunter Thompson.
We slept a few hours at the Motel 6 in Fallon, fueled ourselves at Stone Cabin Coffee, a place stuffed with taxidermy of fish, sheep, bear, waterfowl, deer, elk, bobcats and Halloween skeletons with Covid masks. We spent our next five hours speeding, working on our playlist and our jerky rankings, and marveling at the crystal shimmer of the Truckee River dancing down the Sierra Nevada. Returning to civilization, we took ugly 80 back to the Bay, listening for traffic reports on the radio between the too-early Christmas carols, stuck in a slowdown in the suburbs, longing again for the road behind us and the road ahead of us.
Just over five years ago, I joined Sojourn to the Past for one of its immersive Civil Rights history experiences for high school students. My son, Sam, took the journey along with 100+ peers from throughout the U.S.
In addition to serving as one of about 20 other chaperones, I was in charge of capturing and sharing media, along with official photographer Audra Gray. On the third day of our six-day journey, we had a private audience at The King Center in Atlanta with Rep. John Lewis, who passed last night of pancreatic cancer at age 80.
Rep. Lewis arrived late at our event. He was out the previous night celebrating his 75th birthday. He was worth the wait. A forceful speaker, his voice rose and fell to emphasize his points. You could still hear the hurt, even 50 years after he led the Bloody Sunday march across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, where Alabama state troopers cracked his skull.
Rep. Lewis sounded every bit as fresh and relevant as he did when he chaired the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and spoke at the March on Washington, in my view, even more powerfully than Dr. King in his “I Have A Dream” speech.
Sojourn tradition provides each person on a journey a private moment with guest speakers. Hugging Rep. Lewis, I thanked him for all he had done for our country. Then we shot this impromptu testimonial video for Sojourn.
Despite my decades of meeting “important” pro athletes, I had never experienced such gravitas. Although he rests in power now, Rep. Lewis will forever stand as the most important, impactful person I have ever met.
I love the smell of free coconut shrimp at Outback Steakhouse in the morning after the Minnesota Golden Gophers beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl. It smells like…victory.
Like crazy Colonel Kilgore, zealotry infused this historic Minnesota football season. For me that stemmed from an unusually spiritual visit with clients at Saint Thomas Academy.
My travel to the Catholic, boys, military, college-prep school was timed for the final home football game of the season. The purpose was to gather material for future alumni magazine and website stories from, among others, Coach Dan O’Brien, whom I had interviewed by phone for an oral history of the football program.
But before meeting O’Brien, there was other business and pleasure to pursue during this homecoming. First was a fantastic walleye dinner at Hazelwood with my friend Mary Hickey, who provided a primer in Catholicism during our childhood in a way that feeds my work with Saint Thomas Academy.
Life doesn’t get more Minnesota than a meal of the local lake delicacy and conversation spiced with Mary’s soulful, rooted values. That talk left me even more prepared for the next morning to finally set foot on the gorgeous grounds of the Academy.
Deborah Edwards — my direct client, and herself a former Gopher Sports marketer — had a full day of interviews and campus touring planned. Walking the halls of this institution, albeit in newer buildings on a different site than its 1885 founding, a sense of history and honor pervaded. You could see how kids would want to live out the Cadet Creed.
That also reflected in the “formation” ceremony, which the Cadets run with precision, formality and fun. They report their news, make announcements, present colors, pledge allegiance, accept competitive honors, receive the daily Senior Speech required of all graduating students, and exhibit the spirit expected on a Football Friday.
Even within the constraints of both the Catholic church and military hierarchy, many aspects of the Academy’s curriculum and social structure are very much of, by and for the students. Whatever else they learn, and that’s a lot, they learn how to make decisions and live with them.
Impressed by the History Room, with its century’s worth of medals and badges, the Innovation Center, with its student-built electric vehicles, the pool, the gym, the ceramics studio, the chapel, and most of all the people, I still welcomed the end of the school day. I wanted to roam the Academy’s acres in solitude and soak in more of its spirit, including a trail that contained the Stations of the Cross and led down to Rogers Lake.
Soon the sun set. The air chilled. The wind picked up. It started snowing sideways. It was a perfect night for football in Minnesota.
Mercifully, Deborah had arranged for a seat in the press box. That added yet another layer to my sense of homecoming and made the Cadets’ 40-3 defeat of Hill-Murray School even more enjoyable.
On my Lyft ride to campus Saturday morning to meet with Coach O’Brien, the driver’s chatter turned to football. Hearing of my years at the U, he asked if I knew Darrell Thompson, who still holds most of the major Gopher rushing records. Assured I’d interviewed Darrell several times back in the ’80s, the driver unspooled a string of his own memories about what a great guy Darrell was and still is and how they used to do non-profit work together to benefit youth in Minnesota.
That driver put me in the way-back machine, which may have been the best place for me, because the chat with Coach O’Brien (not to be revealed until the next article comes out), was even more old-school than the first. We concentrated on quality of character, covering every throwback value imaginable. Given that he was not quite two years removed from coaching for the Gophers, I came away confident that they would do what they did yesterday.
The rest of that day and night, I was walking on air, from hiking Minnehaha Falls to visiting David and Lori Fhima (a past partner in crime around the 1980s Gophers football scene) at their restaurant. It was October-in-Minnesota brisk outside, just as invigorating in the present as it was in the past.
New England is a tease. Hopeful leaf-peepers on the opposite coast — watching webcams and reading reports to help schedule the right flights — learn that a long-lingering New England summer delays the fall colors, and a too-early cold and wind strips the trees bare before we can get there.
Sometimes, the not knowing spices travel just right. You can plan perfectly for the Vatican or Taj Mahal, less so for a natural religious experience like the agony and the ecstasy of a New England autumn.
This fall, our schedule was set by Val’s conference attendance in Boston and the travel plans of our friends, Winky and Peter. As to leaf-peeping, in keeping with the stiff-upper-lip Calvinism that has ruled the region for four hundred years, we might get nothing and like it.
A surer thing was our first pilgrimage to Fenway Park. On the afternoon of a night game against the San Francisco Giants, Val finished her conference while I lunched with my childhood friend, Ross Bresler, at Summer Shack. We feasted on oysters and lobster roll, the first in a binge of which no Calvinist would approve.
Walking that meal off on Commonwealth Ave., Ross gave me the neighborhood download and listed his favorite Fenway haunts. I took in the art history class he teaches at Berklee College of Music and later met Val, Winky and Peter to hit the streets for a different kind of “cultchah” on the walk to Fenway.
The pre-game bar scene, especially Lansdowne Pub, heightened my decades-in-the-making anticipation. But nothing could have prepared me for the heart-skip upon entering the ballpark and then the bucket list first glimpse of the “Monstah.”
My physical reaction to the emotion of the moment shocked me. It took an hour to fully regain my breath. Head-swiveling and eye-scanning all the sights from our seats about twenty rows up from the Pesky Pole, I wondered whether it was the world’s most famous foul pole and suddenly realized its twin, struck by Carlton Fisk’s twelfth-inning homerun in game six of the 1975 World Series, might be even more famous.
What are the odds, I considered, of the two most famous foul poles standing in the same park? I both feared and embraced these mental meanderings. I worried about devoting brainspace to such minutiae and still congratulated myself on completing the pilgrimage that allowed for this foul pole epiphany.
That reverie ended at the start of a pre-game ceremonial handshake between Giants outfielder Mike Yastrzemski and his grandfather, Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski. The sky purpled over that famous Green Monster of a leftfield wall that shadowed Yaz’s career.
The next major sensation amid so many — Italian sausage scents, “R”s-beome-“Ah”s in the local dialect, the spinal twist needed in a hard narrow wooden seat for the forty-five-degree view of home plate — was the clang of Steven Vogt’s homerun off the Pesky Pole. In fifty years of watching baseball, I’d never heard anything like it. It never occurred to me that a foul pole would clang. Whatever sound Pudge Fisk’s homerun off the leftfield foul pole might have made in 1975 was drowned out by the crowd roar.
And it was again in 2019 when the outfield video board played a Chevrolet ad showing a montage of Fisk highlights set to Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock.” Whatever else happens at Fenway, they honor their history.
And their tradition.
Pondering tradition, I asked Peter what he’d missed most about New England in the decades since he’d left. “The stoicism,” he answered with all the elan of Calvin Coolidge. Then the Giants’ bats got hot and the night got cold, and we shivered stoically through a five-run Giants’ ninth and a quiet last three outs for the Sox.
The next day, Winky and Peter left for their country house in Norwich, Vermont. Val and I started toward Portland, Maine, stopping in Portsmouth, New Hampshire to eat at Surf, on the recommendation of a Bay Area colleague, who had waited tables there. The view was spectacular.
So was the lobster roll, washed down by a bottle of Lord Hobo Brewing Co. Boomsauce, which tasted as irresistible as its name. That lobster roll, though. The bread was so soft and buttery with just the right give, and the meat so fresh and sweet and juicy, that Val showed discomfort at my deep sighs and closed eyes. It was a “When Harry Met Sally” scene, but I was not faking.
In Portland that night, my high school friend, Daphne, took us to Duckfat, where you can guess what I ordered. Then we hit Blyth and Burrows, where we had a little downstairs speakeasy room to ourselves. We talked baseball and journalism and how both could help solve the world’s problems, just as we had since our teens, and we laughed a lot of the same laughs as we had then, plus some new ones until the night faded and so did we.
Daphne toured us around the Portland waterfront the next day, explaining its history and socio-economics, and leading us into mom-and-pop shops.
We stopped at The Porthole for a lunch of you know.
After the rest of Daphne’s tour of Portland, Val and I left for Norwich. We took the straight rural backroads route across New Hampshire, over the river and through the woods, which were just starting to turn red and yellow. Dusk brought us to Winky and Peter’s farmhouse, which was built in 1792 and was somehow historically significant in the westward migration of the Mormons.
For each of the next three syrup-slow days, we enjoyed home-cooked meals and cozy hardwood smoke smells around the fireplace. We stared at the trees in their yard and beyond and thought we could see them changing by the hour. On long walks through the hillsides, we glimpsed flurries of color here and there.
One afternoon, Peter and I golfed at a Donald Ross-designed nine-hole gem called Carter Country Club, which charged a near-criminal ten dollars for the privilege. The trees lining the fairways whispered autumn glory.
Too soon, it was time to fly back across the country. On our hurried interstate drive back to Boston, we saw this last little promise.
According to the webcams, we missed the peak by three weeks. Tantalized, we will return.
The air in Mexico City looked gray. It’s possible the sky was just overcast and hazy, but through the window of a taxi, still waking from a red-eye flight, the air itself was visibly gray. Gritty streets, graffiti, and construction dust led to the cleaner, hipsterish Roma neighborhood, where we would stay for the few days that I spent with my daughter, Eleni, before she left for solo travel adventure in Peru.
Home-base was Hotel MX Roma, a small building with welcoming staff…
…eclectic lobby furnishings, and vibrantly painted walls. Our room might not have been all of 200 square feet, but comfortably held a queen-sized bed, TV, breakfast nook, a jury-rigged place to hang clothes, a large, modern shower and gleaming fixtures, for about $60 per night.
Advice from my friend, Shelley, brought us to the neighborhood, and we were quick to follow the rest of her advice: “just eat good food and drink good mezcal!” Research revealed that the well-reviewed mezcaleria called El Palenquito was just a few blocks away. The bustling sidewalks felt safe and comfortable at all hours of the day and night. Other than language differences, we were just as much at ease as in any upscale neighborhood in the U.S. That bears mention here because of recent aspersions cast on Mexico by certain U.S. politicians.
Even the language differences disappeared inside El Palenquito, which played blues music on the speakers hidden in its low, dark, wooden ceiling, and whose English-speaking waitress educated us on the 50 or so mezcals on the menu and explained that the huge phallic symbol rising from the adjacent stone table was a tahona, a device hitched to a horse to aid in crushing agave as part of the mezcal manufacturing process.
Small glasses of Enmascarado 54 and Madrecuixe sent us into the warm night. We wandered to Jardin Pushkin and played with the locals’ dogs and children, all running around loose and fearless in the dark. This was where we saw the first of several kids throughout our visit face-plant into concrete and quickly raise themselves laughing instead of crying as so many American children would.
On our walk, we noted potential future bar and restaurant stops in our neighborhood and settled on the aromatic, frighteningly-open-air-but-crowded-enough-with-locals-to-convince-us Tacos Frontera. It was delicious and turned out to be a safe buffer for our mezcal nightcap, 400 Conejos, at Gin Gin.
The next day, January 6, was Dia de los Reyes (Three Kings Day), a major local holiday that celebrates the Three Wise Men’s visit to the baby Jesus. Throughout the day and night, wherever we went, hundreds of people hustled through the streets carrying large boxes of Rosca de Reyes, a cake in which one slice contains a figurine of the baby Jesus as a traditional prize.
We started our day walking from the heart of Roma to Chapultepec, a park roughly twice the size of New York’s Central Park. First stop was for street soccer.
A couple miles from our hotel, the streets widened to contain cobblestone boulevards beneath cooling canopies of trees and leaves. It was urban beauty that equaled anything I’d seen in Paris and led straight into the park. Its first major feature was the Monumento a los Niños Heroes, recognizing child military cadets who died while defending Chapultepec Castle, the last major resistance to U.S. troops who had invaded Mexico in 1846.
From there, the architecture of the Museum of Modern Art drew us in. The free museum kept us there for an hour, entranced by the interior design and the quality of its collection. One exhibit covered the oppression of women in Mexico, and even beyond that exhibit, themes of oppression, violence and sensory distortion were vivid and pronounced.
Back outside, we aimed for Castillo de Chapultepec. We navigated streets closed to traffic but crowded with tents, booths and their resident hawkers of T-shirts, candy, umbrellas, blankets, dolls, keychains, sunglasses, wrestling masks, etc. The walk uphill to the castle at altitude on our first day in town tired us, so we stopped occasionally for long views of greenery unfolding before us for miles and then multiple tall-towered skylines in the distance.
The cost of the castle tour in pesos and time that we wanted to spend outside chased us. We decided to rent bikes from a roadside kiosk. Suspiciously, the rental agent required us to surrender our passports, but we were feeling bold after surviving Tacos Frontera.
The ride through the Bosque section of the park was especially beautiful. We stopped at various water features and statuary, rode past families pick-nicking on the grass and wound through a military base, all within the confines of Chapultepec.
The bikes were due back by 3. We rested and phoned my former colleague and Mexico City native Raul Escalante, who suggested how to spend the hours before he could meet us at the hotel at 8:30 to give us a night-time driving tour. On Raul’s advice, we Ubered to Palacio de Bellas Artes. Entering the Centro Historico district, traffic slowed to the typical congested pace of New York or Chicago. We felt compelled to explore more widely than deeply, so we spent just a few minutes admiring Bellas Artes.
We walked a mile or so on Av Francisco I. Madero, leading from Bellas Artes to Zocalo, the city’s historical central plaza. First stop was Antiguo Palacio de Iturbide, which Raul had recommended for its interior architecture.
On our way, we saw this sad scene in the middle of the street.
Where the street dead-ends into Zocalo, we saw Catedral Metropolitana de la Ciudad de México, the largest cathedral in North America.
And these flags flapped above the square.
Raul also recommended Salon Corona, a legendary taco joint, which in Chicago terms, is a marriage between Manny’s and the Wiener’s Circle as far as both food quality and crowd energy.
Raul met us that night to cover more ground in his car than we could on foot. He drove us past his haunts in Roma, the neighboring La Condesa district, and then back down to Zocalo. He explained the significance of certain historic buildings in socio-political terms, revealing his proud leftist leanings.
We learned a lot, including the fact that Mexico City is beautiful at night with bustle and lights to match any other large international city. Back at the hotel, Raul helped us negotiate with the desk to arrange for our next day’s tour of Teotihuacan.
The next morning, anticipating a vigorous hike around and up and down the famous pyramids of those pre-Aztec ruins at Teotihuacan, we filled up on breakfast at Belmondo, a hearty bowl of scrambled eggs, beans, tortillas and nopales (cactus leaves). Some mariachi stopped by. After one song, the leader grabbed his cell phone, perhaps to take an order for his next appearance, and I wondered if there was some sort of mariachi dispatch service.
We met our shuttle to Teotihuacan at the hotel and picked up another dozen or so guests at various hotels. The shuttle wound through some now-familiar streets down to Zocalo before heading north through the poorest-looking streets we’d seen yet and then onto a wide highway that passed through miles of industrial ugly followed by more miles of piles of rubble disguised as houses, stacked improbably into hillsides, the brilliant pastels of their exteriors at odds with whatever pains of poverty lurked inside.
About an hour outside Mexico City, we hit the outskirts of the pyramids and rumbled down an unpaved path past cottage-industry shops that had sprung up around the attraction. Rafael, the guide who explained the history and scenery on our bus ride, gave a tutorial in avoiding eye contact with the vendors who would accost us soon after we left the bus.
In the dusty parking lot, a couple of our bus-mates from Los Angeles complained so loudly about having only three hours to explore and about needing “el bano” that Rafael could not finish his speech. He pointed them across the Avenue of the Dead, the main drag through ancient Teotihuacan, and we would never see them again.
Rafael told us about the pyramids mirroring the surrounding mountains and which astronomical phenomena could be experienced atop the pyramids during the vernal equinox. He told us what time to re-convene, to follow the rules on the printed signs, and otherwise have the run of the place, walking and climbing as we saw fit.
As predicted, the vendors descended, but they understood body language well enough. Because we were closer to the Pyramid of the Moon, we chose to climb it first, saving the imposing Pyramid of the Sun for our finale. It is hard to know what sense of spirituality in such a place is real vs. imagined or even implanted by what we read and hear. But I have long felt in tune with beliefs of indigenous people, especially when walking in their footsteps, and I felt that at Teotihuacan.
The steepness of the stones was imposing. My normal workout involves sprinting on steps cut into hillsides, but this would be a slow slog, due to narrow space for footfalls, the creakiness of my knees and the altitude. I kept hold of the wire that ran up the spine of the steps, and I kept my head down for fear of dizziness or disorientation sending me tumbling back down the jagged corners of the stones. Looking down also let me study the stone patterns and narrow my focus to what it might have meant to a guy climbing this structure when it was built in about 100 A.D.
Between heartbeat, breath and where my mind went, that minute of climbing moved me. At the top, I felt elevated, literally, but more importantly, spiritually, by how far I could see and the strange, fleeting impressions of unprecedented shapes, angles and shadows.
I was cautious near the edges of the pyramid, but pushed myself as far as I dared in order to experience the place as fully as possible.
Eleni had stopped to check out some other ruins, so she climbed after me, and we lingered atop the absolutely mystifying Pyramid of the Moon until we remembered there was much more of the Avenue of the Dead to explore.
We still faced the harder climb up the much taller Pyramid of the Sun.
By the time we reached the top of that one, the crowd there and the deadline for the bus soon sent us scrambling back down.
The bus departed Teotihuacan proper and took us to an appointed nearby shop, where we enjoyed an outstanding English-language demonstration of the uses of the maguey plant (juice for fermenting into pulque and mezcal, string, needle and thread, paper, etc.). Then we learned about obsidian, a stone used for tools, weapons and art. For example, looking through a quarter-inch slab of obsidian straight at the late-afternoon sun was almost exactly the same experience as seeing the sun through eclipse glasses.
Inside, I bought an obsidian figurine that spoke to me. Because of the intrigue it holds for me visually, and as a reminder of the spiritual powers I felt at Teotihuacan, I have given it a place of honor as the only object atop my writing desk. The impetus to remove the other clutter testifies to the power of this talisman as a force toward clearer mental and emotional paths to better writing. The life-death motif of the figurine reminds me of the existential importance that writing plays in my life and of the nature of time — the balance of urgency and patience — that fuels my writing now that I am likely midway through my life.
The bus home arrived to a perfect sunset.
We hopped off at the stop nearest Zocalo so we could spend early evening there. Our walk took us past this stunning monument to Benito Juarez.
When we reached Catedral Metropolitana de la Ciudad de México, only Spanish-language tours were available. Eleni decided she would understand well enough, and though Teotihuacan maxed me out spiritually, I could still take in more art and history.
Conventional wisdom is that not much good happens in Zocalo after about 8 p.m., so we caught an Uber back to Roma and enjoyed the outdoor seating at El Palenquito, followed by a nightcap of Bocanegra beer at Soul La Roma, yet another hipster bar, this one marked by the recent vintage motorcycles on display.
We built our last full day in Mexico City around a visit to Frida Kahlo’s childhood home, La Casa Azul. Research for food in that neighborhood led us to Tostadas de Coyoacan, another better-than-fast-food-and-most-fancy-food meal, along the lines of Tacos Frontera and Salon Corona. We sat at a counter with mounds of tostada toppings, maybe 20-30 styles of chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, ceviche, octopus, and cow’s foot (“Tostadas de pata res”), which made both Eleni and me gag.
We had 1:30 tickets for Frida, so we walked off the tostadas in the block-long, block-deep Coyoacan marketplace. It was a compressed version of the carnival-barkers at Chapultepec, but these stalls were crowded on top of each other, two or three times our height, and crammed around narrow aisles, plied by singers and dancers. It was an overwhelm of color, raw and cooked food, textiles, clothes, accessories, toys, and household goods.
In need of sensory relief, we left the marketplace for a trot to Trotsky’s house.
Then we spent about an hour at Casa Azul.
We had planned to visit a nearby bar made famous by frequent visits from Frida and Diego, but we could not find it. We called Raul, who directed us to its unmarked location two doors down from where we’d looked. We decided to meet there, and I had the joy of texting him: “We are seated beneath a bull’s head, watching Man City v Lyon. Heaven.”
Over one Rey Zapoteco and one Siniestro, amid the historic bullfight posters and beneath the bull’s head, we talked politics and watched the waiters dance to mariachi. It was the kind of place you could imagine sitting all day, every day just to stay out of the heat.
Raul walked us through the plaza to his favorite ice cream shop and then drove us through the University neighborhood. We stopped to admire the Olympic stadium.
Then, Raul drove us through crooked, cobbled, narrow streets of San Angel, the quietest neighborhood we visited. As night fell, he led us to a church where one of his relatives had been married and then set us up with his friends at El Carmen Deli for a fancy dinner.
My mezcal came with a side of fried grasshoppers. Eleni’s gin and tonic was a tableside preparation that involved fresh-smoked rosemary infused inside the upside-down glass, plus a few citrus rubs and juniper. Dinner was beef tongue taquitos, fillet, sea bass, garlic mashed potatoes, and asparagus. We went home early, because the next morning, we were expected at 9 at the home of Guillermo “Billy” Grimm, who, after I had interviewed him by phone for a magazine article last year, invited me to visit if ever staying in his city.
Billy is an octogenarian, an extraordinarily accomplished businessman, former government minister, and was a primary mover in the development of Cancun. My article for the St. Thomas Academy alumni magazine covered his time at that school, which had served as a springboard for his success.
We Ubered to his home in Polanco, where his housekeeper, Rosario, and dog, Max, greeted us. We waited in his living room amid beautiful art and furniture, gazing at his garden courtyard. He descended his staircase dressed perfectly in tie, cuffed white shirt, tailored trousers, vest, herringbone jacket, gleaming loafers, and red and blue striped socks to match his tie.
Billy led us back upstairs to see his office and what he jokingly called his “ego wall” filled with about a hundred diplomas, certifications, citations and commemorative photos: Billy with the minister of this and the secretary of that, and most joyously for Billy, Billy with Melina Mercouri, the star of “Never on Sunday.” Among those wall hangings:
Breakfast was some of the freshest fruit I have ever tasted, juice, delicate cheese, chilaquiles and espresso. Between his dress, his taste, his age, his air of distinction, his inquisitiveness about Eleni’s upcoming trip to Peru, the warmth of his conversation and his wisdom, Billy reminded me of my father. It is a compliment to both of them.
Billy drove us aggressively in his Benz to Museo Nacional de Antropología. It’s a world-class museum, also in Chapultepec, that we had skipped in favor of the outdoors during our prior day in the park. Between hugs and long good-byes, Billy recommended we visit the outdoor statue of Tlaloc, the rain god, a 23-foot tall, 300,000-pound monolith that was moved, despite much controversy, from Coatlinchan to its current location, and upon installation in 1964 was blamed for historic rains in Mexico City.
There is much to recommend the museum. We spent four hours there, taking occasional breaks to stretch and relax in the sun-drenched courtyard or to enjoy a light misting from its water fixture.
One display explained the origin of “400 Conejos” as a phrase from the Aztecs that described the effects of alcohol rendering a person’s brain and behavior the equivalent of “400 rabbits.” Armed with that knowledge as we left the museum, we Ubered back to Roma, stopped in at Gin Gin, and ordered “a total of 800 rabbits” to brace us for that night’s flights to our next destinations.
In the cool jazz quiet of Gin Gin, revisiting our favorite memories of those five days in Mexico City, we realized that was not nearly enough time to see all we wanted. In fact, it might have been just enough to convince us to take a return trip.
The longer I live, the more clearly I hear what the universe is telling me. I listened a few years ago when Kathy Bresler recommended a subscription to the BrainPickings.org e-newsletter, which on July 17, 2017 covered When Things Fall Apart by the Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron. The excerpts in the BrainPickings newsletter made Pema’s book seem a good read for Tina, my supervisor at Positive Coaching Alliance, who was on leave because things fell apart for her when her father faced sudden, serious health challenges.
The day I learned of Pema’s book, I mentioned it during a phone call with my friend, Ann, who lives up in Kennewick, Wash. Ann called it the most important book in her life, key to sustaining her sobriety.
The next day I mentioned the book over lunch with my co-worker, Shelley. She also exclaimed the book’s importance as a basis of her own Buddhism and a force that helped her accept and embrace even the most difficult changes life can bring.
When several influential people in my life all at once try to fill the same gap in my knowledge or experience, I understand that the universe is trying to tell me something. So I listened. I read When Things Fall Apart and gave Tina her own copy when she returned from leave. Less than two weeks later, on August 3, Tina tearfully told me she had to lay me off just a month shy of the 12th anniversary of her hiring me. My last day there would be August 16.
Within minutes of the initial shock, Pema’s message surfaced in my mind. Her lessons about the inevitable, painful change that life brings helped me survive that moment, and because her message had arrived so serendipitously, it seemed ordained that I could accept and embrace this difficult change. I became attached to When Things Fall Apart the way other people attach to their Bible or Koran.
The book’s arrival as largesse, courtesy of the universe, got me thinking how some turns of phrase equate inexplicable good fortune with interstellar events. If something is meant to be, “it’s in the stars.” Right-place-at-the-right-time moments happen because “the planets must be aligned.”
My cosmic musings soon had me hearing the universe tell me to go to Oregon for the solar eclipse. Unemployed and in need of a vision for next career steps, I planned to leave in three days, listen to rivers while sleeping on their beds whenever possible, cross Crater Lake off my bucket list, and witness the eclipse in its path of totality at Madras, Oregon.
I packed my Mazda with camping gear, road snacks, Pema’s book and another that guides my spirituality, Luther Standing Bear’s Land of the Spotted Eagle. Preparing for what amounted to my version of a Lakota vision quest (which, in Trump times, I knew would involve socially purposeful work), I needed Standing Bear’s consideration of the Great Mystery of nature at the heart of Lakota spirituality and what the wasichu has wrought.
Leaving home the morning of August 19, I spent the first hour of my vision quest seeking NASA-approved eclipse glasses, which 7-Eleven stores were offering for free. Several stores were out of stock. It dawned on me that if my pace to Oregon did not speed up, there would be no need of eclipse glasses, anyway, and chances were that I would find another 7-Eleven along the 550-plus miles to Madras.
I crossed the glassy San Francisco Bay over the San Mateo Bridge, passed glass towers of East Bay towns trying to be cities, rolled over decrepit railroad tracks built in a time when our country had a future, past dust devil dancefloors of fallow farms that fail to feed the fieldhands who work to feed us, only to be demonized and deported back to the violence they feared enough to flee to our violence. At a Safeway in Redding, where I bought water, almonds, peanut butter and beef jerky, the parking lot was full of tweakers. But those frustrating Americanisms were somewhat soothed by a burger and a beer and the sight of Calatrava’s famous Sundial Bridge.
Then came the natural scenery of the Lake Shasta area, Castle Crags and Black Butte and other majestic-but-less-famous-than-Mount-Shasta formations. Depending on the highway curve, they resembled the new problems in my life, looming deceptively large from a distance and seeming to shrink to less imposing heights up close.
Snow-covered Mount Shasta offered no such illusions. It is just one giant mountain.
The next natural feature of note after the split off on Highway 97 and crossing the Oregon border was Upper Klamath Lake. Forest fire smoke gave an unnatural orange to the setting sun, and from one angle, Aspen Butte slashed diagonally across the orb, so it looked like a quarter-eaten pumpkin pie.
Near dark, I decided to camp at Jackson Kimball State Forest, pitching my tent by the light of my cell phone clenched between my teeth. Coyotes howled most of the night in a surprising variety of voices, some so distinct – real, dreamed or imagined through on-again-off-again sleep – that I picked out the sounds of several individuals. They became distant pets in the night, playing a rhythm-and-echo game with a herd of terrorized cattle bellowing in the distance.
I hit the road at ten for Crater Lake. Hiking the Rim Trail reveals one of those rare views that match its hype. Crater Lake is a blue you can’t see anywhere else.
About 90 minutes later, wildfire smoke almost completely obscured the lake.
The park offers a lot of other scenery along a loop drive, including Vidae Falls.
Out the southern edge of the park, Highway 62 rolled to the Rogue River National Forest, where I pitched my tent at Natural Bridge. This would be my first night of this trip to listen to a river and perhaps receive a vision. That seemed to call for some form of purification ritual analogous to the Lakota inipi.
While pale in comparison to what a traditional vision seeker endures, my wood-gathering turned into a self-imposed, quixotic, ascetic challenge to carry as much as possible as far as possible in the sun-setting heat. However brave I felt four days after being cast out from my professional home, that wood-gathering was a needed emotional purge. Then, in the cool dusk and overnight, the river whispered especially sweet secrets.
And in the morning, less than a mile’s hike away, the Rogue roared. It reminded me of Lower Falls in Yellowstone – not as tall and majestic, but just as effective in eliciting involuntary ego loss.
The river’s whisper and its roar both echoed inside me. Otherwise, I felt empty. Back in the car, creative and artistic visions took shape. I drove blissfully to Bend, where the universe delivered me those 7-Eleven eclipse glasses. I’d only snacked since that burger two days before in Redding, so lunch was a steak sandwich splurge at Deschutes Brewing.
Friends had recommended Bend for its natural beauty and recreation opportunities, but lingering there would keep me from finding a campground close enough to Madras to get there in time for the next morning’s eclipse, given the apocalyptic traffic predictions. First choice, Tumalo State Park, was packed. A ranger said she’d just called Prineville, and they had plenty of space, but none by the time I got there. Jasper Point also had no vacancies. I asked the campground hostess what she would do in my shoes, as I did not want to violate any laws sleeping roadside in my car.
“Can you do without electricity?”
“OK, well, you see that stop sign, about 50 yards outside the gate? You take a right, onto that unpaved road. Anywhere you see a pullout is a campsite. They’re free, because they’re undeveloped, just a pit toilet. I’m so sorry, but that’s the best I can do.”
The jagged rocky road threatened my tires, which were overdue for replacement, so I took the first turnout. Beyond the parking area, and that pit toilet (which, on my third night on the road, was the cleanest I’d had yet), a grassy hill sloped down to the reservoir. It lapped at the shore during a mellow sunset and all through my sleep and when I awoke at sunrise.
In Prineville, I stopped at the first place that sold coffee, figuring it was not the kind of town to offer much selection. The coffee was bitter and burnt. Leaving out the other end of town took me right past a Starbucks, but I did not want to pay for more coffee. Instead I paid penance for my metropolitan bias, which assumed that Prineville could not offer quality coffee. Newly sensitive to my narrow views, rolling down the road to Madras past rural poverty and dead soldier tributes, it was easier to see how people in so-called “fly-over country” would vote differently.
The hysterical traffic forecast never materialized. A few pockets slowed over the last five miles. Many cars randomly pulled over for eclipse viewing from the shoulder, and some paid sites had their fields covered with rows of RVs. By eight, I was parked in downtown Madras, sipping delicious coffee at a picnic table in a food truck court near Sahalee Park, and testing angles toward the sun with my cell phone camera on a tripod.
I tried tricks I’d heard, such as draping eclipse glasses over the camera lens, but no cell phone photo can do an eclipse justice. That’s OK. Relying on mind’s-eye photos can make an experience more memorable.
The sky slowly darkened. The air cooled. People murmured and shouted as totality neared. Then, for about two minutes, all that remained of the sun was a brilliant blazing liquid-chrome rim the color of the Silver Surfer. Two days after seeing the nowhere-but-here blue of Crater Lake, I saw the nowhere-but-here-and-never-but-now shine of a disappeared sun.
Later on when the crowd thinned out I wandered the streets looking at souvenirs. I left around noon so I could make it to Ann’s house in Kennewick on time for the dinner we’d planned. It took an hour to get out of Madras and another hour before traffic loosened enough to really move.
Around three, a tire blew out. From the shoulder, with cars speeding dangerously close, and no experience changing tires, I called Mazda roadside assistance. I was so far from anywhere identifiable that, even with Mazda using its GPS, they asked for descriptions of physical aspects of the landscape to help figure out where to send help. They said they would have to call back.
While waiting, I re-read parts of When Things Fall Apart to remind me how to embrace this unwelcome change. Minutes later an official highway rescue tow-truck pulled up and two real men put my spare on in about 10 minutes. As they did, Mazda called back and said it would cost some hundreds of dollars and at least three hours because of my remote location, and by the way, didn’t I know that the roads were crowded because of people wanting to see the eclipse earlier that day?
The tow-truck crew thought the spare could make it to Kennewick if I kept my speed under fifty. That meant I would not reach Hermiston for tire replacement before closing time, so I should pull over and check the heat of the spare compared to the other tires, because if the spare blew I’d be stuck in the countryside until I could get a tow. I offered them $20 for beer in a coded attempt to regain a sense of masculinity, but they refused it.
Less than thirty minutes later, I was in a seven-mile back-up in Wasco, waiting an hour-and-a-half to turn from highway 97 to highway 84. But (I summoned Pema), what beautiful rock formations out my windows! Such intricate Mighty Favog faces and patterns you’d see as a child when you had nothing but time! What a blessing to recall the eclipse image—“best album cover ever!”
Other than fear of tire troubles, I loved 84, which skirts the Columbia River with its barges, its John Day Dam, its barren hillsides, and its spectacular swallowing of the setting sun in my rearview mirror as I hit Hermiston. The spare was warm, but I decided, in all my vast automotive expertise, that it would be OK.
During another 90-minute delay in a two-mile backup to get onto 82, my rearview showed a drunk staggering up behind me holding a wrinkled bag of booze. He wandered past again, coming from the other direction a half hour later, holding a new bag, and it was another 15 minutes before I saw the liquor store.
Once through that back-up, the homestretch to Ann’s house was a grooved road over the bridge and onto the interstate. I encouraged my tires out loud that they could make it. They did! And only five hours late for dinner! Ann and her husband, Jim, and I spoke deeply that night and over the next two days. Some of the topics were personal and painful, born of the trying experiences that had led us to Pema.
The eclipse experience remained vibrant, too. Folks standing in line with me at Discount Tire started talking about it. The guy in front of me showed me a photo on his phone that matched my memory but far exceeded the quality of anything I could shoot on my phone.
“How did you get that on your phone?” I asked.
“I transferred it from my $20,000 camera.”
After two days of rest and real food and clean sheets at Ann’s place, I took off for Portland, completely relaxed and able to enjoy the piney scenery of the Columbia River Gorge, near the town of Hood River. I stopped to see Horsetail Falls.
I had to make that quick to be on time for my visit with Pastor Craig Brown, whom I had not seen since our playground basketball days in high school. We caught up for a couple hours sitting in the sanctuary he was rebuilding in his historic church, and I heard every war story he was willing to share from the streets of Milwaukee to his tours as an Army infantry sergeant in Iraq. We had taken much different paths to the peace we felt that day.
That night I slept on a river bed about 40 miles outside Portland at the Gales Creek Campground in Tillamook State Forest.
In the morning, I aimed for Silver Falls State Park, about a two-hour drive, and decided to try the Trail of 10 Falls.
It was one of the most spectacular hikes of my life, winding past, behind, and under the 10 waterfalls that provide the trail’s name.
Between waterfalls, the trail meanders along a creek and through dense forests of fern and moss in every shade of green you can imagine and some you can’t.
The beauty at every step helped ease the pain that accumulated from all those steps. Even without the waterfalls, the hike through such rich and varied greenery would have been worth it. But when you hear that thunderous falling water and wonder what it will look like, and then catch a glimpse where the trail curves, your pain fades, and you keep on until just the right slant of late afternoon light strikes the falling wall of water and rainbow flame licks dance from its edge.
Going around the bend after one of the falls, I saw a woman standing on the trail, writing in her notebook. I stopped, “Are you a poet?” I asked. It started a conversation that probably lasted 10 minutes.
We covered the usual where-you-from and what-brought-you-here, but what had brought us each there was deep. She’d been eclipsed, too, something about a man and then the need to drive from Ohio just to watch the sun — which keeps us all alive — disappear in broad daylight and then re-appear to let us know that even apparent cosmic cataclysm is just an illusion.
We fellow road warriors, wanderers and wonderers were both so raw, so vulnerable and awestruck from recent past days of packed senses and surges of urgency that soon we were both near tears. Even as we each acknowledged our unusual openness while it was unfolding, it still seemed completely natural that we strangers bare souls.
From my backpack, I pulled out Pema for a passage that would remind us both that everything would be OK. Some other tangent, maybe what we’d each observed on our hikes, prompted me to also pull out Standing Bear and flip – more quickly than I expected to be able, as though I’d been practicing – to the page where he shares the Lakota wisdom “He iye ki ya mani yo” (“Recognize everything as you walk.”)
I realized that between my five-day beard, my camp smell, my fatigue, my sensory overwhelm from the waterfalls and the ferns and the eclipse, and now my proselytizing from two strange and off-the-beaten-path books, that she was ready to back-pedal down the trail. I also caught myself experiencing for the first time a faith so full that I could not prevent its overflow. But she’d had enough, so I quieted and wished her well, happy for the mindblow that waited for her in the waterfall around the bend that I’d just come around.
Finishing the trail at seven I was exhausted and in minor pain. Sleep sounded good, but I doubted my luck at finding any more perfect river beds on this trip.
Instead, I loaded up on diner food and coffee and sped 10 hours through the starry night back to the Bay Area, at home on the road, comfortable with being eclipsed in a universe that showed me there are times when things fall together.
In the beginning, I thought of baseball as soon as Val told me we were going to the Dominican Republic, the offshore home of two great American pastimes – baseball and colonialism – that meld in a steamy stew of cultural imperialism.
My wife, Val, works for a software firm that each summer takes its distributed workforce out for a retreat. Celebrating the company’s 10th anniversary, the founder this year hosted employees’ families, too. About 80 of us from the U.S., South America and Europe met at Dreams-Punta Cana, an all-inclusive resort on the Dominican Republic’s east coast.
Where some folks’ fantasies run toward sun and sand, mine turn to bat and ball. I mentally unwrapped a pack of Dominican all-star baseball cards: Pedro Martinez, Vladimir Guerrero, Juan Marichal, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, Rico Carty, the euphoniously named Julian Javier, and those two tragic figures from my beloved Chicago Cubs, Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou.
I started plotting how to find the heart of Dominican baseball, knowing that the company’s retreat agenda left little time for side-trips, especially when the destination was “I’ll know it when I see it.” It would be the mythic rock-strewn lot full of skinny shoeless boys fielding bad hops with ragged gloves (or none) and rocketing line drives off nailed-together bats, because, as the local saying goes in explaining Dominican players’ aggressiveness at the plate, “You can’t walk your way off the island.”
Weeks before our trip, I location-scouted by phone, first with my friend and former sports-business colleague, Valerin Lopez, a Dominican native raised in New York, who occasionally returned to the island. Then I checked in with my baseball guru Terry Shapiro, whose expertise lies in Colombia, but who knows everyone. I emailed Gene Corr, whom I met on a discussion panel at a screening of his film — “Ghost Town to Havana” — about a baseball coach from inner-city Oakland taking his team to play in Cuba. Gene connected me with Tommy Goodman of the Caribbean Educational and Baseball Foundation. None offered specifics on when and where I might see my vision.
So I just started looking as soon as our flight landed. On the half-hour ride to the resort, the airport shuttle bus windows showed mostly a concrete landscape of strip malls and cell-phone towers. If not for the Spanish on the billboards, we could have been 10 miles outside of any U.S. city.
But the view changed inside the gate that swings open at the front of Dreams-Punta Cana to swallow whole busloads of tourists and in the high-ceilinged lobby of the main building, where fans whir over wicker furniture that invites your already-heat-and-humidity-weary self to rest and wait for the waitress to bring whatever you drink and as much as you want of it or more. From there a wide marble spiral staircase leads down to a disco, a casino, a theatrical stage that hosts a nightly revue of stereotype island entertainment, a gift shop, several restaurants, and a cigar stand.
Outside the building is an amusement area with a video game arcade, pool table, foosball, ping-pong, a climbing wall, an archery range, basketball and tennis courts and a batting cage. Within the one-mile circumference of the perimeter road, another dozen three-story guestroom buildings surround the half-mile long central swimming pool and other amenities, including a massage and hydrotherapy spa, a flamingo pond, lawn patches, foot bridges, a waterfall, and a bar or restaurant about every 50 yards, including that holy grail, the swim-up bar. The whole complex dead-ends into a plush beach and calm turquoise water.
Val and I, along with our “millennial” children, Eleni and Sam, headed out from our suite ready for lunch at the restaurant nearest the beach followed by tossing a baseball around on the sand. Playing catch on our walk to lunch, we started hearing “Beisbol!” from waiters at the other poolside bars and restaurants.
One of them held up his hands in the international “throw-it-here” sign. His return throw showed enough control, break and style that we stopped to exchange tips on grips and other pitching tricks in his broken English and Sam’s broken Spanish. One of my knuckleball experiments landed in a thick hedge. Our new friend, Francisco, waded right in, nevermind his server’s jacket, and found the ball.
It was the first of many humble acts of service from the resort staff, who make Dreams-Punta Cana so special. Later in our stay, I thanked a waiter for the quality of the coffee and asked where to buy two pounds. He did not know, but 10 minutes later brought the ground coffee in bags and said there would be no charge. On my way out, I gave him $20 to cover the cost of the coffee and a tip. His eyes widened like he’d seen a ghost.
I could only imagine his life, presumably poor like most everyone on the island (thus, the baseball players’ commitment to swing their way “off the island”) and feeling forced to meet the whims of, mostly, descendants of the colonialists that created that poverty. Then my white-guilt moment faded into an easy weekend rhythm of eating, drinking, pool lounging, and an occasional run or Frisbee game or baseball catch on the beach followed by an ocean dip and hitting the indoor bars to watch World Cup soccer.
That weekend, Sam told me he’d planned with Francisco to get a few of his colleagues to commandeer a resort shuttle on Tuesday and drive us all to a ballfield in Higuey. It seemed we would have something even better than that baseball moment I’d envisioned, actually playing with the locals.
But first, on Monday, Eleni and I joined about 10 of Val’s co-workers for a kayaking trip in Parque Nacional Los Haitises led by Explora Ecotour. Our shuttle left painfully early in the morning, but I was jolted from self-pity after about 45 minutes at first glimpse of the island’s tragic poverty.
Some highway stretches just showed a blur of misery. Other times, traffic slow-rolled through whole towns of crumbling buildings, missing walls or roofs or both, skeletal elders seated on concrete floors in the hope-sapping heat and humidity, decrepit fume-spitting motorcycles with children perched precariously on handle bars, and cave-chested, rib-bare boys on horseback.
Some towns’ commercial centers consisted of a school surrounded by razor wire, a barber shop, a restaurant, a bar with a sign for “no menores/no armes de fuegos.” The best-dressed wore NBA team t-shirts commemorating championships never-won – the ultimate hand-me-down U.S. cultural detritus — answering the question of what happens to the pre-printed championship t-shirts for the teams that don’t win a game seven and confirming to those wearing the disposable losing-team shirts that the dominant U.S. culture also treats them as disposable losers.
Beyond some of these town centers lay scenic backdrops of forests layered in every shade of green imaginable, sloping toward the ocean that displayed just as many blues. When the road rose you could see both heaven and hell.
The final stretch to the national park was a pitted, unpaved path. Our Explora Ecotour guide, Eloisa, started pointing out features of plant and animal life, including the cattle egret, a bird that lives symbiotically by eating insects off the cattle that the insects otherwise would eat. Eloisa, a biology student from Venezuela (and therefore now practically a refugee), knew her stuff.
She hired local on-water guides at the kayak launch and led our easy paddle on the brackish green river, usually no wider than 20 feet, beneath a mangrove canopy. Several times she directed us to the river banks to let local power boats pass, and she alerted us to sights we could have missed, such as a blue heron picking off the tiny crabs that scuttled up the mangrove root.
Where the river emptied into a bay, our paddle power picked up. Eloisa led us for about a mile across the bay toward a cliff she described as a bite of cheese. The frigatebirds that soared above us with their distinct scissors-tails she called “air pirates” for their practice of stealing prey mid-air from other birds. An armada of pelicans flew past, low and large.
We nestled up to the cheese-bite cliff, felt it, eyed it from all angles to find patterns, forms and faces like you do when looking at clouds. We paddled around some smaller outcroppings of rock and coral for about 15 minutes until it was time to turn back across the bay, working hard in the heat, and then cooling again under the mangrove canopy.
Back up the pitted path in the town of Sabana de la Mar, lunch was fried fish and plantains and rice and beans beneath the thatched roof of Restaurant Jhonson. Wondering about the poverty, I asked Eloisa, probably less delicately than I hoped, how she felt about Explora Ecotour contributing to the economy but also potentially opening the region to further exploitation.
Her calm answer stressed the positive impact of any outside money, even the portion of our fees that bought us lunch. Eloisa detailed the exploitation wrought by Brazilian construction and engineering company Odebrecht SA, whose corruption scandal forced it to abandon a local project, and then she showed us the fallout on a walk of the town’s battered pier, another foreground of want against a beautiful backdrop.
Tuesday morning we trained for the baseball game Sam had planned with Francisco. Sam, Eleni and I visited the batting cage and its gleeful old coach who yelled “hola!” each time he fed a ball into the pitching machine. Carlos, the husband of one of Val’s colleagues, joined us in the cage. A Venezuelan now playing pro baseball in Italy, Carlos proved that he was our best chance against the stuff Francisco showed us on day one outside the restaurant.
At the appointed hour, we waited for Francisco on the wicker chairs at the front of the resort, but he no-showed. The next day we learned that Francisco’s broken English and Sam’s broken Spanish had left us waiting for Francisco to bring the shuttle while he had spent the whole day at the stadium in Higuey, wondering when we were going to show up on that same shuttle. My baseball dream was dashed.
For our last full day in country, Eleni and I joined a group taking the tour bus to Santo Domingo. Our guide this time was “Nacho,” who sounded like Garrett Morris’ Chico Escuela character and looked like Godfrey Cambridge, circa “Watermelon Man.” Nacho was in his sixties, a retired educator, now earning money and perhaps peace of mind by setting some historical records straight for tourists.
His quasi-minstrel comedy act strained to keep us entertained enough to listen to the not-funny truth. His speech ranged from “fasten your seat belt” to “don’t engage street vendors” to “stay with our group so you don’t miss the bus and pay for a $250 taxi home” to “Christopher Columbus landed in 1492, when the island was home to 600,000 native Tainos, and 13 years later they were all dead.”
Throughout most of the three-hour ride, Nacho bantered with the driver, Enrique, and raised his voice to a feminine tone when joking about the local MamaJuana aphrodisiac elixir of rum, red wine, honey and herbs. Mid-act Nacho started working us for positive reviews and tips.
Unlike the local roads of our kayaking trip, the interstate-type highway kept us more distant from the worst views of poverty. Nacho still made his points about the sugar cane industry growing on the backs of slaves and who held power and land at what point in history, dropping the names of property owners, such as Beyonce, Robert Redford, Liza Minelli, Oscar de la Renta, and Donald Trump.
At our pit stop, Nacho warned us to be back on the bus in 15 American minutes, because 15 Dominican minutes would be more like three weeks. Re-boarding, Nacho counted each of us as we passed him in the aisle and said “Forty-four” as he tapped my shoulder. I said, “Just like Hank Aaron.”
He smiled wide and said, “Ricardo Carty’s old teammate!” When I recited Rico Carty’s .366 batting average that won him the 1970 National League batting title, Nacho said, “I use be berry berry good beisbol.”
His schtick stayed just this side of revealing a minstrel’s self-hate, which could have had me hating him and myself for complicity in his loss of dignity. But he knew when to quit that act. The skies darkened and sprinkled as we neared Santo Domingo. Enrique slowed the bus and Nacho directed attention to the Christopher Columbus Lighthouse, an ambitious and expensive piece of architecture that had drawn disdain for seeming to celebrate the genocide its namesake started.
Our three hours walking along cobblestones in Santo Domingo centered on Columbus: a palace, a museum, whips, chains, cuffs, branding irons, Bibles, canons. Another stop was a 4-D movie complete with slamming theater seats and sea spray to depict the 1586 conquest of the city by Sir Francis Drake. We visited the National Pantheon where an honor guard stands silent and still amid the crypts of national heroes.
Our lunch stop was Buche Perico, a beautiful restaurant with an indoor waterfall that tumbled behind our table and was later drowned out by a bachata dancing demonstration. Nacho ended the formal, educational part of our tour solemnly at the oldest cathedral in the Americas, the Cathedral of Santa María la Menor.
There was a shopping stop afterward. Along with the normal trove of souvenir kitsch, the place sold a great collection of local food, drink and cigars, plus jewelry of the unique native gems, amber and larimar. I was disappointed to find no baseball memorabilia worth buying, not even a Dominican national team t-shirt.
On the way back to Punta Cana, I stared out the window, feeling fatigue from heat and humidity, feeling depression from seeing too much oppression. Learning about history is interesting but not always uplifting. I started dreading the three-hour ride beneath gray skies back through sugar cane country, where Nacho would tell us more horror stories.
But around a bend in the road, outside a nameless town downhill from the highway appeared a patch of dirt and a bunch of boys chasing a ball and others running in the rough shape of a diamond and many more waiting for their chance to swing their way off the island.