I have nothing to envy except envy itself: Five Cheers for Embattled America.

#adventure, #alternative lifestyle, #living off-grid, adventure, America, Britain, British Isles, California, conservation, England, environment, ethics, global, globalisation, Great Britain, Happiness, history, land ownership, Liberalism, Life, Lifestyle, National Parks, natural world, nature, Reflections, social attitudes, social issues, Society, success, thoughts, Travel, travelogue, United States, Wilderness, Wildlife

Today, I was reading a comment posted on Quora. The leading question was: What Do Britons Envy Most About the US? To which – and I am sorry to resort to the social media art of backbiting – this particular member of Quora’s burgeoning commentariat decided to put down his Daily Mail for a moment to consider the question. If i may add, with a degree of ignorance I have long suspected in my fellow countryman, but hitherto have been unable to prove. This one’s a game changer.

His answer – hardly surprising coming from a reader of a newspaper with a long and illustrious history of jingoism, xenophobia, and acute insular-mindedness – left me wondering two things :

Firstly, whether this man had actually ever travelled anywhere beyond the house he so proudly owns; and secondly, what is it I envy most about America.

Returning momentarily to the Quora contributor, he went about answering the question of envy by singularly failing to address the meaning of what was being asked. So what does the average Briton envy most about America? Well, it helps to know the place by means other than what is daily reported in his favourite Little Britain news rag. His answer? To paraphrase: I’ve just had a full English breakfast and now I’m resting contentedly with coffee and tabloid in hand, admiring the four walls of the house I own outright (as if Americans don’t own homes). Then, for good measure, he throws in a little mockingly-good dose of British sarcasm about how he wished he’d had all that American Free-Dumb (as if Britons own sarcasm).

Upon reading this, I bristle with uncustomary outrage, as i am not an American. However, I think a little part of me might be. My mind is busy thinking, just because a man can enjoy digesting an English breakfast of bacon, eggs, sausage, beans, and fried tomatoes, accompanied by 100 pages of right-wing tabloid bile, and all within the comfort of one’s own home, does in no way negate America’s dizzying roadside attractions. 

Comparisons are dangerous when you have little idea what it is you are comparing. In the case of UK-US country comparisons, chalk and cheese.

Does he know that the US is not so much a country as it is a continent? If he cared to step out of his zone de comfort and board a plane to the four far flung corners of the continental United States – Anchorage to the Florida Keys, San Diego to Cape Cod – he might tone down his prejudices a bit.  

Ach! Why should I care what others think? Their loss, my gain. The more of them remain at home admiring the wallpaper, the more of America I’ve got all to myself. So, back to the matter in hand: what do i envy most about the United States of America? That is to say, what do they have that we don’t? That I don’t possess?

Well, turns out, a lot.

For format’s sake, here’s my top five:

  1. World-class National Parks, some the size of English counties. These are designated wild places. Mother nature’s property portfolio. They contain wilderness that belongs to no one in particular and to everyone in general. See Yosemite valley and weep, just as the great Scots-American pioneer, John Muir, did. And that’s just one of many parks that range across thousands of miles from Denali NP in Alaska to the Big Bend in Texas, from Sequoia NP in California to Acadia NP in Maine. Although the designation ‘National Park’ has been awarded to 63 sites across the US, there are literally hundreds more state parks, national monuments, national forests, and so on and so forth. One could spend the multi-millennial lifetime of a redwood tree exploring them, and probably still not reach the end. America’s national parks are some of the greatest entities ever created, and humanity didn’t have to create a damn thing doing so.
  2. It would be naive to state that the US is a classless society, but it would also be a gross overstatement to say that it’s anywhere near as class-conscious as England. There is a proud tradition of meritocracy in the US, which harks back to the days of huddled, squalid masses pouring off the Atlantic liners in search of a better life in a new world. In the US, aristocracy is a term loosely applied to old New England families, and Hollywood film stars. In Britain, aristocracy is real and to this day responsible for walling off vast swathes of land for personal gain. A land grab and power consolidation that has gone on for centuries. This deference to the landed gentry shows no sign of abating, even in the face of 20th century political progress. America’s anti-monarchical revolution of 1776 had its origins in English dissident, radical liberalism. It was then joined by a republican France to become a place where, if you were white and Northern European, the average person was thrust centre stage, and the inalienable right of kings tossed out. Suddenly, we were all kings in a savage land.
  3. Abundant sunlight that mottles a stunning geographical diversity. They used to rhapsodise about the sun never setting on the British empire, as the empire stretched across all time zones. Well, if it’s mizzle in Maine, you can bet Texas will be toasted by UV. If clouds reign over Kalamazoo, rest assured, winter sunlight will dazzle downtown Denver. Fog in Philly? Photons in ‘Frisco. You see the alliteration? Dazzling, isn’t it? Maybe, but it don’t dazzle like downtown Daytona. Who loves the sun? Not just the Velvet Underground.
  4. On the Road right through American popular culture. The tradition of hitting the road, Jack, and not coming back no more, is enshrined not only in American literary culture, but in real life, too. I have a friend from New Jersey. One day, he decided to follow his doctor sister to Las Vegas, a mere 2,000 miles away. Hopped into a car, and headed west. Stopped here and there along the way, but kept going. Within a week he had gone from icy winter to a hot desert where he picked up work as a wilderness guide, in no time. Americans, unlike Brexit Brits, have choices. And believe me, many – through restlessness or desperation – pack up their bindlestiffs and seek emigration within their own nation. They can quit some insufferable place and start again somewhere utterly different, which really just nourishes the soul, and keeps that wonderful literary tradition going strong (see the award-winner Nomadland for a case in point).
  5. Wilderness. Unashamedly, I keep coming back to it. America’s untouched places, which I have seen in the flesh, and continue to see shining in my mind’s eye, are truly a thing of wonder. The Pacific Crest Trail alone runs for 2,650 miles from an iconic bridge on the Washington/British Columbia border, to the Mexican border. The trail bisects some of the greatest wilderness on Earth. Americans, seeking spiritual solutions for materialist problems, set out on the trail. 5 months later they emerge changed forever and for the better, having read the signs that nature put before them. Meanwhile, where do we Brits go for a spot of soul-washing? Wherever it is, we can be sure of encountering signs of a different kind along the way: Private/No Entry/Keep Out/No Trespassing….you get the idea. Envy might be a deadly sin, but nowhere near as deadly as that old assassin, ignorance.

To Machu Picchu, With Love

#adventure, #romance, adventure, Andes, backpacking, Eighth Wonder of the World, environment, Lifestyle, mountains, natural world, nature, peru, Planet Earth, Salkantay, South America, Travel, Travel Photography, travelogue, Trekking, Wilderness

It was always central to the plan. Fly transcontinental to Peru. Once in the capital, randomly follow compass points leading out of Lima in all directions but west, which would be suicidal as it would leave me adrift somewhere in the deep Pacific Ocean. But whatever I do, the golden rule stands: don’t fly home without first having taken the long trail to Machu Picchu.

Many roads lead to Rome. So too are there a fair few routes to Machu Picchu. The Inca, like the Romans, were master road builders after all. You can opt for what most do and that is to fly to Cusco, board a mini bus from that old Inca seat of power to the sublime surroundings of Ollantaytambo in the even more sublime Sacred Valley of the Inca, board the train from the terminus there 90 minutes to Aguas Calientes at the foot of Macchu Picchu, and from there board another bus that winds up and up until it reaches, at 2,430mt a.s.l., the ticket booths standing like sentinels at the entrance to the eighth wonder of the world.

Or you can pay Atahualpa’s ransom and trek the three nights, four days to Aguas Calientes on the famous Inca Trail. Equally, you can step out of the ordinary and hike the Lares Route running along the valley to the north of the Sacred Valley. But that plonks you down at Ollantaytambo and from there you’ll still need to ride the packed train to Machu Picchu. For the even more intrepid there’s the Vilcabamba Traverse route, which basically follows in the now well-trodden footsteps of Hiram Bingham, the American who discovered Machu Picchu with a little help from an unheralded fellow who happened to farm land in Aguas Calientes and knew all about the strange ruins in the thick undergrowth at the top of the mountain. At ninety kms long, descending into canyons, crossing raging rivers and back up mountains so steep you tip your head backwards just to see them in their entirety, the Vilcabamba can take well over a week to traverse. And then there’s the Salkantay. Free but definitely not easy. That’s the route I took. It turns out, with unintended consequences.

They always say, don’t they, that certain actions have unintended consequences. The more extreme the action, the more consequential. By the standards of some, walking a full five days and sixty kms to the foot of Machu Picchu over a 4,600m (15,090ft) pass is pretty extreme. Especially so when you happen to be fifty years old on your next birthday. Anyway, i digress. For five days I walked the walk and talked the talk and in between saw deep time cut deep into rock and cappuccino brown waters froth and fury on the valley floor because the mighty, near-mythical Urubamba river could not run down to the Amazon fast enough, pushed on as it was into incandescent rage by mountains pressed hard up against it, bullying it and blocking its light.

It was raining as the ten of us flooded out of the mini bus on the trailhead. In reality, the official start to the 75km Salkantay Nevada was 20km back down a very inundated road-cum-track. Ordinarily, day one of the Salkantay would involve a trek up and up that rutted track, waterlogged by weeks of summer rain and spun into mud by the endless turning of Mercedes minibuses wheels ferrying sightseers up to Humantay Lake. We were cutting to the chase on our five day dash to Machu Picchu by skipping the boring bits.

Our guide, Jorge, told us to get suited and booted. Raincoats and plastic ponchos would be the order of the day. My Texan friend and I clambered onto the muddy ground. Walking poles were doled out in exchange for rent money. Essential item. $10 for the duration. Our walking group – at that point still a bunch of strangers, mainly from Germany and Holland – formed under the rain, almost by accretion. Bedecked in plastic ponchos of the most garish colours, they readied themselves for a 2-hour detour to Humantay Lake, before bracing for a 3-hour climb up to camp 1 at Soraypampa. As usual, I was first off the bus and last onto the trail. The Texan and I rolled a smoke, buckled up and in our own time started this great overland journey with a single step. The young bucks and hinds in the group were already visibly ahead within minutes. But the Texan and I were not lone stragglers. Beside us we noticed a girl.

I had seen her when i first boarded the bus back in Cusco at 4am that morning. There she was all alone with only a covid mask covering her eyes, depriving me of the totality of her pretty face. She sat alone, not feeling the urge to befriend others, as so many solitary types do when they’re on the road. She slept, and when she woke she kept herself very much to herself. Much as I tried not to, i found myself constantly stealing a glimpse of her while trying to act all natural. Physically, she was nothing like us. I guessed Brazilian due to these fulsome lips and coffee complexion. She certainly wasn’t Peruvian, with their proud Quechuan noses. Nor Chilean. Nor Argentinian. Definitely not Bolivian. Ecuadorian? Hmmm. Nah. They too were ruled by the Inca, as their faces testify to. She could have been Colombian, or Venezuelan. I deduced that much. Anywhere in the Caribbean, the genetic blend of European, African and Indigene created this unmistakeable exoticism, verging on the absolutely beautiful. But, no. I settled upon Brazilian, as there are 150 million of them, and only 50 million Colombians and 25 million Venezuelans (there used to be 30 million, but 5 million are now refugees).

As we ambled, tortoises off the blocks, she drew abreast of us. Slightly discomfited by the presence of two jackasses who – as i was to later find out, she found irksome when they boarded the minibus at 4am singing, joking and generally ignoring the protocols of getting on a night bus – it took me to break the ice.

‘See my friend here, he doesn’t think you’re Brazilian. But i do. Am i right?”

She was. And I was. And that was the first time we were right together.

At Humantay lake, the surface water was a bioluminescent paint pot. The color was electric blue-green. Around it the land rose sharply, a browned earth soft as shale where the land had collapsed in. And on top of that sat a crumpled mountainous mass of black rock and ice. The Andean giant flitted in and out of sight, behind a veil of cloud and Scotch mist. It was summer, but the Andes being the Andes and defying definition, this was the rainy season. And for anyone who knows the high mountains, everything is exaggerated, even the intensity of the rain.

I could see the glass domes – our beds for the night – on the ridge up ahead far in advance of arriving. The others were all there, but she and I had fallen far behind. Our footsteps slow, deliberative, rhythmic. We were tired beyond belief, for here at nearly 4,000 metres (or 13,000ft) the air was reed thin and the angle of ascent deceptively steep and seemingly without end. For every gulp of air, disappointment ensued. And as the occluded sunlight dipped on a fading afternoon she and I became more and more talkative. Gassing while climbing at these altitudes is not always the right strategy. So for every sentence a pause for breath that doesn’t readily come the way it does as sea level. Our legs could not catch up with our tongues but I knew that something had clicked between us, language barrier or no language barrier.

Up on the ridge with the Salkantay mountain looming in the twilight behind a wall of white cloud, she and I slumped down. We were exhausted, the right kind of exhaustion that combines the very tired with the very happy. Eagles flew sorties in the valley beneath and every now and then a huge wall of granite would flash into view through the gathering night. Magic all around. This, I thought, is why I damned near killed myself to get here. And in the process i made a friend, a beautiful friend.

Day one not even drawn to a close, and this adventure was already shaping up to be a classic. It’s in the nature of duality that with pain comes a degree of pleasure that makes the pain bearable. Altitude and steep gradients might be the root cause of the pain, but the pleasure was all mine with her by my side. I have a fridge magnet back home that reads, ‘no road is too long in good company‘. Never was this Turkish proverb more true than the moment we collapsed into camp 1.

On the Mountain of God (PartIII)

#adventure, adventure, Africa, mountain of god, Ol Doinyo Lengai, Tanzania, travelogue, Trekking

If this was any Mountain of God, the God in question suffered at the hands of a greater one: the weather. Rain lashed the steep slopes. The gradient, the worsening conditions, the midnight black, the rising panic: this was becoming a Jesus lashed by the Romans moment.

I couldn’t stop but turn on my hips to train the head torch on what was immediately behind me. The pitched floor of the volcano, the void behind and beneath. Raindrops rushing me out of the inky nowhere. I began to slip down, unable to keep my footing. Grabbing what purchase i could from the ground, chunks of the weirdest paste came out in clumps. I feared the worst. Not even the Himalaya had put the fear in me like this mythical giant. And like a mythic giant, once stirred from slumber they arch and wriggle, until rising mightily there’s nowhere to hang on but hurtle down.

Moses, my guide, was close ahead. He kept turning to reassure me. I saw in his dark features great courage. Yet, even he, the Masai warrior with a taste for suicidal volcanoes, looked at the very least surprised by these Scottish-like conditions.

It must have been after 3am by now. Lengai sat practically on the equator, but the temperatures struggled above latitude 50. We had been ascending – what felt like near-vertically – for upwards of 4 hours. How much longer until the summit? Moses cast a look of disappointment. “We’ll be there for sunrise. Two more hours.”

“There will be no sunrise at this rate,” I shot back.

Beseeching me to go on, Moses sensed the mood had shifted in me. For the first time in a long time an indifference overcame me about reaching the goal. I had travelled so far overland, paid so much for the privilege of my own cook, driver, armed guard, not to mention donkey handlers. I had spent so many months orchestrating this plan. And yet, here we were, 120 minutes from the crater of the world’s quirkiest volcano and I wanted nothing more of it.

“All right,” I said to him. “Let’s keep going. I suppose the rain might stop.” Of course, the Scot in me knew that when a man wants rainclouds banished, the weather gods don’t take kindly.

Another half hour onward and upward and the rain was truly routing the mountain’s immense flanks. Continuing to slide a foot for every two planted, I suspected foul play, that God – or whoever dwelt in this abominable realm – had no intentions of receiving worshippers that day. I slumped onto the liquid ground, my shoulders hunched in defeat. Moses noticed straight away, and turned back to see what was the matter.

“It ain’t gonna stop, Man. I just know it.”

“Look,” he replied. “You’ve come a long way. You can do this. You’re a Masai, like me.”

“But even if we reach the top, what then? We can’t see anything.”

I had, obviously, researched this expedition, leaving no visual stone unturned. You don’t take on something of this magnitude without first watching a few YouTube documentaries containing aerial panoramas shot from helicopters that leave you gasping for breath. Knowing that on a clear morning from Lengai’s summit Mt Kilimanjaro was there in all its abundant glory ninety miles away, that candy floss flocks of pink flamingos could be seen massing over nearby Lake Natron, and that practically the whole floor of the neighbouring Rift Valley could be savoured with a single sweep of the eye, was beginning to bother me. Why? Because, at this rate there was going to be no clear morning. We were going to end up wreathed in filthy rain clouds, unable to see more than a few metres of visibility.

I tried telling Moses this. “It’s about the views, man.” This fine young man looked, for all intents and purposes, an ancient soul shouldering all blame for what the sky was throwing at us. But none of this was his doing.

“I’m really sorry, Scott.”

“That’s okay, Moses. Let’s wait here a while before we think about quitting.” In truth, the sun could have been shining and I still would have been too afraid to march on.

Far below us I could discern human life in the form of four beams of torch light. Through the swarm of rain drops I studied them for many minutes. They were ascending swiftly. Rainproof and determined, that was for sure. What started as four tiny specks of light moving up the mountain in a series of switchbacks, after a while – how long in this surreality I had no idea – the lights began to close in on us.

Out of the blackness we were confronted. By four white faces. Two were dressed to the hilt in waterproofs while the other two appeared suitably attired for the park on a summer’s day. Through her sculpted hood, one the figures stared right through me. Her headlight bore into my soul as I gazed back at her.

“Are you alright? Why are you sitting here?” she asked. “We saw you climb quickly and then suddenly stop. Why?”

I told them of my misgivings. Playing down my uneasiness about the mountain’s peculiar aura, as well as the impossible gradient of the slopes in these conditions, I chose to accentuate the missed photo-op side of it.

“If this rain doesn’t clear in the next half hour, there’s no point in summiting. We won’t see anything. Isn’t that the whole point of it?”

The girls, both Polish and air hostesses in Norway, as it turned out, eyed me sympathetically. They knew that what was gripping me was also gripping them. This trepidation was self-evidently not shared by all. Their male companions, Russian and by my reckoning not air hostesses, lobbied to go onward. We all remained in this eerie stand-off, perhaps 8,000ft up the world’s only carbonatite volcano. The two underdressed Russians were having none of it while the two overdressed Poles were showing signs of apprehension going any further.

On the face of it, the two Polish girls, Moses and I, were willing the rain to abate. We accepted not only the danger in clinging to such a rain-sodden slope but also the futility in walking vertically halfway to heaven only to get stopped at the pearly gates. The Russians had no such reservations. Men are men, particularly in a nation where Putin would not have forgiven their cowardice so readily.

‘We go on,” they stated. And that was that.

“This rain is here to stay,” I said somewhat defeatedly, and a whole lot defiantly. “I’m turning back.” Moses looked bereft. All he wanted was to be the best midwife he could be, delivering me into wondrous new world.

The girls turned their headlights toward the Russians, then me.

“We’re coming with you,” they said.

The split was on high up on the Mountain of God. One of the Polish girls admitted she had been afraid. I seconded that fear and we were the better for it. As we traipsed down with a beaten Moses ahead, I kept turning to see the progress of the Russians. In a true George Mallory moment, the last we saw of their head torches was them disappearing into a thick wreathe of raincloud about 9/10ths of the way up, according to Moses.

Now safely at the foot of Oldoinyo Lengai, a grey dawn broke. The mountain, its flanks rendered green by the rain and gouged by overflowing gullies, its crown all but invisible, seemed to me a refugee from Scotland’s Highlands before the ice smoothed all before it. Never had equatorial Africa looked so dreich. As we boarded the jeep, the rain finally ceased. But, trundling off across the Rift Valley I could see out of the rear window a perfect conical rising until decapitated by one stubborn son-of-a-bitch cloud that simply refused to budge.

The Russians might well have landed first, but as sure as sugar is sweet there’s no chance they were going to be met by that uninterrupted view all the way to Kilimanjaro. Though for them, that was never the purpose.

Below are hyperlinks to versions 1 and 2:

https://trespasserine.com/2016/09/06/on-the-mountain-of-god/

https://trespasserine.com/2016/09/20/on-the-mountain-of-god-2/

The Five Corners of Love

#adventure, adventure, advneture, America, backpacking, California, love, roadtrip, San Francisco, Travel, travelogue, United States

Pt V

Headed For the ‘Frisco Bay

You see it there in the distance for the first time as you head over the Bay Bridge from Oakland side. Atop a hill on the bay peninsular, San Francisco’s architecture heaps tightly together like the sweepings from some colossal brush. It could be the Emerald City and California the land of Oz. Me, the Tin Man and my travelling companion the Lion. We’re both finding courage on this the first big trip of our lives. To do so, we’ll both need hearts. Mine is to give away but no takers there have been. At the ripe old age of twenty-two years and twenty-two days I’m not giving up quite yet. And in a funny way, I’ve had this weird premonition for some years now that my true love I would find there in San Francisco, at the end of the rainbow. Owning a heart big enough to burst is easy to know when it is pulsating under your ribcage night and day. Unlike the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz I had not come in search of a heart to feel with. I had come, rather, to give it away to the right donor. Then again, maybe this flood of emotion was brought on by the sight of the Emerald City on the hill. After three and a half thousand miles we had reached the end of the rainbow and I could not decide whether the emotional prize was elation for having done it, or disappointment that we would never again be able to embark on this roadtrip for the first time.

It was ’94 and the World Cup was in full flow. England were strangely absent. My beloved Scotland banished to the Gulag of footballing hurt. Every neutral’s favourites, Brazil, were camped, gloriously yellow, in Pasadena, while their arch rivals, the Argentinians, were kicking up a fuss on the other side of the country not a million miles from where we started our long transcontinental drive. On the first night in ‘Frisco, once checked in to the Travellers’ Hostel on Market St we decided to hit the bar next door. Argentina were live on air against a resurgent Romania with captain Hagi spearheading the boys from Bucharest. This Mundial was Maradona’s swansong and the little Talisman from the dirt poor villas of Buenos Aires wasn’t leaving the pitch without being made to. He was absent, mired in cocaine-dusted shame, but in that baron that street in San Francisco I could see that his replacement looked very promising. She was far better looking than him for starters. Wearing the famous albiceleste shirt of pale blue and white stripes, I saw her at the bar crowded by men who it seemed also rated her passing skills. When the final whistle blew, her team had been dumped out of the World Cup. A national humiliation, beaten by the upstarts from Eastern Europe. A man seated at the bar smiled, enchanted, as she stormed past and out the door. Even with a face like thunder I could tell that this one had the allure to raise a thousand ships. She was like nothing i had ever seen. She was part feral, part Bond-girl, part-Hippie. The hair reached to the small of her back It was cut (but not by a stylist) into a thick, raven-coloured fringe. She was tall-ish. Her eyebrows were black and perfect as if painted on. She was slim. Her body’s curvatures were exactly what my primitive mind had identified as Level 5: Near Perfection. Yet there was something tomboyish about her, too. As she took her leave with dramatic flourish, I stood and stared at this incredible specimen and thought, this girl’s got fire inside.

And so the story of love goes…The following day, her ire mellowed very possibly by whatever was responsible for the aromatic fragrance lingering in the air and in her chocolate brown eyes, she clocked my presence. Even to a debutante like me, I sensed the pull exerted by her eyes on mine. Is this attraction? It couldn’t be. Exotic creatures, universally considered as objects of desire, did not desire me. I was lanky, stuck physiologically at age fifteen. I was no Lothario. And most of all, i had absolutely zero confidence in my abilities to hook any fish, far less the big ones. I wasn’t attractive to girls, in my occluded mind. I had no idea how to exit the friend zone; how to make them want me. In the days that followed, a great lesson was delivered on the doorstep of my manhood: that you don’t need to do a damned thing other than be yourself. Love the skin you are in. Don’t try too hard, nor not at all. Stay in the game, but whatever you do, do not be desperate to stay come what may. Let the lady lead, and know that a million years of evolution gave women the executive role in the game of courtship. They decide if the flirting proceeds further; not us men. We are, it turns out, rather incidental in all this. Keep up the witty repartee. Put skin in the game, but don’t flay yourself alive for the lure of a kiss.