Friday, April 17, 2015

BEST NIGHT OF MY LIFE – Boys Alone In the Wilderness

We were barely old enough to go out on dates. Gangly little brats still getting used to our hairy armpits and manly voices. Yet there we were about to embark on one of the greatest adventures of our lives.

I and a couple of my 15-year-old classmates had attended summer camps whose focus was on canoeing and camping. With that modest experience under our belts—and with our parents’ astonishing faith in our abilities and judgement—we planned and executed an eight-day canoe trip in northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). (They did require us to take an industrial-grade first aid class, learning how to deal with the kind of medical challenges most likely to come up on a trip like ours—think broken limbs, knife or hatchet wounds, hypothermia, etc.)

Back, l. to r.: Charlie McMillan, Gordon Brown, Jeff Willius. Front: John McMahon, Todd Otis, Rob Linsmayer

In fact, we were so young that our parents had to drive us the six hours north to our put-in point, and then come back for us a week and a day later. It was a little like having your parents drive you to a movie with a girlfriend, but somehow we knew that this girlfriend (the wilderness) would make it well worth the embarrassment.

I’ll never forget the mix of exultation and dread I felt as the six of us stood there at that landing, our two canoes and gear piled beside us, and watched those two sensible station wagons drive away.

   While the less-impulsive among us weighed the 
   risks and benefits of such an idea, the decision 
   was made.

There were countless great moments during this, the first of many self-guided, self-outfitted BWCAW canoe trips I would take: lying down after supper on rocks still warm from the afternoon sun and smoking one of my ill-gotten Lucky Strikes; swimming in cold, crystal-clear Kekekabik Lake where we could see fish swimming among the rocks 15 feet below us; providing dinner for the whole crew with a huge pike I caught. But the greatest of the many tales told about this trip is that of our all-night paddle.

One late afternoon, we’d stopped paddling for the day at a wonderful campsite featuring one of the rocky BWCAW’s rare sand beaches. Before tackling the many chores of setting up camp, we took time to let off some steam, staging a mini-“Olympics” along the sandy stretch, with races, broad-jumping, shot-put, discus and javelin events.

I don’t remember whose idea it was, but someone pointed out that tomorrow’s leg of our route wouldn’t involve any portages—unusual in the BWCAW’s intricate web of waterways all interconnected by them. What if, he asked, instead of pitching camp that night, we just keep going? Besides the opportunity for portage-free cruising, another boy added, it promised to be a perfect night for paddling since it had been warm, clear and nearly calm all afternoon.

While the less-impulsive among us weighed the risks and benefits of such an idea, the decision was made.

We threw together an easy dinner from one of our pre-packaged bags of dehydrated ingredients. Over cups of cowboy coffee,* we played “Name That Jingle,” one of us humming or whistling one note at a time of a popular product jingle, and seeing who could guess the brand first.

     I got this strange and wonderful feeling, 
     like how a child might feel entering a deep, 
     dark forest alone, without a path.

By nine, after sunset, our exuberance had started to fade with what was left of daylight. In its place a quiet resolve settled over us. We washed our dinnerware and started loading up the canoes. I got this strange and wonderful feeling, like how a child might feel entering a deep, dark forest alone, without a path.

Flashlights in hand, we put our heads together over the map, once again reviewing our route and setting down a few rules—staying together, how to switch paddling positions, what to do if the weather changed. Finally, after drawing straws (actually sticks) for the two duffer positions,** we stepped in and shoved off into the darkness.

As we paddled off, still there was not a cloud in the sky, just a sea of stars and a half moon about to settle into the silhouetted tree line of the far shore.

Once the moon had set, it was is if someone turned up a rheostat on the stars. And the Milky Way—it shone as none of us had ever seen before, stretching across the vast blackness like a shimmering pathway for all those characters conjured in the stars by the Mesopotamians and Greeks 3,000 years ago.

And then, as if that weren’t enough to dazzle a bunch of hot-shot teenage boys, the Northern Lights came on. Like the broad strokes of a cosmic watercolorist, they splashed across the northern half of the night sky, the blues and greens running in vertical streaks before absorbing into the pitch-black canvas.

PHOTO: Jerry MagnuM Porsbjer

For nearly half an hour we drifted silently, spellbound by the incredible spectacle. I lay back onto the small stern deck of my canoe and soaked it all in. Never before, and never since, have I witnessed such a display of Aurora Borealis.

The next hour or so settled into the quiet rhythms of paddling. Dip… pull… feather… swing… dip… The liquid sounds, the mild exertion, the gentle surge and glide—all made for a fine meditation. For the rest of the night, as boys will, we told tall tales, sang camp songs, and challenged and ribbed each other at the slightest vulnerability. We also tried to scare the piss out of each other.

I don’t know who started it, but word was that one of the FBI’s ten most-wanted fugitives*** had last been seen up here heading into the Boundary Waters. You know how it goes; we all contributed to the absurdity of the fabrication, yet not one of us, even as we upped the ante, could help but tune in to every sound, every shadow, in the deep woods along the shore.

It started getting cold. Those of us paddling managed to keep warm enough, but my buddy, Gordon, duffing just in front of me, had to wrangle his sleeping bag out of his pack and bundled up in the scant space between gunwales, thwarts and stowed gear. (The plan had been to rotate paddlers as the night went on, but, as it turned out, we never saw a place to safely pull into shore for the change.)

As the chill gradually penetrated, Gordon’s blissful snoring just five feet in front of me began to wear thin. Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t that I envied his sleeping, all snug as a bug like that—I hate duffing, and was glad I hadn’t drawn the short stick—but that snoring...

By about five AM, shivering wracked my body. I put on all the clothes I could dig out of the nearest pack. I paddled harder, trying to keep my arms pressed to my sides to preserve my core body temperature the best I could. I put a fishing line out, hoping that fighting a fish might warm me up...or at least take my mind off of my misery. And still I shuddered. There was nothing for it but to wait for sunrise…and listen to Gordon.

For what seemed like hours we eyed the spreading glow in the eastern sky. A light fog forming over the relatively warm water, though beautiful, only seemed to deepen the chill. And then, finally, a spark of light ignited the treetops, then grew to a ball of fire. As the mist burned off we felt the full effect of the sun’s blessing percolate through our sweatshirts and reach our anxious, goose-bumped skin.

PHOTO: Chris Huber, Daily Republic
As if in celebration of the moment, the fishing rod I’d been trolling with suddenly bent over to the water. Barely able to feel the handle, I reeled in a gorgeous, two-pound smallmouth bass, its golden-bronze sides lit, as if from within, by that precious early sunlight.

I lifted my rod, swung it around and carefully lowered the dripping fish down right to the cacophonous opening of Gordon’s sleeping bag, where it flopped its wet, slimy way right in next to his head.


A Maryland couple has been charged with child neglect for allowing their ten- and six-year-olds to walk home alone from the neighborhood park.

I hold these memories all the dearer in a world, an era, in which human beings’ connections with Nature seem as endangered as the many rare species disappearing on our generation’s watch. In the six decades since my adventure, the circumference around home within which a child is allowed to roam freely, without parental control, has shrunk from miles, to blocks, to yards. Recently, a Maryland couple has been charged with child neglect for allowing their ten- and six-year-olds to walk home alone from the neighborhood park.

Rewind to 1960, an age when, in general, parents had a pretty good handle on raising kids right. And yet, when it came to the out-of-doors, they understood and valued the positive effects it had on children. They understood that, in light of all the benefits, the risks were relatively small. And today, as hard as the sensationalist media, the video game industry and a legal liability industry gone amok try to convince us otherwise, statistics say those risks (of injury, abduction, even getting lost) are no greater than they were back then. 

Now, all that being said, would I allow my own 15-year-old son or daughter to go on an eight-day, unguided canoe trip into the wilderness, some 300 miles from home and miles from any help? To be honest, I’m not sure.

But I’m immensely grateful for the faith our parents placed in me and my buddies. They trusted us, and they trusted in Nature not to throw more at us than we could handle. I only hope I was effusive enough in thanking them for this while they were alive.


* Cowboy coffee is made by just adding an approximate measure of ground coffee to a pot of boiling water, removing it from the heat, waiting until the grounds settle to the bottom, and then carefully pouring the finished brew so as not to disturb the grounds. Its enjoyment hinges on one’s appreciation of occasionally having to chew one’s coffee.

** Considering the optimal efficiency of portaging canoes and gear from lake to lake in one pass, the ideal numbers for a BWCAW canoe trip are two canoes and six paddlers—four of them paddling at any one time; the other two duffing (sitting in the bottom of the canoe along with the stowed gear).

*** Our point of reference at the time would have been someone like James O’Kasick, who, with his two brothers, had just dominated local news with their murderous exploits and partial demise at the hands of police after a dramatic manhunt. (Two of them were shot and killed by police; James tried to take his own life, but survived.)

Monday, April 6, 2015

LOLLING OUT LOUD – Waking Up to Wonder

I seldom loll in bed in the morning. Too many to-dos—and perhaps a few last vestiges of guilt after my last useless-emotions housecleaning. But, once in a great while, I allow myself the great luxury of lying there a while, with no pretense of either getting up nor going back to sleep, and simply being.

I enjoy the sense of my weight, evenly supported from head to toe; of the various spaces I inhabit—the room, the imaginary cube extending from the perimeter of the mattress up to the ceiling, even the amorphous blob of air warmed by my breath.

I study the patterns formed by slats of sunlight sawn by nearly-closed Venetian blinds, and how they warp around forms on the bureau. Specks of dust blink on and off as they drift through the light grid.

I am also present, as perhaps at no other time of the day, with my body. I drift effortlessly on my breathing; bask in the rare absence of nondescript pain; savor the coolness of my feet moving to cooler tracts of sheet. I stretch luxuriantly, appreciating the easing in every muscle, the blood coursing through every capillary in every digit.

I trace figures in the air with my hand, as if I were 
a dancer or choreographer testing the limits of my instrument.

Image credit *
And this morning I play with the astoundingly complex and elegant mechanics of my right arm. With it flat on the mattress, I put the machinery through a functionality test. Bending at the elbow, I raise the lower part to 90 degrees—vertical—then beyond until, not quite able to touch my shoulder with my thumb, I get to the most acute angle I can reach, about 140 degrees. (I’m aware that, during an athletic life spanning all my school years and continuing far beyond, I’ve exhausted some of these abilities’ best days.)

Back to 90 degrees, I try to find the precise angle
at which the forearm will remain upright, balanced with absolutely no effort on my part. I marvel at the sheer simplicity of a trick I could just as well have pulled off with a big stick.

I explore all the other dimensions of my arm’s amazing range of motion: flexion/extension, adduction/abduction, supination/pronation and all manner of rotation at shoulder, elbow and wrist, right down to the last joint on my pinky finger. Finally, using various combinations of these dexterities, I trace figures in the air with my hand, as if I were a dancer or choreographer testing the limits of my instrument.

Eventually, my delicious dawdling runs its course and I get up, appreciating anew that the human body is a miraculous thing, and so, as I re-discovery occasionally,
is time.

* Image Credit: “Grant 1962 79" by Grant, John Charles Boileau - An atlas of anatomy, / by regions 1962. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Monday, March 30, 2015


A few more fleeting impressions as we walked around lovely Zihuatanejo today.

Frangipani flowers. Could these be any more delicious?

Hack & Snack - Coconut Vendor in El Centro

Ceiba (kapoc) tree with mega-thorns

Striking mural just off of Jose Morelos

...and leave the kniving to us!

No, really, Sweetheart, it was her hair!

Hangin' happy

Star Fruit - Andador 3

Thursday, March 26, 2015

COSAS PRECIOSAS – Images of Zihuatanejo

As our month here in Zihuatanejo, Guerrero, Mexico draws to an end, we're full of mixed feelings. (I've shared some of them verbally in my previous post, The Price of Paradise.)

We'll miss the nearly overwhelming beauty of this place. Like the view from our villa out over Zihuatanejo Bay and a swath of the vast Pacific. We're a couple of blocks away from the beach, so, unlike the view from an oceanfront hi-rise, we see and hear and smell life going on in the foreground.

Still, those vistas, and those of the Sierra Madre del Sur behind us, are pretty much the long view. Those of you who know me—perhaps through my postings here at One Man's Wonder—know I tend to shy away from the long view.

I like to look for the little things: a detail of something bigger; the one member of the flock or school or swarm that's behaving differently; the shadow of something instead of the thing; something poignant or ironic; colors, shapes and patterns.

So here, in pictures, are a few such impressions of this year's stay in Zihuatanejo.

La Casa Anaranjada - The view at sunrise from Villas San Sebastian

Very Varied Berries - Fruit of an unknown shrub in La Ropa
Hot Tuna - A blushing, blooming nopal, Playa Madera
Stuck On You - "Gum tree" on the canal walk, near Plaza Kyoto
Blaze of Glory - Heliconia Psitacorum in La Noria
Foothold - Rhoeo (Tradescantia Spathacea), on cement wall, La Ropa
Dearly Departed - A poignant remembrance on Paseo del Pescador, Playa Madera

"We Liven Up Your Events"- Sign spotted atop a building in El Centro
Two Ways To Climb - Stairs with ficus just off of Playa Madera
Iguana Hold Your Hand - A resplendent five-foot-plus specimen seen in El Manglar
Old Man & the Sea - Jeff fulfills his dream of launching his own boat in Zihua

Abracadabra - A washed-up magic wand, Playa La Ropa
Yellow Streak - A rare rain brings out the colors of rocks along the Paseo in La Madera
Mutt & La Jefe - A black-and-white pup and her bodyguard along Rio Lerma canal

Anna By Heart - Grandkids sharing the fun at Paty's Marimar on La Ropa
Optimism - Typical Mexican construction, leaving re-bar for future new floors
See, Like This - Skipping stones in the canal outlet at Playa Principal
Los Colores - A lively mural brightens an alley at the south end of Playa La Ropa.
Banana Split - A banana tree stump, reminiscent of African Samburu & Sankara necklaces
Chickens Panicking...Too Late - Fresh pollo in a market on Av. Benito Juarez
What a Croc! - One of the three resident cocodrilos in El Manglar
Why, You Yellow-Bellied... - Great Kiskadee, also spotted in El Manglar

Study In Green - Limonada, the essence of refreshment, Zihuatanejo style
♫Hey-y-y, Macarela - Small fish, big thrill for rookie fisher Julie (w/Capt. Bernie)

Sombra Picada - A breezy afternoon on Pedro Acencio

Tequila Sunset - Adios to this incredible place till el sol comes 'round a few more times

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


I sit in my dimly-lit hillside villa, overlooking Zihuatanejo Bay. A thin sprinkling of lights suggests the water's outline, the black void itself punctuated by just a row of swaying white anchor lights atop the masts of sailboats moored just off the beach. Beyond them, nothing but the Pacific some 8,000 miles to New Zealand.

Our living room has only three walls; the fourth, seaside, was never built, never needed in this mild-to-hot, two-season climate. Instead, a planter of pink bougainvillea spans the room, integrated with the formed-concrete structure as if it had all come out of the same mold.

So the delicious Pacific air, calmed from this afternoon's rambunctiousness, wafts in, as does the agreeable sound of live Santana covers from the beach down the hill and two blocks away. Still, every twelve or thirteen seconds the surf, like some insistent old lady, tries to hush the band.

   Occasionally, a sound makes me stop what 
   I'm doing and reminds me that this is Mexico.

Our end of Zihuatanejo—the La Ropa neighborhood—is usually pretty quiet. Its only arterial road passes the front entrance of our little cluster of rented villas, but traffic noise just kind of blends into the soundtrack of life—birds, people chatting, some construction activity down the street, and, always, the surf.

Occasionally, though, a sound makes me stop what I'm doing and reminds me that this is Mexico: ranchero music blaring out of some guy's truck; the hypnotically simple flute melody advertising the itinerant knife-sharpener with his foot-powered grinding wheel; and, just this morning, the commanding squawk of a few onomatopoeically-named chacalacas, a nearly pheasant-sized bird we're hearing in our part of town for the first time this year.

Sometimes, it's smells: the haze of wood smoke from brush fires in the surrounding countryside; the fresh, clean scent of the cleaning solution they mop our floors with every day; the floury, flowery aroma of fresh tortillas.

As I write, no fewer than five geckos cling to my white stucco ceiling, waiting for the unsuspecting bug to fly in. (Last year, we witnessed the epic stalk, strike and swallow when one took down a moth nearly half its size.) Now four of them are exchanging words in the corner of the kitchen. They sound like birds—raspy-voiced ones like grackles.

I'm tired. Sally and I walk the couple of miles into town every day—and back. There are a few long ups and downs along the way, as well as a couple where a similar ascent is concentrated into a much shorter run. Sometimes, we do the walk twice.

And the sun is powerful and pervasive. Even if you're not standing in its full, straight-down blast—the kind Richard Dreyfus experienced at that railroad crossing in Close Encounters—you feel it circumventing the shade of your visor, radiating up off the ground and every other surface all around you. We know now why many Mexicans still honor the tradition of the siesta.

While those who know better nap, we walk. We've learned the fine art of pacing ourselves, taking just a few blocks at a time and then resting a few minutes. We've discovered the choicest spots of shade along the route—several of them doubly blessed with not just shade but zephyrs of bay breeze captured and concentrated by favorably-oriented building walls.

It's not just this soft, moist air; this whole place is delicious. I've written many times about the colors, comparing them with rich, savory, spicy food. The pace of life is unhurried, not just for the locals, who know there's no point in stressing out over things generally beyond their control, but for us visitors, who relish their example.

I dream of gabbing away with a Mexican family in a real, unmitigated conversation over dinner or a game of Conquian or dominó.

There's always a sense of adventure here in "Zihua," at least for those of us for whom the locals' everyday experiences seem exotic. The constant presence of the sea. Taking a local bus and pasajero down the coast to La Barra de Potosí or Petatlan. The drama of everyone—from workers to street dogs to huge, prehistoric-looking iguanas—plying always-evolving strategies to compete for scant resources.

There's also the sheer presence of creatures that, simply because we're not used to them, can scare the living bejesus out of you. Last night as I turned back the covers from my side of the bed, I spotted something dark and leggy between the corner of the mattress and formed-concrete bed platform. On closer inspection, it turned out to be one of the biggest spiders I've ever seen—though not a tarantula, it was nearly three inches across.

I'm ashamed that I didn't figure out a way to accommodate the poor thing—like I have so many times, like with bats at home, a scorpion felt inside my pants leg in Texas and cigar-sized cockroaches in Costa Rica. I just couldn't abide the thought of this thing—whose intentions I had no way of knowing—having to scurry just twelve inches to explore my face.

Part of the adventure, for me, is finding situations in which it's sink or swim with my Spanish. For nearly a decade I've made this beautiful, melodic tongue my second language (actually, third, if you count German, whose hard, guttural sounds have never resonated with my romantic soul). I'm getting pretty good at it, and jump on every chance I get to practice my craft.

The other day, I attended a traditional lamb barbacoa with some fellow guests and friends and family of our host here in Zihuatanejo. I hope I wasn't rude to the non-Spanish-speakers, but I was just irresistibly drawn to the end of the table where all the Spanish speakers were sitting.

When I started learning Spanish about a decade ago, my very first objective was simply to be able to chat amiably with a cab driver about his life, his family and the fortunes of the local futbol or beisbol club. Now that goal has been far surpassed, and I dream of gabbing away with a Mexican family in a real, unmitigated conversation over dinner or a game of Conquian or dominó.

     I find myself unable to decide which is the 
     problem: that things are way more complex 
     than I'll ever know…or way more simple.

The people here are wonderful. Sure, we've met the occasional surly cab driver or waiter, but the vast majority of our interactions with Zihuatanejenses have been warm and engaging. In so many Spanish-speaking places we've gone, folks assume we're careless tourists who don't really give a rip about their lives and culture.

But here in Zihua., people seem quicker to take you as you are. It doesn't take them long to recognize my considerable investment in learning their language and getting to know a bit about Mexican geography and culture. They seem to really appreciate that. (Of course, I have to be sensitive to the flip side of the culture thing, which is that many Mexicans are eager and proud to show off their increasing grasp of English and of US culture.)

I don't know how Mexicans ever got the reputation, as they did in my parents' generation, of being lazy (This must have arisen in an era in which all "foreigners"—as if there were ever anyone else coming to settle in the US—were seen as challengers to every previous immigrant's slice of the pie.) The folks around here are some of the hardest-working we've ever seen—and often for the least reward.

     Most of us seasonal visitors wouldn't trade 
     places with these folks if it were the last thing 
     we did, yet, still, we envy them.

In the tourist industry, the inequities seem all the more poignant. Given the vicissitudes of seasonal demand and misconceptions about the omnipresence of narco violence, flu outbreaks and other perceived threats, the waiters and taxi drivers and maids and fishing boat captains and tour guides—I could go on—have, somehow, to fund a constant cost of living with a widely variable income.

We feel like we should somehow compensate them for this, while at the same time understanding that too much generosity can reinforce the rich-gringo stereotype and financially impact others who also have to live her year-round. This is just one of many examples of how, despite our growing sense of ownership of this place, we have to remember that we will never understand how things—the economy, politics, machismo and many others—really work around here.

I often find myself unable to decide which is the problem: that things are way more complex than I'll ever know…or way more simple.

I sometimes wonder how these hard-working citizens can seem so complacent in the face of inequities, poor infrastructure and widespread governmental corruption. Still, there's a profound strength about this community. We see it in big brothers and little brothers, daughters and grandmothers walking hand in hand; the colorful waste baskets and "Save Our Bay" signs along the beachside promenade, made by school children; in the large turnout every Sunday night for cultural events at La Cancha, Zihuatanejo's version of the ubiquitous zocalo; in what seems a universal pride in being Zihuatanejenses.

Most of us seasonal visitors wouldn't trade places with these folks if it were the last thing we did, yet, still, we envy them. If only we could have both our privilege and freedoms, and their unshakable values.

I guess this is why I so treasure my connections with Mexico and Mexicans. I can pretend to be that close to the real demands of a life totally committed to family, friendship and faith, without really having to pay the price.

The only thing I have to pay is money…and, I'd like to think, attention.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

BOUNDLESS WONDER – Extending Our Grasp of Beauty

The universe is immense beyond our comprehension. Yet this vastness is reflected literally at our fingertips. For there, in a single skin cell, exists another  “universe”—one of ever-smaller and smaller particles.

Human skin cells - PHOTO: CK-12 Foundation -

Even an atom, which itself is a ten millionth the size of the period at the end of this sentence, is made up of components that are proving every bit as hard to count as the number of bodies in the celestial universe.

Here, at Nature’s extremes, is where perspective begins to get a little weird. It’s fascinating to ponder how the infinitely big and the infinitesimally small are equally incomprehensible. The same goes for relative time, value and other less obvious qualities.

And, as physicists venture into the realms of quarks and quasars, we’re learning that the rules governing those concepts are going to have to change.

PHOTO: Sish Advexon -

Two things you might think would fall at opposite ends of a scale of time, size or space might, according to these new realities, actually lie right next to each other or even coincide. In these latitudes, large encompasses small; bad includes good; beauty has its ugly side. In everything lie the seeds of its opposite. And the astounding Intelligence that designed it all, at once everywhere and nowhere, looks on kindly as we endeavor to understand. 

       Wherever you may be in body or in 
       spirit, I hope you’ll choose to see beauty.

So the worlds I continue to explore around, within and beyond me are ultimately the same world. It’s all one, and it’s all good—the beginnings, the endings and everything in between.

What this means is that the extent of life’s wonders and mysteries is bounded neither by our skin-and-bones frailties nor even by time. No, the miracles we experience are limited only by our curiosity, our imagination and our faith. I hope you’ll choose to explore those boundaries. And, wherever you may be in body or in spirit, I hope you’ll choose to see beauty.

I’d consider it a great honor to join you for a leg of whatever boundary breaking you've undertaken, be it a walk in the woods, a quest for ideas or a journey of faith. Let me know the limits and barriers you've overcome. I have so much to learn.

Friday, February 20, 2015


Explore the place where sense & emotion overlap.

There’s a place where all the sense impressions that come into you churn and stew with stuff that’s looking for a way out.

Here is where true meaning and much of memory forms, and the essence, the aroma of it, exudes through your skin.