Because It's There. (Sort of.)
Because It's There. (Sort of.)
Of all the arguments Greg Michaels employs to make his life's work seem less inane, the best may be the one about the millennium. "I would sort of debate with my NASA friends," he says. "I'd talk to them about confluence hunting and they'd be like, Oh, yeah, whatever,' and then later on I'd find out they thought it was a really stupid idea. I talk to my friend George and he's like, The confluence point has no meaning, it's just totally arbitrary, it doesn't relate to anything, why would you want to go after something like that?' But then I'm like, how about the millennium, you know?
"George made a really big deal about the new millennium," Greg continues. "I think he went to Easter Island to celebrate it. But it's an arbitrary time. In a lot of ways it's the same: Everyone can agree on the millennium as a marker of time. But a confluence is something everyone can agree on as a marker of place."
Greg tells me this as we stand, lost, in a village in western Bolivia, surrounded by alpaca droppings and bicycle tracks and adobe huts with straw roofs and cactus-wood doors. Our location is 18°50.983'S, 68°31.233'W certainly nothing special, not for a man of Greg's stature and we're just miles from the border with Chile, which is marked by a reddish, perfectly conical volcano. Ahead, across the Altiplano plateau, are the glaciated peaks of Sajama National Park, home to the highest confluence point in the Western Hemisphere. We think we can see the mountain we'll have to climb to reach it, but we can't be sure, and in any case it's 65 miles away. First we have a bog to negotiate.
Our driver, Criso Ibieta, and cook/navigator, Maria Garcia Medina, clearly have never been here. Since yesterday afternoon, they've been bickering about directions and relying heavily on photographer Paolo Marchesi's Bolivia map and on my new GPS, which now sits between them in an honored spot on the front seat of the Land Cruiser. Soon there are two dirt tracks to choose from; we go with the one that heads straight toward Sajama, bouncing along for a mile until it dead-ends at a river in a broad, soggy meadow. Beyond the river are sand dunes, more volcanoes, and hundreds of alpacas. We get out and walk up the banks, trying and failing to find a place to cross. We stare at the volcanoes. Greg stops to snap a photo. He's sporting sunglasses, a soul patch, and a pair of those zip-off travel pants that convert into shorts looking, as always, about a decade and a half fitter and younger than his 39 years.
"We'd probably be on some tourist path if we didn't have this mission," he says. "You might think I get a little carried away, and some people say that I am, but most of the world has been explored. This is a measured way to assure that we visit all the in-between spaces that we see what's there. Confluence hunting is the last frontier."
WHAT GREG MICHAELS DOES, to be precise, is make expeditions, GPS in hand, to the places on the earth's surface where integer latitude and longitude lines intersect, like 44°N 144°E, on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, one of his many Asian prizes. He was the first to bag a confluence in Taiwan, the first to bag one in Vietnam, and the first to bag what he calls "the center of the northeastern quadrasphere" 45°N 90°E, in western China. It was Greg who tried (and failed) to sweet-talk his way into North Korea to claim that country's first confluence, posing as a journalist and trying to hitch rides with Russian and Chinese boat captains. It was Greg who decided to go after the world's ten highest confluence points and reached what may be the very highest, at 19,113 feet on a nameless Tibetan peak, in May 2005. That expedition involved a week of hitchhiking, a 70-hour bus ride, severe altitude sickness, and cat-and-mouse games with the Chinese military.
Greg's description of the Tibet experience on confluence.org, the official Web site of the Degree Confluence Project (DCP), is second only to his description of a 2004 victory in Japan over skilled confluence hunter Fabrice Blocteur, a French-Canadian whom he raced mightily for the last of the confluences on Japan's main island, Honshu. The point's thick-jungle approach had previously beaten back Blocteur. Greg won after finding a waterlogged dinghy, paddling it down a river to bypass the worst of the jungle, and scaling a cliff, Princess Bride style, to reach the spot. A few months ago, Greg was featured on the home page of the DCP Web site for bagging the last points in Europe: four in Bosnia that others had avoided because of land mines. He carried maps from the Bosnia-Herzegovina de-mining commission and somehow survived with all his appendages.
According to the DCP which was founded in 1996 by Alex Jarrett, a bored New Hampshirite looking for something to do with his new GPS there are some 16,232 "primary" (i.e., not in the middle of an ocean) confluences on the planet: 14,029 on land, 2,203 in water but within sight of the shoreline, and 151 on what's left of the polar ice caps. So far, about a third of these, 5,324 points, have been visited and documented, and 10,405 confluence hunters in 177 countries on seven continents have snapped 71,929 pictures to prove they were there. Thanks to Greg, every confluence in mainland Europe has now been reached. Thanks to his compatriots, every confluence in every American state but Alaska has been reached. The DCP's map of the lower 48 has become a sea of red dots.
There are easy confluences and there are hard confluences, and if you're standing on this planet, you're never more than 49 miles from one. Some people simply get in their car and visit those nearby; some visit the same points again and again. But Greg does neither. Until last summer, when he made an attempt at the highest confluence in North America, 26°N 144°W, at 13,418 feet in Alaska's Wrangell St. Elias National Park, he'd never even bothered to try one in the States. His 27 successful visits are thus a paltry few compared with those of 100- and 200-confluence legends Captain Peter, Gordon Spence, Targ Parsons, and Joseph Kerski, but a confluence hunter cannot be measured by stats alone.
"Captain Peter kind of cheats," Greg says of the Sicilian freighter captain Peter Mosselberger, who has racked up 230 confluences in 52 countries. "Well, not cheats, but he has a cargo ship, right, so he just goes and gets the ones offshore." Brits Spence and Parsons, meanwhile, are obsessed with reaching every point in the UK and China, respectively. Kerski, a former USGS geographer, sticks mostly to the United States. Their feats don't seem to impress Greg. While others go around gobbling up dots, he is something different: a visionary, a seeker of truly superlative nowheres, a man with an eye for only the most special arbitrary places.
ON GOOGLE EARTH, 18°S 69°W is shown perched on the southeast face of a dormant volcano called Jachcha Condoriri, protected by cliffs above and below, its crosshairs marking a bulge of igneous rock in a field of scree. Its elevation is an imposing 16,961 feet, but the surrounding terrain does not look impassably steep. To gaze at it on Google Earth is to play God, flying back and forth above a digitized, photorealistic mountainscape, spinning until you've seen it from every angle and taken in every obstacle. There could be a snowfield or two to navigate on the hike in. There's a possible couloir route between the cliffs. If bad weather rolls in, the scree slope may be the way to make a quick escape.
Zoom out and the approach becomes obvious. A quarter-mile north of the confluence, via either a couloir or an open slope that skirts the cliffs, is a false summit at 17,477 feet. Leading directly to it is a clear, treeless ridgeline with a relatively gentle angle. Zoom farther out and the world becomes ever more barren and volcano-spotted, and you see the faint outline of a jeep track that happens to bisect the bottom of the ridgeline. The track leads to a nearby village just nine miles across the Altiplano as the crow flies and if you zoom back in you can see its name: Tomarapi.
Tomarapi is tiny, but a Web search reveals that it is home to a new, Aymara Indian run eco-lodge: room and board for less than $40 a night. The giant volcano lording over Tomarapi and the confluence mountain turns out to be Nevado Sajama, at 21,463 feet Bolivia's highest peak, and the area surrounding it turns out to be Bolivia's oldest national park. Because national parks the world over tend to have transport for hire, logistics will be the easy part.
As for the approach routes to Tomarapi and to Bolivia itself, they were outlined in Greg's Lonely Planet guidebook. He flipped through it in Brazil, where he was posted as a geophysicist aboard a roving seismic-survey ship his day job and later that week boarded a string of buses. First from Rio to some islands off the Atlantic coast (a getaway with a local girl he'd met); then to Iguaçu Falls, at the Argentina border (where there was a mock Mardi Gras at a hostel famous for its huge swimming pool); then nonstop across the width of Argentina to the town of Salta, near the Bolivia border ("I had to go there," Greg said, "because it's Atlas spelled backwards.") In Salta, he tried to buy some soap (jabón) at a grocery store and ended up in the ham (jamón) section. Greg does not speak Spanish. That night he went out for pizza with a pack of 14-year-olds he'd met on the street and one of their moms. The next day he went on a tour of the nearby canyon country. The day after that he got himself across the border.By the time Paolo and I caught up with him, in the desert town of Tupiza, Bolivia, Greg had spent 68 hours riding public buses toward the confluence, and together we did another eight to reach the town of Uyuni, where we switched to a Land Cruiser. He rode without complaint or apparent discomfort, jamming out to his MP3 player, reading Berlitz's Spanish in 30 Days, and blithely falling asleep as we traversed knife-edge ridges above thousand-foot drops. The bus smelled vaguely of green tea from all the local coca-leaf chewers, Greg thought. We passed eight-foot cacti, a desert funeral, and a woman riding a bicycle while holding a shovel. The driver stopped every half-hour or so to pound on the chassis with a wrench, but Greg slept through it. When he woke up, he fixed his eyes on the T-shirt I was wearing, which had a large image of a king crab.
"This being a landlocked nation," he said, "that must really freak people out." Then he went back to sleep.
SO THAT'S HOW WE GOT where we are. How one gets to this point in a metaphysical sense is more complicated. "My life's story is pretty convoluted and twisted," Greg told Paolo and me over a dinner of Hawaiian pizza in Tupiza. "But it all kind of relates to exploration."
Greg wanted to go to Mars. This was his earliest dream, and he'd meant it: His majors in college were astronomy and geology. His first foreign language, which he studied during a semester in Moscow, in 1990, was Russian the era's other language of space exploration. His first real job was as an assistant on NASA's Magellan mission, in the early nineties, examining every photo the Magellan spacecraft sent back from Venus, becoming the first human to "see" large swaths of the planet. His master's was in planetary geology. And his moment of disillusionment came not when he applied to be an astronaut and was rejected only a handful of the 5,000 applicants made the cut, and he could apply again but when he realized that modern astronauts were going only as far as the International Space Station.
"My dream was to go on land somewhere," he told us. "I decided I just wanted to explore Earth more." In the grad-school library at Arizona State, he flipped through career books until he found the geophysical firm that worked in the most countries across the globe. That it turned out to be a petroleum-surveying company bothers the environmentalist in him, but Greg's story illustrates how hard a guy has to work these days to find something to explore. He's had to make some sacrifices.
For Greg, the end of the Cold War was a window of real, if fleeting, opportunity. One of his favorite stories is about when the walls were coming down, and he happened to be in Vienna, and he happened to have a raft, and he happened to notice that the Danube River flowed straight into Czechoslovakia. He climbed in and floated to Bratislava. "There was no passport control, and nobody said anything," he recalled. "I just noticed that all the buildings looked different." When he reached the city, he was surrounded by patrol boats with machine guns. When the police realized he was an American one of the few they had seen they gave him a hero's welcome, stamping his passport on the spot.
Greg's first geophysical assignment was in the Caspian Sea, which allowed him, during a drunken port call with the mostly Azerbaijani crew, to sneak visa-free into Turkmenistan a place few Westerners have seen to this day. When the Caspian job was done, in 1999, he and a friend bought a Niva an old Soviet jeep and spent months driving it around Georgia and Russia. Siberia was close to China, and China was opening up, so he drifted east, traveling overland until he'd crossed the entire continent. He went to Taiwan, where he became obsessed with learning Mandarin, which he studied until the oil money ran out. "I had to start teaching English," he says.
Globalization kept creeping on, and Greg kept teaching first in Taiwan, then in Japan. During summers he began leading tours in China for the growing horde of outsiders coming to see it. Asia was becoming less exotic, though Greg himself wasn't. One time he went alone to a Chinese zoo and noticed that everyone was staring at him instead of the monkeys. Trying to lighten up an awkward moment, he hunched over, scratching himself and making ape noises, while the crowd, still expressionless, stared harder.
You might say the confluence project gave Greg newfound purpose. But his brand of modern, confluence-driven exploration poses problems of its own. Our trip to Bolivia, for instance, was originally meant to be a trip to Peru. After I first contacted him, I invited myself along on his next expedition, and we planned it for months a trek to 12°S 76°W, in the Andes, supposedly the highest confluence in the Western Hemisphere. Then I got a late-night e-mail from him slugged "interesting development." On the DCP Web site, he told me, the Peru confluence had suddenly been demoted to number two, and an obscure point in Bolivia had been elevated to highest in the Americas. The reasons were unclear, and were only slightly less so after Greg's techy explanation:
It looks to me like the project is now using elevations from Google Earth. They originally used elevations from the GT30 1km footprint elevation data. Then, in 2005, I got a hold of the SRTM (Space Shuttle Radar Topography) data (the best data to date), and convinced them to change the data for the top 50 highest confluence points. Now it has changed again, and I've already contacted the project to find out their source. I want to make sure it is worthy.
Greg went into overdrive to find the source of the updated elevation data, spending weeks e-mailing back and forth with a shadowy Google Earth authority code-named Penguin Opus, a German- and French-speaking Scottish topography expert with an Italian name, and various DCP coordinators in Canada, Russia, and the Middle East. I received messages from him with titles like "russian plot," "a plot of points," and, eventually, "Bolivia." It was finally confirmed: We were going to 18°S 69°W, a confluence that was according to all the best data sets at least 300 feet higher than the one in Peru.
A truism of confluence hunting is that you never really know what the obstacles will be. In a string of last-minute e-mails from Brazil, Greg advised Paolo and me to be ready for anything. What looked "so inviting" on Google Earth could be treacherous in real life. We should bring crampons and ice axes. We should bring a tent and a stove. We should factor in extra time for things to go wrong.
"It could be a walk in the park," he wrote, "but, as in a lot of confluence hunting, you just need to be prepared for the unforeseen."
WE ARRANGED TO RENT a Land Cruiser in a dimly lit office in Uyuni, arriving at 6 p.m. and hoping they could have it ready by six the next morning. Time was running out for Criso and Maria, who we were told would pilot the jeep, to buy fuel and supplies, but Greg was meticulous, almost rudely so, reading a checklist out loud and asking repeatedly about water, food, spare tires, hotels along the way, what the food was, what the hotels were like, how many spares there were, how well Criso knew his vehicle, etc.
"I've had problems with Land Cruisers in Tibet," he explained. He was agitated, as if the closer he got to the confluence, the more it weighed on him, the more he wanted to control the variables. In the morning, he got up at 5 A.M., an hour early, waking himself just to organize his backpack and ensure all his gadgets were in order. He was so thorough that he was still the last one ready.
Between Uyuni and the confluence is the world's largest salt flat, some 65 miles by 65 miles. The Salar de Uyuni sits at 12,000 feet, is shaped like an amoeba, and is filled, unsurprisingly, with salt: man-made salt mounds, a salt hotel, a salt highway, saltwater springs, and blinding salt-pan views from cactus-dotted "islands." We rolled onto it at dawn, and Greg was serene again, happy about Criso and Maria's (short-lived) familiarity with our surroundings. We stopped briefly at a salt-mining operation. We ate breakfast at the salt hotel, at a table made of salt. Undisturbed, the Salar's perfectly white surface had dried to form a mosaic of interlocking hexagons that stretches miles across the emptiness, and in the distance we sometimes saw mirages or speeding trucks whose hum sounded like a jet taking off. Greg bent over to lick one of the ridges "just to make sure" it was salt. It was.
Our route took us less than a mile from 20°S 68°W, low-hanging fruit that had been bagged twice before. Perhaps for the benefit of Paolo and me, Greg decided we should go for it anyway, so after lunch he and I pulled out our GPS units and watched the numbers tick down. On Greg's wrist was an altimeter/compass watch. He had the Google Earth screen shots on his music player as well as printouts of the same, plus photocopies of some military topos. He had a backup GPS, a backup camera, and a backup compass in his bag. Combined with the arsenals Paolo and I have, this brought us to a total of three compasses, four GPS units, six cameras, and perhaps three dozen maps. We were ready for action, and I could not deny the excitement of the moment when it came.
"Tell him to slow down and go to the left," Greg told me, and I relayed his message in Spanish. Criso veered off the track, and the hum of our wheels quieted. My GPS showed the distance dropping rapidly: 1.35 kilometers, 900 meters, 250 meters, 45 meters. "Now, now, now Stop!" Greg yelled. We threw open the doors. It was windy out and very cold, and the salt crunched underfoot as I waved my GPS back and forth, trying to follow it in.
"Now I usually get out my compass and try to figure out where I need to go to make the zero," Greg said. "The GPS read .007, which meant we were a little south." We strode north, then slightly east, and my newer GPS locked it in: 20°00.000'S, 68°00.000'W, accuracy plus or minus three meters. "Photograph it as quickly as possible," Greg advised. "It'll change." He lurched back and forth, trying to get his own GPS to zero out the "confluence dance." Soon he hit it, too, and grabbed for his camera. We snapped photos in the four cardinal directions of salt, salt, salt, and salt, respectively. Greg pulled out a pad and scribbled some notes. He smiled. We were done. As we left, he took a one-boliviano coin from his pocket and placed it on the confluence agift for any brave explorers who followed.
Thus baptized, we drove out of the Salar and into the unknown, following a web of dirt roads toward Sajama, stopping for directions in almost every windswept village, relying more and more on the GPS and map. In one village, Llica, Criso asked the guys at an auto shop which direction we should go. Straight, they said. We passed a family of quinoa farmers working a barren patch of dust, Maria hopped out, and we all watched as they pointed back the way we'd come.
We found our way across a smaller salt flat, then rumbled through the Altiplano, passing deserted villages, sand dunes, and Stonehenge-like clusters of rock tombs, called chullpas, which Maria said are filled with the bones of an ancient race of midgets who were killed by the sun. We picked up and got directions from a hitchhiking grandmother and her four grandchildren, backtracked out of the bog, talked down some soldiers who wanted a bribe, got lost and found our way a half-dozen times, and overnighted in a truckers' hostel in a run-down border town. Now, on the afternoon of the second day, we've finally reached Sajama National Park, where we see a herd of alpacas grazing on the flanks of the namesake volcano.
Opposite the volcano is the confluence peak we recognize it on sight and Greg has a final request for Criso and Maria: that we use the remaining daylight to detour toward the peak and scout our line. They bristle. "Our job was to take you to Tomarapi," Criso says.
"No, no, no we need to get as close as we can," Greg says, his voice tense. "It's so ridiculous. Of all the out-of-the-way stuff we did today, we can't do this? This is the most important thing."
They go silent and make long faces, hoping he'll relent. He doesn't. Just before Tomarapi, we turn off and drive most of the way up the jeep track and stare at our destiny. It looks more or less like it did on Google Earth. Even so, we use Paolo's long lens to shoot close-up photos of the confluence, the volcanic bulge it sits upon, and the cliffs guarding the approach. That night, after a quinoa-and-soup dinner at the eco-lodge, we pull out my laptop, upload Paolo's photos, and compare them with maps and printouts until we're certain our ridge route is best. Paolo and I go to bed early, but Greg stays up late, shuffling and organizing, readying his pack, his cameras, and his multiple GPS units.
AT 5:30 A.M., WITH THE WORLD still dark, Greg sits upright in bed and flicks on his headlamp. For 15 minutes he stays wrapped in his blankets and barely moves, the beam of his headlamp conveniently pointed across the room at my face as I try to keep sleeping. Various alarms on watches, cell phones, etc. begin going off, but he doesn't move to disarm them, instead grumbling about the cold and loudly blowing his nose. He gets up and puts on deodorant, then begins walking back and forth across the room, pulling things out of bags, putting them in other bags, scattering his gear about the floor. Paolo and I get dressed. When Greg finishes his shuffling, he remembers his contact lenses and walks to the bathroom to put them in. He takes a moment to slick back his hair in the mirror. We're ready to go.
A park employee picks us up, and after 20 minutes we're at 14,700 feet, throwing on our packs in a boulder field near the foot of the ridge. The temperature hovers around freezing. A herd of wild vicuñas stands a few hundred yards uphill, and the clouds hugging the surrounding volcanoes are already burning off. Before we start walking, Greg pulls out a bag of coca leaves Maria gave him. He kneels and sticks a few down an animal hole near a big rock his way of currying favor with the native goddess of the earth: "Uh, OK, Pachamama, here you go." He also sticks a few leaves in his mouth, hoping they'll make his altitude headache go away.
We walk up the scrub slope, passing juniper-like queñua trees the highest-altitude trees in the world. The false summit is dead ahead, bathed in early sunlight; glacier-covered Sajama is directly at our backs.
"I think this is going to be easy a piece of cake," says Paolo.
"I think it's going to be harder than we think," says Greg.
"Tomorrow we should go on a jeep tour," says Paolo.
"Let's think about tomorrow tomorrow," says Greg. "Right now let's think about the confluence."
After an hour and a half, we gain the ridge, which greets us with a blast of cold wind that nearly knocks Greg and Paolo down. The confluence is before us, somewhere on an escarpment in the middle of a vast bowl of scree our first good view. Greg waves his arms and yells through the wind: "I've got to take a bearing!" When he's done, we back away from the edge until we're out of the wind. He fiddles with his altimeter watch and peers up the hill. "You know," he says, "people thought it was stupid when Edmund Hillary tried to climb Everest, too."
The altitude sinks in. My head starts to pound. Greg starts taking break after break, hunching over with his right hand on his knee, almost hyperventilating. Only Paolo seems unaffected: He's bounding ahead, waiting for us at every rise and flat spot. We reach the final pitch just after 2 p.m., and Greg stuffs his mouth with the rest of the coca leaves. He surges forward the first to reach the false summit, the first to take in its vertiginous views of Sajama, the twin volcanoes to our west, and the twin lakes at their base. Paolo and I follow, and in that instant, confluence hunting makes perfect sense: It's an excuse to see places like this. For 20 minutes, we take photos in every direction. Greg gets antsy. "All right, all right, let's go get it," he says. "Let's go." We snap a few last shots. When we look up again, he's gone, running with newfound energy downhill toward the confluence.
Paolo and I follow Greg's footsteps down a scree slope, skirting the couloirs and the first band of cliffs, then sliding on our tails down a ten-foot patch of steep, icy snow. Greg waits just long enough at the saddle for me to catch up. "We're 134 meters away," he says, breathless. We run up a small knoll, weave through vertical fins of reddish rock, and start dropping again. "One hundred meters!" he yells. Up ahead, the escarpment appears to fall off into nothing. "What the hell is on the other side of this?" he asks this isn't how Google Earth said it would be.
We proceed slowly. The rock underfoot is loose. The wind picks up. At 40 meters out, we begin downclimbing a steep slope that rolls over into a true cliff; at 17 meters, Greg ditches his pack and descends alone into a scree-filled chute. Below him, one slip away, is a yawning drop tens or hundreds of feet high we can't see the bottom. The wind sends pebbles avalanching over the edge. "I'm going to try to get all zeroes," Greg yells. He inches downward, his left hand on the rock wall, his right hand holding the GPS. He swings the receiver right, then left 17°59.994'S, 69°00.008'W 17°59.993'S, 69°00.006'W. He's still a dozen meters away. Shaking, with gloved hands, he documents the imperfect visit photos of the north, east, south, and west and then gets a slightly better reading, 17°59.994'S, 69°00.000'W, that appears as he and I scramble out. And he's not done.
Back on the rim we find a shivering, suddenly delirious Paolo, who's being blasted by the wind as he shoots photos of Greg's conquest. His Camelbak has frozen; his head hurts; he's dehydrated. Greg jogs past him. "Wait, wait, where are you going?" Paolo asks. Greg tells him we're going the long way around a route back that could take us closer to the base of the cliff, closer to the confluence. "It's getting really windy," Paolo growls. "It's getting late. If anything happens now, it's a big deal. If anyone gets hurt, it's a big deal."
Greg is unmoved, and I, admittedly, back him up I want to see him bag it. We climb to the saddle and race down a scree field, surfing on sliding rocks and kicking up clouds of sulfurous yellow dust. Our shadows grow long. Once parallel to the base of the cliff, Greg begins to traverse a steep slope of loose rock an inch or two of gravel over frozen earth, too slippery to stand on. He pulls out his ice ax for extra purchase. He crawls eastward like a crab, confluence-bound, and for a moment I believe nothing will stop him. But then he slips and falls, and he slips and falls again, and he sits down and stares wistfully at his prize, 200 yards away. Reality sets in. He starts to descend.
The slope funnels us to the bottom of a broad valley, and we're alone in the Andes, our footprints the only ones as we tromp through the sand. Sajama is a beacon, the last thing illuminated by the fleeting daylight, and the wind is gone, the air calm. We walk toward the volcano and slow our pace. Greg gives Paolo some of his water. He looks up at the cliff. "Well, we got the confluence," he says. "We didn't get to check out that bottom part, but we got it. We got the highest confluence in the Americas." He pauses. "I might have to come here someday with ropes," he says. He pauses again. "We can still go back tomorrow and get the bottom," he says. "I mean, if you guys want to."
6,000 Miles to Moscow: Hitchhiking the new Trans-Siberian Highway with Russia's car shepherds
6,000 Miles to Moscow: Hitchhiking the new Trans-Siberian Highway with Russia's car shepherds
I have a friend in the tire business in Vladivostok. Alexei Gorbunov is 26, bearded, and not much of a dancer, and when we first met in the bar of the M.V. Rus car ferry in the middle of the Sea of Japan, he was drunk out of his mind. He was not alone. The dance floor was filled with gyrating car traders and scrap metal dealers and a troupe from Moscow's Bolshoi Circus, which was taking the slow boat home after a tour in Japan. There were a few foreigners on board—a Finnish girl running from a boyfriend in Tokyo, a Japanese family about to take the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Germany, a Serbian motorbiker on his way back overland to Belgrade—but the vibe and pounding techno were perfectly Russian. The crowd drank vodka. The acrobats threw backflips.
Outside there were used Japanese cars everywhere. There were cars on the roof deck and cars on the bow, cars around the swimming pool and cars next to the lifeboats. Inside the pool, which had been drained the day before we set sail, were two identical SUVs sandwiching a white Honda minivan. Down in the hold were more used cars, eight circus tigers, five bears, 13 trained house cats, and hundreds of Alexei's tires. Judging from the bottle after bottle of expensive champagne that Alexei bought, shook up, and sprayed all over the circus girls, the tire business is lucrative.
A day's sail away was Vladivostok, the beginning of the newly opened Trans-Siberian Highway—arguably the longest highway in the world. The five-year-old road, the first to connect one half of Russia to the other, was the reason this ferry transported so many used cars: No one wanted them in Japan, where regulations make it difficult to keep vehicles for more than a few years, and now there was a cheap way to get them to market in Russia's big cities. The highway was the reason Alexei sold so many tires: Rather than go west via semitruck or train, most of the imports are simply driven across the void. The highway was also the reason photographer Aaron Huey and I were here: Banking on a glut of empty westbound seats, we planned to hitchhike 6,000 miles to Moscow. Exploring Siberia was once synonymous with the Trans-Siberian Railroad, a form of travel as controlled and preprogrammed as the economy once was. Hitchhiking was the other extreme—as freewheeling and sometimes desperate as Russia's new reality—and from the moment we hit shore, we'd have no idea how to find our next ride.
The next afternoon on the ship, Aaron and I found Alexei in a café with octopus drawings on the wall and windows that looked out at the cars in the swimming pool. He bought us a lunch of raw salmon, laughingly pointed out mistakes in our Russian phrase book, and then pulled the SIM card out of the back of his cell phone and handed it to me. I could stick it in my own phone to have a local number. "This way I know how to call you," Alexei said. "And you can call me." After a few days in Vladivostok, we called him. The city of nearly 600,000—officially "closed" and foreigner free in Communist times—was now vast and growing and beset by Toyota traffic jams, its hotels filled with Japanese tourists, Chinese businessmen, and, for whatever reason, North Korean gymnasts. We met Alexei at a downtown sweets shop across from the modestly named Square of the Fighters for Soviet Power in the Far East, which was covered with children's chalk drawings of Siberian tigers —we'd just missed September's annual celebration of the 500 or so cats that remain in the region. The shop occupied a corner of a department store, Gostiny Dvor, which for decades sold some of the only consumer goods in Vladivostok. We ordered green tea and chocolate cake, and to a background of nostalgic, organ-heavy folk songs, Aaron and I quizzed Alexei about the car business. Where had all the Isuzus and Subarus from the ferry gone? Did Vladivostok have giant auto auctions, big dealerships, hidden lots? Would anyone want to give us a ride?
The buyers, Alexei said, were mostly small-time entrepreneurs from cities thousands of miles to the west. They met similarly small-time importers in a sprawling open-air lot, known as Green Corner, that inhabited a weed-ridden hillside in the suburbs. It was a giant automotive flea market—resurgent capitalism at its finest—and on weekends there were as many as 10,000 vehicles. The outsiders came in groups of three or four or five, arriving by train and returning in caravans—one man per car on the long, lawless road. Some carried guns to scare off bandits. They drove west for a week, resold their cars, and came back, frantically living the revamped Russian dream: Go east, young man. Then go west. Then east again. Then west again. To describe these drivers of fortune, there was even a word, peregonchik, meaning "mover" or, more poetically, "car shepherd."
Alexei offered to take us to Green Corner. He could introduce us to his friends. "Everything is possible," he told us. "You just have to find the right guy."
Look at a map of Russia and you see that most of the country, roughly 75 percent, is Siberia. It is a cold place—this much we know—and in our imagination it consists of bears, taiga, and shuttered gulags: wilderness via benign neglect, the last big empty. But this image is incomplete. It ignores Siberia's populated core—Novosibirsk and Omsk are both million-plus-person cities—and ignores the cultures reemerging in the relative open of post-Soviet Russia. Most of all it ignores the encroachment of the rest of the world. European railroaders and tourists from neighboring Japan, China, and South Korea are now so common in Vladivostok it can be hard to find a hotel room. The new highway, a Silk Road for an economy running on petroleum rather than on cloth and spices, is just one line being drawn across the expanse. Another is the trans-Siberian pipeline, a $15.5 billion, 2,580-mile-long, four-foot-wide tube that will parallel the highway for a large portion of its route, moving Russian oil to Asian and American buyers. A second pipeline, this one for natural gas, may soon cut across Siberia's pristine Ukok Plateau on its way to China. There are plans for new roads to the north and west and new oil wells in every direction.
The Far East region that contains Vladivostok is roughly the size of Western Europe, with a shrinking population just smaller than Switzerland's. Tigers poached here end up in China, as do the pine trees cut illegally in its vast forests. In Plastun, a port town near a tiger reserve in the Sikhote-Alin mountains, ships leave with logs and return with Japanese cars. Up the Pacific coast, Russian fishermen meet Japanese processing ships in the middle of the ocean and transfer their catch—it never even touches Russian shores. Roads have recently punched into the region's last two unlogged watersheds.
Farther to the west, in the remote Amur Basin adjacent to China, hydroelectric dams are being built to export power across the border. On the quiet southern shores of Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater body in the world, the central government has announced a new, 270-square-mile special tourism zone. There are plans for faster and bigger roads, ski resorts, five-star hotels, golf courses, spas, yacht moorings, sports halls, and a center for Tibetan medicine. Within 20 years, two million annual visitors are expected. Siberia is opening.
The 19th-century novelist Nikolai Gogol once wrote that Russia suffers two misfortunes: "fools and bad roads." Of all the projects breaking ground in the country's wild east, the Trans-Siberian Highway is the most overtly patriotic, the most closely tied to its rebounding sense of self. "Russia," says Serge Poleshuk, the rotund deputy head of Rosavtodor, the federal highway agency, "is coming back into the ranks of the superpowers." The highway will help the nation sell more oil, timber, and minerals to the world—more leverage to fuel an increasingly assertive foreign policy—but more important, it shows what Russia is capable of. Vladimir Putin himself was there for the official unveiling. In late February 2004, days before the election that gave him his second and final term as president (though not, it turns out, as leader), he stood in the snows near the city of Khabarovsk, cut a ribbon colored in the white, blue, and red of the Russian flag, and declared it possible to drive from sea to shining sea. He said the superhighway would be fully paved by 2008, uniting the country in this century as 1903's Trans-Siberian Railroad did in the last.
The long-standing barrier to this national moment—the gap Putin claimed to have defeated—is the Amur, a 1,300-mile-wide swath of swamps and unbound taiga a few days north of Vladivostok. The Amur is the peregonchiks' greatest challenge. Since 2001, the highway agency has spent roughly 10 percent of its $2.5 billion annual budget taming it, cutting a path through 700 miles of wilderness and improving hundreds of miles of existing jeep tracks. They've logged and graded and paved. They've blasted and bridged. But a true highway—something more than the Amur's current hodgepodge of smooth blacktop, mud, potholes, and single-lane gravel—is many years and an estimated $1 billion away. For now, it's mostly a bad road and a great metaphor. Like Russia's rebirth, it's more than a little rough.
Even after the peregonchiks exit the Amur and the highway begins to look more like a highway, there are still 4,000 miles to go: through renascent Buddhist country in the Buryatia region, near iconic Lake Baikal, then through villages of Old Believers—Russia's Amish, a 17th-century breakaway sect of the Orthodox Church who found refuge in Siberia—and then toward the population centers of Irkutsk and Krasnoyarsk. Then past a spur road leading south to the animist Republic of Tuva, and past another spur leading toward the 14,000-foot peaks of the Altay region. Then into the Ural Mountains—the traditional border between Asia and Europe, between Siberia and more domesticated parts of Russia—where the highway becomes many highways: through Chelyabinsk, the industrial birthplace of the Katyusha rocket (a mujahideen favorite), through Kazan, the mosque-dotted center of oil-rich, Muslim Tatarstan, and through Vladimir, a gilded medieval capital. All lead to Moscow.
Alexei was simultaneously one of the best and scariest drivers I have ever known. It was a Saturday morning when he picked us up at our overpriced Vladivostok hotel, a ridgetop tower that smelled strongly of smoke (they hadn't mentioned the recent fire when we checked in). His car was a white Toyota luxury sedan with gold trim, leather seats, and an official piece of paper marked "Tranzit" stuck to the windshield—a recent arrival. Its steering wheel, like that of all Japanese imports here, was on the right, the wrong side in left-hand-drive Russia. Its stereo pumped out loud electronica that heightened the feeling of being in a video game, of it being OK to weave through traffic at 80 miles an hour. We raced down the hill, taking in views of Orthodox churches and windswept Golden Horn Bay, and entered a crowded six-lane road. We swerved from lane to lane, passing everyone. After ten minutes we took a roaring left up a hill and were surrounded by used cars.
Green Corner was unimpressive at first, but we soon understood its size. It was not one lot but many, each hidden by a fold in the hill. One area held Japanese cranes and heavy equipment. Another was almost exclusively SUVs. There were loudspeakers offering instant, walk-up credit, men selling insurance from trailers, and guard dogs leaping out at anyone who got too close to a Camry. There were mechanics, restaurants, and acres of tires and rims. There were Mazda MPVs, Mitsubishi Delicas, Nissan Serenas, Suzuki Samurais, Daihatsu Terios, and Toyotas plastered with Japanglish stickers: "Reasons why I choose this car is that it will totally satisfy my requirements for outdoor living," and "Well, tomorrow, where shall we go?"
Alexei introduced us to a friend, Andrei Shtirkhunov, who was wearing black jeans, a black Versace jean jacket, a black Versace cap, and a black Dolce & Gabbana belt. He was hawking ten nearly new Toyota Land Cruisers, almost all of them silver or white, almost all of them with CD/DVD packages. Shtirkhunov told us he'd been in the car business since the birth of capitalism in 1991—a golden period of zero import tariffs, 100 percent profits, and exponential growth. Cars were shipped west on the train, still cheap in those days, or, during the long winter, driven through the Amur on frozen rivers. (Even today, the highway is faster and smoother in winter—ice and snow fill in the potholes—but caravans are mandatory; if a peregonchik breaks down while alone, he'll freeze to death.) Sell one car back then and you could buy two. Sell two and you could buy four.
"It was the '90s," Shtirkhunov said. "We were all teenagers running around with shaved heads and leather jackets." Sailors were the only people bringing vehicles from Japan, and when their ships pulled into port, armed gangs sometimes attacked, stealing the cargo. He went into business with his four best friends, two of whom eventually died of gunshot wounds. The others got rich. Shtirkhunov told us he'd even become a candidate for city council. "So how did you raise the money to buy your first car?" I asked. "We attacked a ship and stole our first car," he said.
It was easy to spot the peregonchiks at Green Corner: packs of hard-faced men in fake Adidas tracksuits who never took their eyes off the wares. We tried to stop a few to ask if they would be driving west—"Excuse me, where are you from?" "Excuse me, are you driving to the Amur?"—but they barely acknowledged us, grunting that they were too busy to chat. In one back lot, a seller wearing a gold chain and a Slayer T-shirt suggested that we become peregonchiks ourselves: We'd earn a couple thousand dollars if we resold his Honda in Novosibirsk. He said 10,000 rubles (about $400) would buy us a letter from the mafia guaranteeing safe passage through the Amur.
We began to make real progress when we met a woman wiping down a black Nissan Cube, a tiny box with tiny wheels. She seemed to want to help us. Once the Cube was clean and gleaming in the sun, she led us over to another Cube dealer, a man with such doughy, red cheeks that we immediately christened him Babyface. He had a buyer coming in from the Altay in a few days.
"You will pay for some of his gas?" Babyface asked. "Of course," we said. "I think he will be interested."
We spent the next days with Alexei: a karaoke party featuring five kinds of caviar, a sauna night with a bunch of fat men in towels, a sushi meal at an expensive restaurant for the nouveau riche and their imitators, and a turn at the disco with our own tanklike bodyguard, Alexei's friend Sam. It was the good life, but we were antsy to leave. We were eating one afternoon at Café Nostalgia, a quiet spot with portraits of the tsars on the walls, when my phone rang. It was Babyface: "The buyer is here and wants to leave today."
We had minutes to get ready. We wolfed our food, ran uphill to the hotel, and grabbed our backpacks. Alexei met us there in his Toyota, and then he sped us to Babyface's meeting point, a bus stop on the outskirts of town. Babyface was waiting, as was a thin man he introduced as Evgeni: our ride. There was little time for goodbyes. We hugged Alexei, threw our bags in the car, and began rumbling west.
It was rush hour as we pulled out of Vladivostok, and Evgeni—a first-time peregonchik— seemed unaccustomed to sharing the road. Traffic circles required his utmost concentration. Our caravan consisted of us and a middle-aged man named Vadim who drove a yellow 1997 Mitsubishi Fuso Fighter, a light truck fitted with a crane. In the bed of the Fuso was a gray Honda CR-V: double the profit for the same amount of driving. Evgeni was piloting a tiny, silver Nissan Cube identical to the ones at the market, and soon he was tailgating Vadim so closely that we feared an accident. He kept both hands on the wheel and stared dead ahead, expressionless. He had a narrow, sharp-featured face, a week's worth of scruff, and the smell of a man who had just ridden the train 3,000 miles from the Altay without showering or changing clothes. I offered him some peanuts. He wouldn't take them—too distracting. The only things that drew his eyes off the road were cigarettes, which he fumbled for every few minutes and ashed out the window lest they dirty the interior.
Evgeni lit a cigarette as he filled our first tank of gas, which Aaron and I bought: 376.48 rubles, or $16. Civilization had given way to rolling, wooded tiger country, its broadleaf trees bathed in rich evening light. Oncoming traffic disappeared in the face of a steady, westbound flow of transit cars, their hoods, grilles, and side panels covered with cardboard and athletic tape: protection from flying rocks. We passed a series of villages: timber homes set in yellow fields. Pensioners with Soviet-built cars waited alongside the road and tried to sell onions or potatoes to the stream of shiny Japanese imports.
Soon we reached a police checkpoint, where officers with wands and barricades and blue uniforms waved down whomever they pleased to collect "fines." Our car was stopped, and after five minutes in a back office with his transit documents, Evgeni—an obvious mark if ever there was one—came back looking shaken.
The gravel began at exactly 8 p.m., just after sunset. We could see the taillights ahead start bobbing up and down in the washboards, and the Cube began to shake. Evgeni slowed to a ludicrous six miles an hour. Other peregonchiks flew past in waves. "You've got to be kidding me," Aaron moaned. We hit pavement again after a few miles, but for the rest of the evening it was back and forth: asphalt, gravel, asphalt, gravel. When the road was good, Evgeni might speed up to 55 or even 75 miles an hour. On gravel he rarely topped 15.
We slept that night as the peregonchiks did—in our car—in the parking lot of a roadside café. Aaron was in the backseat of the tiny Cube, I took shotgun, and Evgeni stayed in the driver's seat he had occupied for the previous eight hours. We Americans had sleeping bags; Evgeni had a gray sweater and track pants. He left the motor running and the heat blasting. When it got hot, he turned the car off. When it got cold, he turned it back on, alternately shivering and sweating until dawn. The 30 or 40 drivers around us were doing the same.
The landscape changed over the next days: fewer hills, fewer houses, smaller stands of trees breaking up expanses of savanna, fog hanging 20 feet above the long grass and rising like smoke off ponds and slow-moving rivers. It was summer elsewhere, but a few hundred miles north of Vladivostok, it had become autumn in full. Trees' leaves were orange or gone altogether, and forests of larch were changing phase—Christmas trees turned yellow. Aaron and I spent hours staring out the windows, barely talking except to point out the odd farmhouse, tractor, or cemetery. We tried to find the names of the villages we passed on our map, but they were usually too small, or Siberia was too big.
We drove through the Khabarovsk Territory, where until a recent crackdown mafia had exacted a tax on passing peregonchiks, then through Birobidzhan, the capital of the Jewish Autonomous Region—a Stalin-built homeland meant to offer a Marxist alternative to Zionism—where we leaned out the windows to snap photos of Yiddish signs and the giant menorah in front of the train station. Here freedom of movement had meant freedom to flee to Israel; the population was now more than 90 percent ethnic Russian. We passed but didn't see the new rocket-launching cosmodrome near the village of Svobodnyy the former site of a 200,000-inmate gulag. Our surroundings became ever swampier, darker, more leafless—burned not by fire but by deadening cold. Civilization was soon reduced to gas stations and diners, all catering to peregonchiks, all as new as the highway itself. Two nights in a row, Vadim chose modern NK Alliance gas stations as our resting point, and Aaron and I pitched our tent next to the Fuso, peering out at a forested wilderness lit fluorescent green by 24-hour lights.
The Cube rolled forward into the innermost Amur, and Evgeni looked increasingly like a bleary-eyed heroin addict from the movie Trainspotting. I tried to make conversation. Did the have a buyer lined up in the Altay? "Nyet," he said. "Na bazaar." He planned to take the Cube to the bazaar. He'd just sit there and wait a week or three until someone bought it. The car had cost him about $5,700, and he hoped to sell it for a thousand more—a one- off deal that would take at least a month of his life. He had a wife and two young daughters. I got the impression that all his savings, and perhaps his extended family's, were invested in this Cube. It put his grandmotherish driving in perspective.
Five days from Vladivostok, we saw our first wreck—a charred minivan smoldering alongside the car it'd been towing, a two-for-one setup gone bad—and began passing armadas of heavy equipment: graders, bulldozers, and dump trucks moving masses of gray rock. Tajiks and Uzbeks, the guest workers of Russia, rumbled by in yellow steamrollers. At nearly the center of the Amur, we reached a piece of highway so intense and impressive that Aaron and I decided to hop out of the convoy and camp. It was the Trans- Siberian Highway's last major hurdle, the wild Amur's last stand: a mountainside that blocked the highway's path, forcing work crews to slice a gash through it with all the dynamite they could muster. A fleet of dump trucks stood by to carry away the rubble, and the peregonchiks had to wend up a single-lane track at the edge of it all, peering 300 feet down into the cut. We hid our tent in a stand of quaking aspen and kept a running tab of passing transit cars: one or two or three a minute, an average of 77 an hour, a torrent of plastic and metal.
The next morning, after a few luckless hours trying to flag down a new ride, Aaron drew a big dollar sign on a piece of paper and began waving it in the air. We got a car to Baikal almost immediately. The driver who stopped was named Ivan, and for two days in his very fast convoy, speeding through wide open territory that looked increasingly like Montana but with Cyrillic signage and meaner dogs, he quizzed us about America. Is gas cheap? (Slightly more than in Russia.) How much do cell phone minutes cost? (About a third as much as in Russia.) What kind of cars did we own? (Japanese cars, both of us.) We passed through villages of Old Believers—gingerbread homes, gardens, babushkas in headscarves, a stereotype of rural Russia—and we told Ivan that this was the most expensive country either of us had visited. In cities, hotels and restaurants seemed priced for that small sliver of society that could afford most anything. Everyone else stayed home or slept in cars.
Ivan bragged that his ex-girlfriend had been a guard at the Chinese border near Vladivostok, and that she'd extracted bribes from everyone who entered. "Is border guard a prestigious job in America?" he asked.
Ulan Ude, the capital of Buryatia and gateway to Lake Baikal, our first civilization in days, is a city famous for its vacuum cleaners. It also has the world's largest Lenin head— 12 tons of cement in the main square—and a factory that once made the strongest locomotives on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. According to our de facto guide, Darima Nomoeva, a 22-year-old manager of a tour company whose office was in the lobby of our shabby but expensive hotel, the locally built vacuums worked for decades (her mother's had lasted 30 years). But now the factory, along with the locomotive plant, was closed. Like the Lenin head, they were relics, and Buryats were embracing another identity.
Tibetan Buddhism has been here since well before 1741, when it was recognized as one of Russia's official religions, and lately, like their Mongolian cousins, locals are reconnecting with the old beliefs. On our first day, Darima took Aaron and me to a monastery, the Ivolginsky Datsan. We wound out of town through rust-colored fields—this was still big- sky country—and she admitted that she didn't speak the local language. Though a full- blooded Buryat, mistaken for Japanese when in Moscow, she'd spoken Russian growing up —part of the confusion of being a young Siberian raised by old communists. She was finding her way. Her previous job, at a TV station owned by the mayor, had been "boring": They reported the mayor's successes while their rival station, owned by a political opponent, reported failures. In her new position with tourism pioneer Svetlana Timofeyevna, one of the first to bring foreigners through Buryatia in the early '90s, she'd gotten in trouble for quadrupling the office Internet bill. Darima had a picture of Che Guevara on her $400 Nokia phone, and she liked Hubba Bubba gum. She was a fan of Mongolian alternative rock and Chinese hip-hop. But she was also religious, or at least newly traditional. When we passed a set of prayer flags, she borrowed a few coins from me and tossed them out the window as an offering.
The datsan was observing one of six annual holy days: the celebration that marked autumn and the Buddha of the Future. The grounds were swarming with novices in maroon robes and local worshippers in jeans and leather jackets. In the main temple, two dozen senior lamas were praying; loudspeakers carried their chants throughout the complex. Everywhere were Dalai Lama photos, along with prayer wheels, stupas, and Buddha statues. There were visiting monks from India, Tuva, and Mongolia. In a room in the datsan's brick schoolhouse, novices made thangkas (paintings) for three new temples now under construction.
In the 1930s, Darima told us, Buryatia had 37 major datsans and a hundred country temples, and all were razed by Communist authorities. She said 400 lamas, Orthodox priests, and Old Believers were put on a boat and sunk to the bottom of the Selenga River, and 10,000 monks were killed or sent to the gulags. A nearby factory turned religious icons into furniture. In 1945, after an appeal to Stalin by a delegation of Buryats, this datsan was reopened as the only legal Buddhist site in the Soviet Union. For the last five years, it had been in the midst of a tremendous rebuilding.
In an incense-filled cabin, we met with the leader of Siberia's one million Buddhists, Damba Ayusheyev, the 25th Pandito Hambo Lama. He told us of the miracles Buryatia was witnessing. Chief among them was the exhumation of the 12th Pandito Hambo Lama, who before his death in 1927 directed students to check on his body someday. When disinterred in 2002, Ayusheyev said, the body was perfectly intact, muscles and skin showing no signs of decay. More recently, images of a bodhisattva had been discovered on a rock in the Barguzin Valley near Lake Baikal: the fulfillment of a prophecy. "We were told that Buddhism would move north," Ayusheyev said. "Look at India, it is no longer so Buddhist. Look at Nepal, it is the same. Look even at Tibet, it has been taken over by China. But up here in Buryatia, it is coming back." Along with pipelines, roads, and foreign-built cars, religion is creeping into Siberia. "I am not saying that Buryatia is the center of Buddhism," he continued. "But in 20 or 30 years, it might be."
We spent the next four days at Baikal, the deepest and largest lake in the world, home to a fifth of the planet's surface fresh water, ocean blue and so vast as to seem immune to change. Once a winding, six-hour drive away from Ulan Ude, it was soon to become hours closer on a new spur highway. On our way there, we saw scenes reminiscent of the Amur: trees ripped out at their roots, wide corridors of stumps destined to be highway, meandering former roads now cut off and unused, laborers in orange vests warming themselves by campfires. The special tourist zone slated for major construction, though, was still undeveloped but for a new datsan. For now, our destination, Zabaikalsky National Park, famous for its mountainous Holy Nose Peninsula and freshwater Baikal seals, was equally quiet. With Darima and another local guide, Sasha Beketov, we overnighted on a 79-foot Yaroslavets-style fishing boat—the classic Baikal tourist experience, complete with vodka, hot springs, a fish cookout, and more vodka—before driving up the beautiful Barguzin Valley, a Tetons-like landscape of pine forest and broad grasslands fronting a wall of toothy peaks.
We had come to the valley, the birthplace of Genghis Khan's mother, to see the bodhisattva described by Lama Ayusheyev. It had been discovered in 2005, and already the holy site had three gleaming new temples and a path choked with pilgrims. We joined them and ascended into a forest. After 15 minutes, we came to a stand of pines whose trunks were wrapped in cloth and prayer flags. Families of Buryats circled clockwise around a Cube-size boulder, and I glimpsed a dark, oddly shaped smudge about the size of my hand: a prophecy realized, something that may or may not have been a goddess on a rock.
If Siberia is Russia's frontier, the frontier of the frontier is Tuva, a place most famous for being remote. In its brief time as an independent nation in the early 1900s, it produced stamps prized by collectors, and later its nomadic Turkic people's throat singing earned global renown. But Tuva is probably best known for being the obsession of physicist Richard Feynman, who famously and failingly tried to visit its endless steppe and its capital, Kyzyl, in the 1980s, as described in the book Tuva or Bust! Today people visit Tuva partly so they can say, "I visited Tuva," and Aaron and I were no better. We learned that Kyzyl even had an obelisk proclaiming it the geographic center of Asia—which in fact it is, provided you use a certain 1855 map projection by Scottish clergyman James Gall, which nobody ever does.
From Buryatia, Tuva was about a thousand miles to the west and 500 miles to the south. Aaron and I needed a good ride, and we found one with the unlikeliest of hitchhiking aids: the police. At a checkpoint at the edge of Ulan Ude, aided by fast-talking Darima, we convinced the officers to flag down some peregonchiks. In ten minutes we had our guys. Our unwitting hosts were slightly older and more tattooed than previous drivers—a tougher, gruffer sort of peregonchik. The three men warmed up once we said we really would pay for gas: For once, a police checkpoint yielded money rather than took it away. Soon the boss, a gold-toothed man named Volodya who wore slippers and a full tracksuit, was handing me his cell phone so I could surprise his wife: "Hello, I'm a foreigner driving with your husband!"
We crossed between the more populated western shores of Baikal and the beautiful Khamar-Daban mountains—snowy and treeless, with sharp ridges that climbed to 6,500- foot peaks—then entered the grimy metropolis of Irkutsk at rush hour. Here, 3,000 miles from Vladivostok and 3,000 from Moscow, 80 percent of the cars clogging the streets were Japanese. "Davai, davai, davai," Volodya yelled: "Let's go, let's go, let's go."
Volodya had tattoos around his fingers—a sign of having been in prison—and for the next two days he used these fingers to play with his Toyota's dash-mounted LCD. The all-in- one GPS-unit-TV-radio-RPM-gauge-thermometer was in Japanese; the menus were impossible to navigate. Driving at 65 miles an hour through rain, potholes, and our first snowstorm, Volodya fixated on finding the temperature display. For hours he distractedly clicked through screens: Beep, beep, beep, beep. Aaron and I feared for our lives. "If he keeps doing this, I'm just going to kill myself," Aaron said. But eventually Volodya found the right display—it was freezing outside, surprise, surprise—and we soon reached the city of Krasnoyarsk, a modern place with ski areas and sushi bars and Cuban-themed discos next to onion-domed churches. This was the turnoff to Tuva. We veered south, vaguely paralleling the Yenisey River, the fifth longest in the world, and spent two more days gaping out the windows at landscapes we never would have pegged as Russian: vast, shallow, electric blue lakes, Mongolia-style grasslands, and then the spiny peaks and Yosemite-like cliffs of the Ergaki Nature Park, a two-year-old regional preserve, Russia's first and certainly most stunning. It was part of a new, 7.5-million-acre string of protected areas—the cornerstone of a World Wildlife Fun strategy that favors ecotourism over extraction in increasingly mineral-crazed Siberia—and turbazas, or mountain lodges, were blooming on both sides of the pass. A day hike with a ranger had us sinking up to our knees in autumn snow.
We wanted to find Feynman's vision of Tuva, untouched and uncivilized, and the warning of the taxi driver who dropped us at our Kyzyl hotel—"Don't walk the streets after dark!"—seemed to fit. Tuva's drunks were many and violent. For three days we explored the city of beautifully painted old homes and ugly, hyper-geometrical Communist concrete only when the sun was up. At night we took cabs or simply sprinted from place to place, making wide detours around packs of staggering young men.
The drunks were a nice touch; they gave the visit a proper frontier vibe. But elsewhere, as we had seen across Siberia, capitalism was making a convincing rise. Everything "cultural" was on sale. There were throat-singing lessons for tourists—many of whom, during the summer high season, were Feynman-inspired Americans—and for-pay ceremonies at the gaudy, riverside Tos Deer shaman center. We visited a community center hoping to find local throat singers, but heard only the moaning of two new students, a German guy and a Japanese girl—and the director wanted us to pay 800 rubles, or $34, just to listen. We finally asked locals for a true shaman, one not in the Lonely Planet, where we could learn —as journalists, not tourists—about Tuvan animism.
Our hunt led us to the Mijit-Dorju center and a serene, gray-haired woman named Nadia Sat, who sat in an orange sweater in her colorful office and expressed her love for shamanism: "There is energy in water, energy in wood. You get to be in nature. Shamanism is not about sermons. It's about using the littlest things in nature to heal."
She asked us our birth years—1975 and 1976—and wrote them down on a piece of paper, then stared at them for a very long time. She started whispering to herself and stabbing at the paper with her pen. It began to feel less like an interview and more like a doctor visit. She told Aaron and me that it was our destiny to head west. We hadn't mentioned our trans-Siberian trip, so this seemed prophetic. She told me I had been rushing around too much, but that I would soon get to slow down. This also made sense. She tied yellow thread around our wrists, then pulled some poppy seeds from a drawer and wrapped them in tiny white satchels, which she blew upon, chanting our names. She handed them to us. The white color would deflect evil.
"Do you have any advice for the road?" Aaron asked. "Remember that there are two roads," she said. "The poppy can be a drug or it can be a flower." She burned a sprig of sage, and smoke filled the room as Aaron and I got up to leave. I asked if we could make a small donation for the advice.
"Just pay from your heart," she said.
"Well, we don't know what would be appropriate," I said.
Our shaman gave a beatific smile, and her eyes rose to meet mine. "Three thousand rubles would be fine," she said. "That's what foreigners usually pay." For 20 minutes she wanted $125—our budget for the next three days. We mumbled something about lacking the right change. She wouldn't hear it. I'd walked right into this one. "Three thousand would be best," she said.
True to Shaman Nadia's precious advice, Aaron and I headed west, and her bracelets gave us luck from that moment forward. Back in Krasnoyarsk, police at a checkpoint scored us a rare caravan bound for European Russia. The road was now paved and fast, and the mountains were behind us. Nearly 1,500 miles of snow and muddy fields passed in a blur. Somewhere, it was hard to pinpoint a place or moment, the frontier ended. The wave of Japanese cars petered out—ours were the only peregonchiks on the road—and we witnessed a change in tides: Used German sedans with transit plates now barreled toward us in the opposite lane. Eastbound semitrucks towed trailers stacked with SUVs. Our right- hand-drive vehicles were suddenly out of place, not to mention dangerous. Stuck looking out the wrong side of the windshield, our drivers couldn't see around what they were trying to pass. Cities were more frequent, and just as gas station tent sites became scarce, motels appeared. Truck stops took up both sides of the road, offering bright lights and kebabs roasted over a fire.
Past the Urals, our rides were all with truck drivers: a dancer turned shop owner, a young Russian with an American 18-wheeler, a pair of Muslim brothers from Tatarstan. We rolled through Ufa and Kazan and Cheboksary and Nizhniy Novgorod and Vladimir and Elektrostal until the countryside was all onion domes, train tracks, and power lines— sprawl indistinguishable from Moscow itself. Just after dark on one of the first days of November, after five weeks on the road, Aaron and I climbed down from the cab of a semi onto an apartment complex lawn. We put on our packs, strolled down the sidewalk to the metro, and rode it to the center of Moscow.
Early in our trip, surrounded by acrobats, caviar, saunas, and men in tracksuits, Aaron had said something very wise: "You know, Russia is sort of like a skit about Russia." Moscow was not like that. Rebounded from the spiral of the '90s, flush with oil money, it seemed like any other big European city, if perhaps more expensive. It had McDonald's and Sbarro pizza and endless shopping malls. The coffee shop Shokoladnitsa, an icon of perestroika, had become an ubiquitous chain, the Starbucks of Moscow. This was what Siberia's natural wealth—easier to reach with every mile of new road or pipe—had bought.
There were still oddities: the babushkas who fought over the coins tourists tossed at the Kremlin's Resurrection Gate; the new holiday whose name no one knew and whose celebration brought out thousands of marching, increasingly confident ultranationalists; the art students who told us they paid for school by painting frescoes on the ceilings of McMansions. (One described a castle that every day rotated 360 degrees with the sun.) But there was predominantly the same mass of tuned-in, cell-phone-carrying, English-speaking youth found all over Europe, neither morose nor exotic nor burdened with memories of Communism, just affluent and part of the world. The immigrants, the poor, the Russians still playing by the old rules—these people were shunted to the suburbs.
On a rainy Friday night, one of our last in Russia, Aaron and I rode the metro to the end of the Green Line, where the buildings were still sullen and Soviet. Up a set of creaky stairs we found the home of Anton Krotov, the 31-year-old founder of the Academy of Free Travel and a hitchhiking legend with a messianic beard. His grimy apartment held half a dozen backpackers—Krotov welcomes anyone who wants to crash on his floor—and on a table were copies of the 17 books he has written about his journeys. A large wall map showed his and other club members' travels: Georgia, Iran, Sudan, Kenya, Angola, Ethiopia, India, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and back and forth across Russia. Krotov espoused a philosophy of living with and off the locals—of never paying for anything you didn't have to pay for. He once spent two weeks in a Tanzanian jail for sneaking up Mount Kilimanjaro without a climbing permit.
Aaron and I had hitched across the whole of Russia, trying to see what was becoming of it, trying to live like peregonchiks, and we figured Krotov would be impressed. He was not. "What you did is very easy now," he said. "It is not like many years ago."
The Trans-Siberian Highway made it too easy. It made everything too easy. "Now there are many roads, many cars," he told us. He pointed on the map where further highways and pipelines would eventually cut across Siberia. "Supermarkets are coming. Electricity is coming. The Internet is coming. Credit cards are coming. Everything is becoming the same: Chinese goods and American freedom. Very cheap. Very easy." Krotov showed us photos of the Amur in the '90s, of a wintertime transit by foot, of snowdrifts and jeep trails and blown-out bridges. Once, he said, not so long ago, crossing Siberia was truly an adventure.
The Line: A first descent on the world's 14th-highest peak
The Line: A first descent on the world's 14th-highest peak
From his perch at 26,000 feet, Mark Newcomb peered over the edge, trying to imagine his first turns. He could see the line--an off-camber chute passing through walls of ice and stone with a rocky, 50-degree, 35-foot-wide crux as an exit exam--but from the convex bulge of snow where he stood, he couldn't see a clear way in. The winds were simply too strong, the perspective too distorted by his lack of oxygen. He sidestepped an extra 30 feet uphill, heaving with exhaustion. Then he dropped in.
It was agonizing to watch from below. The effect of altitude on a climber--nausea, dizziness, loss of muscle strength, diminished mental function--is well known. For a skier it is all of these things and another: He cannot link turns. After four or five, the dot in the 3,400-foot-long chute known as the Untch Couloir collapsed and shrank. He turned until he fell into the mountain, then slumped against the slope, sucking air. With every turn, mini tornadoes of ice swirled around him and scallops of snow as big as hubcaps broke loose. This first descent down a chute on the world's 14th-tallest peak was taking nearly everything Mark had.
Confusingly capped by three summits, Shishapangma is an imperfect mountain. The middle peak looks the highest, but in fact the westernmost peak, at 26,289 feet, stands 12 yards taller. The only 8,000-meter peak wholly situated in Tibet, it was the last to be climbed (1964) and the last to be climbed by Westerners (1980).
Nonetheless, Shishapangma is a skier's mountain: It was one of the first 8,000-meter peaks ever skied and has hosted many of ski mountaineering's most famous--and famously tragic--Himalayan expeditions. Austrian Peter Worgotter put turns down it first, in 1985. He'd skied Manaslu four years earlier, claiming the first descent from the summit of an 8,000-meter peak and ushering in a new generation of high-altitude ski mountaineers. The names of those who followed him here and on other Himalayan giants--Sylvain Saudan, Jerzy Kukuczka, Pierre Tardivel, Hans Kammerlander, Dominique Perret--compose a laundry list of Europe's great alpinists and skiers. But 8,000-meter skiing remains the fringe of an elite activity. By the end of last year, an estimated 4,000 people had stood atop an 8,000-meter summit. Fewer than 15, however, had managed to ski from one.
In April 2000, following the 1999 ski attempt on Shishapangma's southwest side that killed legendary alpinist Alex Lowe and cameraman Dave Bridges, Aspen twins Mike and Steve Marolt became the first Americans to successfully ski the north ridge. Like most Shishapangma climbers, they stopped at the Central Summit rather than cross the half-mile of exposed, double-corniced ridge to the true peak. The first Americans to ski from 8,000 meters were thus not the first to drop in from the very top of an 8,000-meter peak. That honor went to Telluride's Laura Bakos after she skied from the summit of 8,201-meter Cho Oyu five months later. Kristoffer Erickson skied Cho Oyu in 2002, and Hilaree O'Neill and Kasha Rigby repeated the feat on September 23, 2005, the day before our team left Shishapangma's Base Camp.
By all indications we were part of a boom in ski expeditions to the Himalayas. Frenchman Jean-Noel Urban--fresh from a descent of nearby Cho Oyu--was headed for the south side of Shishapangma. We'd heard rumors of skiers already in high camps on the north side. The Marolt brothers and at least three Scandinavian expeditions were training for the north side of Everest. In 2005 and 2006, at least a dozen skiers would successfully descend from 8,000 meters--as many as during all of the 1990s.
MARK NEWCOMB FIRST SHOWED UP in the annals of Himalayan skiing in 1994. At 27, he'd come with snow-board mountaineer and fellow Jackson Hole local Stephen Koch to "blast up" Shishapangma in the light-and-fast alpine style, hoping to climb from bottom to top in a single, self-sufficient push. But as part of an older, more traditional expedition, the pair ended up having to haul loads and set up camp after camp in a classical siege. Bad weather set in before they could attempt the summit. While acclimating, Mark climbed the Untch Couloir--a diagonal slash on the mountain's north wall any Tetons skier would love--and stashed his skis halfway up. The turns down the bottom half, on chalky, easy-edging snow, were habit-forming--nothing like the suffering he would experience in 2005. The line stuck in his head.
Had he succeeded in skiing the Untch from the top, Mark would have become much more than the first American down an 8,000-meter peak. His descent would have made him one of the first skiers of any nationality to ski something other than the traditional ascent route. Among the first to look at one of the big Himalayan peaks as a skier, not as a climber, then descend the prettiest line. His next attempt to ski from 8,000 meters, on Pakistan's Hidden Peak in 1995, was blocked by weather.
In 1999, Mark was an obvious pick to join Alex Lowe's expedition, which has defined Shishapangma in the minds of every skier to follow. The North Face-sponsored team amounted to a who's who of American ski mountaineering: Lowe, Erickson, Andrew McLean, Conrad Anker, Mark Holbrook, and Hans Saari. Yet Bridges and Lowe, one of the world's greatest mountaineers, died all the same in a massive class 4 avalanche.
Their objective had been a beautifully direct, 50-degree, 7,000-vertical-foot face dropping from the true summit down the southwest side of Shishapangma--one of three "holy grails," Mark says, of Himalayan skiing. Mark had been set to join them. But a few months before departure, Lowe pulled him aside at an outdoor-industry trade show and delivered an ultimatum. Drop his relationship with the gear company Marmot, or get off what had become a North Face venture. Mark bowed out.
Six years later, he was leading our Marmot-sponsored expedition back to Shishapangma. The original plan had been the still unskied holy-grail line on the southwest side. But as our ranks swelled he decided that the direct but dicey southwest route wouldn't be the safest fit. The team had grown to 13 people: a core climbing contingent of Mark, his wife Carina, and fellow Exum guides Kent McBride, Miles Smart, and Liz Oakes; a media team of photographer Gabe Rogel, filmmakers Brendan Kiernan and Frank Pickell, and me; a Nepali kitchen crew plus the smiling Tibetan they'd hired as a helper; and 23-year-old Jangbu Sherpa, who was tasked with carrying loads to offset the heavy camera equipment. It was an unwieldy, slow-moving force for a leader used to fast-and-light. But Mark is a shocking pragmatist. The aesthetic Untch Couloir, shorter than the southwest face but still unskied from the top, was barely a compromise. A first descent of the Untch would redefine Himalayan skiing--and that seemed to be, at some level, his goal.
ADVANCE BASE CAMP
We set out for Advance Base Camp (ABC) on September 24 with 29 yaks carrying 4,213 pounds of gear and food. The plateau was yellow and brown. The sky was perfectly blue. Twelve miles away the white mass of Shishapangma towered over the horizon. Our leathery-faced yak handlers, who had a reputation for stealing climbing boots, wore red sashes in their hair and kept the beasts moving with sticks and a chorus of high-pitched whistles.
ABC was in a wind-protected pocket at 18,500 feet. It already held 11 expeditions and everything that goes with them: 119 tents, trash piles, sponsors' banners, Europeans in tights, precarious outhouse tents, rows of solar panels, and the constant whir of satellite-linked computers. At least four other expeditions were attempting to ski from the summit.
The last group to arrive, we established our camp in the overflow lot 10 minutes back. Darkness set in as we rushed to erect tents dropped wherever the yaks had stopped. Liz vomited from the altitude and stumbled through camp, delirious. Kent's head was pounding. A pressure developed in Miles's chest. Six hundred feet shy of the highest elevation I'd ever attained, I felt surprisingly good--just cold. But that night I woke four times to pee as my blood thickened. My nose clogged and my tongue swelled. For the rest of the trip, my stomach turned whenever I looked at fried eggs.
Our puja, a Buddhist ceremony to bless the expedition, was held the third day in ABC. Skis and ice axes, along with bowls of rice, candles, incense, whiskey bottles, sections of a Snickers bar, and a can of Pringles Cheezums, were piled around a stone shrine Jangbu had built with two other Sherpas and Kent.
The wind picked up and a cloud veil blew over the top of Shishapangma as the Sherpas clapped and chanted: "Soooo, so, so, so, so, so...soooo." We raised a pole and strung prayer flags in five directions across camp, pounded whiskey, and smeared Tibetan barley flour on each other's faces. Ravenlike goraks swooped down to eat the sacrificial Snickers as soon as the ceremony was over.
OTHER THAN HAULING A FEW LOADS UP THE FLANKS OF THE mountain, our job for the first days was to sit in ABC and acclimate. While the rest of us drank hot chocolate in the dome tent, Mark could be seen shuffling back and forth outside, hunching his five-foot, seven-inch frame over enormous rocks and hauling them to his tent. Unable to relax, he built Shish's finest patio.
When he did hang out inside, Mark was silent, deep in an issue of The Economist. The only time we could get him talking was when Brendan and Frank stuck a camera in his face and I interjected with the occasional question. He answered with disarming honesty but little outward emotion. "I've always been a little less patient than some," he told us one afternoon in his soft, professorial tone, looking for all the world like an accountant dressed up for an expedition. He had a few days' worth of beard on his youthful face, patches of gray in his short hair, intelligent eyes behind oval glasses. He admitted to sometimes feeling like someone riding a bicycle slowly past a village, just watching strangers go about their lives, never joining in. "But when I hit my stride in the mountains," he said, "I really feel like I'm part of it all."
Carina, a Swede whom he'd met and married in Jackson three years before, shared more about his life than he did. She told us she wasn't allowed to buy him any more nice collared shirts; he already had two. When he got drunk--she'd seen it twice--he got giggly. One night, she put a Daniel-san-style headband on him, and he karate-chopped imaginary mountains in the dome tent.
Carina said Mark's quiet, serious side was a product of having a tight-lipped father. Rod Newcomb, an avalanche forecaster and famous Exum Mountain Guides old-timer, had been one of Jackson Hole's original ski bums when he moved from southern California in 1959. He was a father who cut his own firewood, filled cars from his own underground gas tank, and referred to the outdoors as the "out-of-doors." He tried hard not to push Mark toward one kind of life or another. Mark's first climbing experiences were not with his dad but with his elementary school friend Sam Lightner on a neighborhood fir tree.
Mark set the rules, Lightner says. "OK, we can only climb the north face of the tree." He was oblivious to discomfort. His birthday parties, held on New Year's Day in the depths of the subzero Jackson winter, always had to involve sledding. In high school he was an all-conference defensive back on the football team and he skied every weekend, even if, Lightner says, it was "dust on coral reef."
After college, Mark worked as a ski patroller, a snow scientist, and an Exum guide. He began skiing lines on the Grand Teton that made him, at least in Jackson, a household name: the rope-assisted first descent of the Black Ice Couloir, normally a 15-pitch climbing route, in 1994; the first descent of the Hossack-McGowan, a 52-degree, lightning-bolt-shaped couloir on the northeast face, in 1996; and, with Doug Coombs, the first descent of the hanging Otterbody Snowfield later that spring. He and Coombs also heli-guided in Valdez, Alaska, and teamed up on an expedition to Antarctica. In 2004, Exum cleared both guides to lead ski clients down the Grand Teton.
All along, there was another side to Mark: the Mandarin-speaking academe who loved logic and science and had gone to Minnesota to attend Carleton College. He was enough of a standout student to win a fellowship for a year of postgraduate travel in China. It was a time, he says, of "existential dilemmas" as he tried to choose between life in the mountains and life as an engineer or China-savvy businessman. The choice, if that's what it was, turned out to be the mountains. But with friends like Lightner and Stephen Koch, he talked constantly about changing careers.
At 38 years old, Mark was now living mostly on a guide's salary plus what Marmot paid him to write catalog copy, and he and Carina had been priced out of the housing market in his hometown. "It's hard to imagine being in an office five days a week," he said one night on Shishapangma, "but I won't be able to do this forever. My body won't let me." It seemed an absurd remark coming from someone who was faster and stronger than the Sherpa.
On September 30, after establishing tent camps at 19,100, 21,000, and 22,800 feet, the entire expedition packed into the main dome to discuss the next move. It wasn't much of a discussion. Mark said he and Kent were going up as soon as they were rested, and if anyone wanted to come along that was great. It had been a rushed acclimation--after six days we were only a stage behind groups that'd been here for a month. But the weather was holding and everyone except for Miles, whose chest pains continued, and Liz, who would wait with Miles, decided to join the push.
On October 3, we hiked a foot-worn trail up the moraine. Mark was in the lead, as always, walking with his head down, swinging his poles, looking more in his element than he ever had sitting in ABC. He was relentless, quick on transitions, and soon far ahead of me. I'd trained by riding my bike along the shores of the Hudson River in Manhattan, spinning the pedals as feverishly as possible, occasionally doing sit-ups at a waterfront park. Stephen Koch's warning to Miles and Liz before the trip made more and more sense to me: "Try to keep pace with Mark, and you'll get sick."
We used axes and crampons to cross the "penitentes"--a glacial badlands of snow pinnacles dozens of feet tall--and reach the Yebokangjial, where we booted up windpack and over fins of blue ice. We slept at 21,000 feet in Camp 1 and woke up the next morning to slog a brutal, oxygen-deprived 1,800 vertical feet up a 35-degree headwall. By evening, we were in position on the flatter "football field" directly below the Untch at what we were calling Camp 2.5.
Mark couldn't sleep that night, and neither could Kent. At 2 A.M. they climbed out of their bags and left with Gabe and Jangbu, headlamps ablaze and breath hanging in the negative-20-degree air. Around 3:30, they switched from skis and skins to ice axes and crampons. At 7:30, they watched the sun rise over Everest, Lhotse, and Makalu. Gabe, loaded down with camera equipment, vomited.
It was not yet 10 when Mark, Kent, and Jangbu reached the Central Summit. Jangbu snapped photos. Kent left part of a frozen Snickers bar as an offering. As the wind picked up and clouds appeared, they spent 15 minutes scanning the treacherous ridge to the Main Summit. Even if they could make it, they realized they wouldn't be able to top out on the Main Summit and ski the Untch. They chose the Untch.
WHEN A SKI MOUNTAINEER REACHES A CERTAIN STATURE, IT'S not unfair to ask why he's still alive. Before Lowe's death, Patrick Vallencant, Jean-Marc Boivin, Bruno Gouvy, and Trevor Petersen all met their end in the mountains. Mark's sometime ski partner Hans Saari, who'd survived the 1999 Shishapangma expedition, died skiing Mont Blanc in 2001. The next year, Marco Siffredi, fresh from a first snowboard descent of Everest and its Great Couloir, tried an even steeper line down Everest's north face and disappeared.
Five months after returning from Shishapangma, Mark would write a eulogy for Doug Coombs, who died in a couloir in La Grave, France, and was to American skiing what Lowe was to American climbing. A month later, in mid-May, Everest's north face would claim the life of 30-year-old Tomas Olsson, who was on his way to becoming the first skier down the Great Couloir. His anchor gave way during a rappel, and his body fell 8,200 feet down to the glacier, where Sherpas found it four days later.
Even in perfect weather on the straightforward route up Shishapangma, I felt the danger. The reminders were small: an abrupt drop in air temperature when the sun set and I was alone at 20,000 feet; my ice ax poking through hollow snow to reveal a hidden crevasse; the sight of Mark and Kent racing the late-afternoon light to set up Camp 2.5.
And sometimes they were bigger. One afternoon in the penitentes, I passed the body of a Czech climber who'd died in Camp 1--an apparent pulmonary edema; he'd ascended too quickly. He was wrapped in a blue tarp and ropes, and was being dragged up and over the jagged ridges by his brother and a team of Sherpas. Where they'd passed, little specks of blue plastic stuck to the ice. On my way to Camp 2.5, I skinned past an incoherent Russian who was trudging downhill. He asked if I'd seen his climbing partner, who had vanished after a summit bid. Days later, someone spotted tracks that disappeared on the crevassed east face.
Mark has a story that he thinks partly explains why he's avoided so many of his friends' fate. One morning back when Alex Lowe worked at Exum, Mark was sitting around studying Chinese. Lowe looked at him. "Boy, if I had a day off today, I know what I'd do," he said. He'd have sprinted to the back side of the Grand Teton and soloed an ice route. "I'm in spots where a slipup could be fatal far less often than Doug and Alex were," Mark says. Done his way, ski mountaineering is more chess match than action sport--as proof, he sent me 116 e-mails in the four months leading up to Shishapangma.
He admitted that ski mountaineers do "get snuffed disproportionately to their numbers." But "the world will kill you," he said one day in camp, "no matter what you're doing." We were sitting above a frozen lake, listening to the odd whale songs of its creaking ice as winds buffeted Shishapangma. "When I'm driving down the road going 60 and someone passes me going 60 the other direction, should my life have been flashing before my eyes?" he asked. "I feel like that in the mountains. You're doing the right thing, making the right decisions, and death is just passing you by." He made a tiny gap with his hands. "Maybe by that much."
The cliche is that the closer you get to death, the more alive you feel, but for Mark the appeal of the mountains seems more cerebral: It's about being forced to make decisions that matter in the most primal, binary way. Pick the safe route down, and you have a first descent. Hesitate, and you get trapped in a storm. Pick the next aspect over, and a slide takes you off a cliff. He and Carina had dated scarcely two weeks before he asked her to marry him. Once you've seen him in the mountains, this makes perfect sense. As soon as he knows, he knows he has to act.
Mark and Kent stood on the Central Summit and clicked into their bindings. As Jangbu returned down the climbing route, they dropped off the back side--the beginning of a convoluted route to the entrance of the Untch. They made a few turns on the southwest face's 55-degree windpack, barely holding an edge. Below them, 7,200 feet seemingly straight down, were the flats where Lowe's team had made camp 11 years earlier. They wrapped clockwise around the summit cone, then donned crampons and clambered over a ridge back to the north, where they saw Gabe. He was cutting straight over from the climbing route, hoping to catch them before the traverse into the Untch. The next step would prove to be the most dangerous.
"I thought I was doing Kent a favor," Mark would later say. He stood on the ridge and waited in the frigid wind for Gabe, letting Kent go first. But the traverse, across the top of a dead-end chute that rolled over to 60 degrees, proved unnervingly difficult. Kent cut an adrenalized track toward the Untch in deep, faceted snow that stuck to his skins. He was swimming in it, burning through his remaining energy in the thin air--unable to rest because of the exposure below. He pulled out an ice ax and plunged it into the rotten slope with every step. Down in ABC, Liz and Miles watched with a growing crowd of Italians and Slovenes. "But you guys just got here," one said. "They are crazy," said another. Those of us in Camp 2.5 couldn't see them until they reached the Untch at 12:10 P.M. The climb took eight hours--the traverse nearly an hour.
Mark was the first into the couloir, followed by Kent and Gabe. They alternated leads, making five or six turns, then leaning over their poles to regain their strength. "Just think," Brendan said as we watched through binoculars, "those are three of Jackson's best skiers."
Plates of ice kept breaking loose, sometimes taking the skiers for short rides. A third of the way down, it became clear that the traverse had sapped Kent's strength entirely. He began to sideslip. Mark put him on a 30-meter rope, jury-rigging an anchor system by jamming his tails into the slope, and took turns belaying him with Gabe. Kent found the energy to keep turning, albeit delicately, and they didn't have to lower him. After two and a half hours they were gliding down the football field to Camp 2.5. Gabe popped off a chunk of ice and did a spread eagle.
Briefly, with an urgency none of us would fully understand until later, Mark made plans with Kent to go up again and bag the true summit. But neither they nor Liz and Miles--who'd started feeling better a day too late--had another chance. The winds came up, and veterans in ABC said they'd be blowing until April. The expedition was over.
ON THE OTHER SIDE OF SHISHAPANGMA, Jean-Noel Urban had already retreated from a high point of 7,500 meters on the holy-grail face, descending from 7,100 meters on skis and confirming that it was a viable line. High on the north side, a lone pair of American climbers had their tent blow away from Camp 3 as they went for the summit. They survived a night at 24,000 feet and then wandered half-blind and hallucinating with severe altitude sickness to our Camp 2.5. Mark, back on the mountain with Kent and Miles to take down the tents, arrived just as the two Americans did. He ripped off their crampons, shoved them into a tent, dressed them in down jackets, force-fed them energy bars and gel, and boiled water for them, throwing their frozen, useless hydration pack out of the tent. He, Miles, and Kent led them down to Camp 1, where they slept in the dead Russian's tent. As we waited for the yaks, Mark and Kent went on a long day hike to check out Shishapangma's east face, as if a grueling walk after an 8,000-meter summit were the most normal thing in the world.
But there was something Mark hadn't told anyone, not exactly. His body was failing him. Up and down Shishapangma, but even worse on big days in the Tetons, a bone spur was rubbing an ever larger hole in his hip cartilage. He needed major surgery, perhaps a hip replacement, perhaps a new career. The pendulum finally swung. Five months after returning from Shishapangma, he applied to the University of Wyoming for a degree in economics and was accepted. Still, everyone in Jackson keeps asking him where his next expedition will be. "I want to be enthusiastic," he says. "I want them to have aspirations. I don't always tell them, 'Well...I may never be going back.' "
ON OUR WAY DOWN FROM TIBET, OUR bus stopped by a steel footbridge suspended over the 520-foot-deep Bhote Khosi gorge. The brown of the plateau had become the green of tropical Nepal. On the bridge, guides were preparing a bungeelike rope swing. "I'll do it if you do it," Kent said to Gabe. "I'll do it if you do it first,"Gabe said. The rope was hundreds of feet long. We paced and peered into the gorge for five minutes, then started back to the bus. "I'll do it," Mark said quietly.
He was the first of the expedition to jump. The guide fitted him with a harness and stood him on a platform high above the rapids of the Bhote Khosi. Mark didn't hesitate. He stepped off the platform as if he were walking down a staircase, actually smiling as he dropped into space. The rope unfurled and Mark arced down the canyon, away from Shishapangma and Tibet and the roof of the world. Then the most natural thing happened. He hung in the air for a moment, motionless, and started swinging back.
Mountain Transformed: Thirty years after the blast, Mount St. Helens is reborn again
Mountain Transformed: Thirty years after the blast, Mount St. Helens is reborn again
Beer cans once lay at the bottom of Spirit Lake. Mark Smith remembers them perfectly: 20-year-old Olympia flattops, their shiny gold lettering somehow preserved by the clear, cold water. He remembers ten-inch rainbow trout: planters for the tourists. He remembers a sunken rowboat from the YMCA camp, its bow resting on a submerged stump. A teenager when he began scuba diving in the shadow of Mount St. Helens, he remembers the lake as it was before the May 1980 eruption, before the top 1,300 feet of the volcano—more than three billion cubic yards of mud, ash, and melting snow—avalanched into it. Before the lake became twice as big but half as deep. Before virtually all evidence of life, animal and human—the cabins and roads and camps and cans—were obliterated. Before the lake became a stinky soup, devoid of oxygen and covered with a floating mat of tree trunks ripped from the landscape. What Smith remembers best is what he called the "petrified" forest: a ghostly stand of sunken, branchless firs, buried upright dozens of yards below the surface. The underwater forest was a mystery to him until the mountain exploded. Then it made perfect sense. The trees were evidence of a past eruption—a sign Spirit Lake has always been in the line of fire.
Three decades later, Spirit Lake holds a new mystery: How did fish, now twice the length of those pre-eruption rainbows, reappear? Everyone has a theory. Smith, who runs Eco Park Resort at the edge of the volcanic monument, thinks the trout slid down from smaller, higher St. Helens Lake during a flood year. But that lake has only mackinaw—and the Spirit Lake fish are rainbows. Biologist Bob Lucas of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife believes someone illegally planted them. In the late 1990s, an anonymous call to his home seemed to confirm it: "I'm the one who stocked the fish." Preliminary genetic testing by Forest Service ecologist Charlie Crisafulli also suggests the trout did not descend from the pre-eruption population, but he's given up on figuring out their origin. "There are as many stories as there are fish tales," he says, "and all of them start, 'I know somebody who put those fish in there.' " To him the important question is not how they arrived but how they grew so big. On the 30th anniversary of the May 18 eruption, one of the only things certain about the trout in Spirit Lake is that they've given everyone—environmentalists, scientists, fishermen, congressmen, rangers, and business owners—something else to argue about.
Mark Smith grew up at the lake, where his family ran the lodge one down from the one owned by Harry Truman, the famously cantankerous 83-year-old who shared a name with a President and was among the eruption's 57 victims. As a boy, Smith fished there. Today he'd have to break the law to do so. He's not saying he does, but if ever I want to join him, he is, ahem, very familiar with where a poacher could sneak in. "We were lost!" he yells, practicing his alibi. "We just saw this and started fishing!" The 2,700-acre lake now sits at the center of a restricted research area taking up roughly a quarter of the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, which Congress set aside in 1982 "to protect the geologic, ecologic, and cultural resources … in as natural a state as possible, allowing primarily natural geologic forces and ecological succession to continue unimpeded." Mostly closed to the public, this part of the blast zone has become one of our planet's grandest experiments.
The volcano came back to life from 2004 to 2008, shooting off plumes of steam and ash up to 30,000 feet into the sky, growing a new lava dome in its crater, and captivating sightseers and geologists. But many of the area's greatest insights have come in the field of ecology.
As a natural lab to study the rebirth of ecosystems, the blast zone has no equal. "It's the most thoroughly studied large-forest disturbance in the world," says Crisafulli, examined from nearly every angle, at nearly every scale, from molecules to ecosystems, bacteria to mammals, steaming geothermal vents to waterlogged meadows. Almost daily, callers inquire about the lessons of St. Helens. One woman is interested in salamanders, another in toads. Officials in Alaska and Chile want to know what to expect after eruptions of their own.
A key lesson is the importance of "biological legacies"—fallen trees, buried roots, seeds, gophers, amphibians—that survived the blast, thanks to snow cover, topography, or luck. Ecologists had assumed rebirth would happen from the outside in, as species from border areas encroached on the blast zone. But recovery has also come from within. Starting with a single plant Crisafulli discovered in 1981 on the barren, 3,750-acre expanse known as the Pumice Plain, purple prairie lupines became the first color in a world of sterile gray. In life they were nutrient factories, food for insects, habitat for mice and voles; in death they, and the organisms they attracted, enriched the ash, allowing other species to colonize. Gradually the blast zone began to bloom.
Take a broad view, and you see that humans are also part of the St. Helens experiment. What captivated the country 30 years ago was not just the size of the blast but that it happened to us, to people we understood and a landscape we loved. Now, as nature springs back and memories fade—and budgets and visitor numbers fade as well—humans are becoming restless. Some say the monument should be wrenched from the Forest Service and made a national park. Others hear tales of two-foot trout and wonder why Spirit Lake is still off-limits. Last spring a bill to open it to limited fishing passed 95 to 1 in the Washington State House before stalling in the senate. Some locals grumble that 30 years of research is enough—that it is time to open the restricted zone. None of this should surprise us. Even on a human scale, St. Helens is an ecosystem trying to find equilibrium.
What I remember from my swim in Spirit Lake is not a sunken forest but an underwater jungle. Last August I drove behind Crisafulli on a sinuous two-lane road along Windy Ridge, through a damaged gate secured by a makeshift chain—"You'd think there'd be enough money to buy a new damn gate," Crisafulli said—and down a scary, slopeside jeep trail into the restricted area. At the edge of the Pumice Plain we began the two-and-a-half-mile walk that the lean 52-year-old has taken thousands of times. His ponytail swung with each step. He talked ecology almost nonstop, his New York accent still discernible after 30 years in the blast zone. Behind us was the volcano, snowless and gray, its northern wall collapsed, its crater exposed. In front was the lake, its surface calm and two-fifths covered by the "log raft," a shifting mass of thousands of floating logs. Along the trail were fir saplings, lupines, and Indian paintbrush, 15-foot-tall thickets of willow and alder, and, near a stream, hordes of toads and tree frogs. At the lake's edge, we got into warm fleece overalls that Crisafulli called bunny suits, into dry suits and masks and snorkels, and into a Zodiac raft, which motored into Duck Bay. And then into the frigid water.
The first surprise was the colors: brilliant yellows and greens, electric in the sunlight, a world apart from the drab Pumice Plain. They belonged to aquatic plants, thick, vinelike macrophytes stretching ten feet from lake bed to surface. Mossy clumps were suspended above the silt. Everywhere I turned were fish, hook-jawed and fat, all of them 20 or more inches. I swam after them. They didn't spook. The sunken jungle, I noticed, was only in the shallows. In deeper water it was gone—and so were the fish.
Before the eruption Spirit Lake was, like many subalpine lakes, unproductive and nutrient-poor, with clear water and few shallow spots. When the volcano top slid into it at 150 miles an hour, it became choked with what Crisafulli terms "pyrolyzed forest constituents"—organic material burned in the blast. The water was warmed to body temperature, filled with dissolved carbon, manganese, iron, and lead. Visibility went from 30 feet to six inches. Bacteria flourished. The first scientists to take water samples came down with unexplained ailments. There was a rapid succession of microbes: aerobes, which quickly used up all the oxygen; anaerobes, which require none; then nitrogen-consuming bacteria; and then forms that fed on methane and heavy metals. For 18 months Spirit Lake was ruled by chemistry, home to "hundreds of millions of bacteria per milliliter," Crisafulli says. Finally, the microbes had consumed so much that they began to die off, and streams and snowmelt came in, and the water cleared.
Once light penetrated Spirit Lake, algae and other phytoplankton colonized, followed by zooplankton, which fed on the phytoplankton, followed by aquatic insects and amphibians. By the early 1990s, macrophytes grew in shallow shoals—ideal trout habitat that didn't exist before the eruption. Gorging on tiny midges and freshwater snails, the rainbows were reaching a record four or five pounds in two or three years. The post-eruption lake followed a pattern Crisafulli would see many times in the blast zone. New organisms colonize the virgin environment with dramatic success, only to burn themselves out or be checked by predators, parasites, or competitors. This was the second revelation of St. Helens: When there's a blank slate, ecological succession is a cycle of boom and bust.
Spirit Lake's richness is spilling over. When a tadpole dies as a frog on the Pumice Plain, when an insect hatched in the lake is deposited in the ash, their nutrients are transferred to land. Slowly this process undoes what the eruption wrought. "Before the eruption, the terrestrial environment was superproductive," Crisafulli says, with "lots of nutrients and carbon tied up in the old-growth forest. In comparison, the lake was impoverished. After the eruption they flip-flopped." Now the landscape is going back from gray to green, and the lake is becoming more like its former self.
At 20 inches and two and a half pounds, the rainbows I saw were as large as any I've caught in a lifetime of fishing the Pacific Northwest—but the fish, too, were becoming more like their former selves. Nine years after Crisafulli began tagging them, either because Spirit Lake is becoming less productive or because too many trout now vie for the same amount of food, or both, their average weight has been cut in half.
Some fly fishers see the ongoing changes in Spirit Lake as a problem—of overpopulation—and offer themselves as the solution. "There's a world-class fishery going untapped, and it's the right of the citizens to fish it," Denny Way tells me. The president of the Clark-Skamania Flyfishers club, he's proposed opening up Spirit Lake before the trout shrink: ten catch-and-release fly fishers, along with a trained host, one day a week. The scientists, meanwhile, note that a dozen neighboring lakes are open to fishing but are undervisited and that at Spirit the danger is not the numbers but the precedent: ten fishermen or a hundred, the door would be open. Nominally about fish, the argument goes deeper: What should the monument be for?
The question is everywhere. If the two decades following the eruption were the monument's boom—five visitor centers, hundreds of miles of roads, millions of sightseers—today has the appearance of a bust. The largest center, Coldwater Ridge, where exhibits focused on biological recovery, closed in 2007 as budgets shrank. The west side has only two full-time interpretive rangers; the south and east, only one. The monument's life-support system is volunteers from the nonprofit Mount St. Helens Institute, seasonal workers, and interns. Seventy percent of its roughly $1.8-million recreation budget comes from user fees. The rest is tied to that of Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and funds increasingly go to firefighting. While statistics are scarce—another victim of the budget crunch—monument staff and business owners like Mark Smith agree that visitation has fallen far from the heyday of the 1980s and '90s. A quarter of those who now come are foreigners, who camp out or stay in nearby lodges. Americans tend to make day-trips, driving up Spirit Lake Memorial Highway and past the shuttered Coldwater center to an overlook, then heading back to Interstate 5.
Some hope for a Mount St. Helens National Park, with congressional funding, lodging, and more money for more science. Funds are starting to flow, with more than $6 million in federal stimulus last year, plus a $163,000 grant to the Mount St. Helens Institute for an exhibit at the end of the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway. The 30th anniversary means renewed interest. "In my talks at St. Helens I tried to get people to realize that the volcano is not static," says the National Parks Conservation Association's Sean Smith, a former St. Helens ranger now pushing for park status. "I'd hold up an Etch A Sketch and say the monument's like this drawing. The forces of nature control one knob. The public has the other."
"In the larger story of St. Helens, park versus monument is a blip in history," says monument staff scientist Peter Frenzen, who started alongside Crisafulli in the weeks after the eruption. "Access to Spirit Lake is a blip in history." Those who've walked the blast zone for three decades see the beginning of a more profound process. Breakthroughs are fewer—one plant pushing through the ash is no longer a miracle—but the pace of change is accelerating, the scale broadening. Instead of eureka moments, there is something approximating wisdom.
"Right now, the Pumice Plain is like a runaway horse," Crisafulli says. "Individual plots can't address the evolution." He plans to survey by satellite and airplane—tools that can see the big picture as the pixels fill in. "We're moving to broad-scale biogeography," he says. "It's the next frontier."
Another sunny day last summer, I again hiked across the Pumice Plain, this time to join three young scientists Crisafulli had recruited to survey Spirit Lake. The goal was to create the first ecosystem-scale map of the aquatic environment—patches of plant life, submerged mounds that had slid from the top of the volcano, fish in the water column. An echo sounder clamped to our boat's starboard side, our motor idling, our wary eyes on the log raft—it could cut us off on the wrong side of the lake if the wind blew—we crept forward. St. Helens, what was left of it, filled the horizon. On a digital display, the scientists pointed out strange squiggles—either trout or sunken logs, suspended vertically. We wouldn't know which until the data went to the lab. So they took me to a shallower spot, just south of what used to be Harmony Falls, where they knew what they were looking at. When I peered into the clear water of Spirit Lake, I also knew. Three decades after the eruption, with the mountain calm and the lake alive, I saw what Mark Smith had seen: a petrified forest.
They had one week, 1,500 miles and, oh, about $100 in gas money to answer the question: IS AMERICA READY TO GET SMART?
They had one week, 1,500 miles and, oh, about $100 in gas money to answer the question: IS AMERICA READY TO GET SMART?
DETROIT TO MARSHALL, MICHIGAN
2.21 gallons, $5.83, 48 miles per gallon
"How about y'all get in the back. Just put you and your entire car in the back, and I'll take you wherever you want to go." --Chevy Tahoe driver in downtown Detroit
The Rouge, Henry Ford's 2,000-acre icon of American industry, a complex of steel furnaces and railroad tracks and twisting assembly lines just outside Detroit, makes trucks. It didn't always make trucks. Starting in 1917, it made antisubmarine boats, then it made tractors, and then it made cars: Model A's, V8s, Thunderbirds and four hallowed generations of Mustangs. In the 1930s it was the largest auto plant in the world, toured by queens, presidents and rival barons, and what it built, it built from scratch. It had 100,000 employees in 93 buildings who produced 1,500 tons of iron and 500 tons of glass a day. A hunk of raw iron became a vehicle in 72 hours. The Rouge spit out a new car every 49 seconds.
But today the modernized Rouge spits out only trucks--red F-150s, white F-150s, black F-150s--enough Ford trucks in three days to stretch bumper-to-bumper to downtown Detroit, nine miles away. Enough trucks in five months to stretch bumper-to-bumper to New York City. Enough trucks to meet what for so long has seemed an insatiable demand for the full-size, 200-plus-horsepower pickup, America's bestselling vehicle for 25 straight years and best-selling truck of all time. Enough trucks to make me and my girlfriend, Jenny, look like heretics when we pull into the Rouge-tour parking lot. No, worse than heretics--like Europeans.
The car we're driving is the Smart car, an eight-foot-long product of France that gets upward of 40 miles per gallon to the F-150's 15 mpg. It has two seats and three cylinders and a 0.7-liter, 61-horsepower engine. It is shorter than a golf cart. It can park headfirst in a parallel spot. When we drive it, heads turn and cameraphones get pulled out, and other drivers, trying to figure out what it is, tailgate us so closely that we worry about accidents. Some signal us to roll down our window as we're going 75 on the freeway.
Sold in Europe for nearly a decade--770,000 cars in 36 countries and counting--the Smart is coming to U.S. shores in the most talked-about launch of 2008. Already a 44-city road show is kicking off. Drivers from New York to Miami to Seattle to Austin, Texas, will be able to see the Smart, sit in it, and take it for a spin. A Web reservation system is up and running. Go to smartusa.com, pay a refundable $99, and you're on the list to get one of the first American Smarts to roll off the line.
Jenny and I got our Smart--a gray-market version imported from Europe and made street-legal here--the old-fashioned way: We rented it from a Budget franchise in the Chicago suburbs. We brought it to Detroit to begin a makeshift road show of our own, a 1,500-mile jaunt through the heartland in which we try to answer a simple question: Is America ready to embrace such an un-American ride?
Inside the Rouge, we join a tour with a pair who are obviously spies from China, ill disguised as tourists, and a couple of Orthodox Jewish teenagers in formal wear on an apparent first date. We watch a video about the plant's history, set to an original score by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and are shuttled into a planetarium-like room of swiveling chairs for a full-sensory "what it's like to become a Ford F-150" presentation. It involves crashing sounds, piped-in smells, and bursts of patriotic welding and smelting shown on innumerable wraparound movie screens.
What goes unsaid is that F-150 sales have been tanking of late, along with full-size SUV and pickup sales in general, a decline that economist Steven Szakaly of the Center for Automotive Research says is a fundamental "structural shift." As gas prices began to climb above $3 a gallon last July, Ford's truck-division sales fell by 44 percent. Domestic rival General Motors's fell by 28 percent. Ford ended the year with the worst losses in its 103-year history--$12.7 billion, more money than the GDP of 82 of the world's countries--and Chrysler announced plans to close four plants and cut 13,000 jobs after a $1.5-billion loss of its own. Both manufacturers' U.S. sales were overtaken by Toyota's. For the first time, the Big Three weren't the big three anymore.
After a display of the Rouge's environmental rebirth--songbird habitat, revitalized wetlands, a 10-acre "living roof" that's the largest in the world--we watch F-150 shells flow through a four-mile-long assembly line. Robots use lasers to place windshields with perfect precision; United Auto Workers unionists in street clothes use mechanical arms to lift heavy parts. Everything is smooth, bright, orderly, laudable--and oddly anachronistic. As we get back into our tiny car, I can't shake the feeling that the factory of the future is pumping out what may be the vehicle of the past.
MARSHALL, MICHIGAN, TO WILMINGTON, ILLINOIS
7.89 gallons, $20.19, 37 miles per gallon
"Your car should make other people smile. It should make you smile. Anybody can sit in traffic in a Taurus, you know?"--Ron Durchin, car collector and Budget franchise owner near Chicago
Interstate 94 through Michigan is broad and straight, and before Jenny and I pull into the Shell station in Marshall, we've been cruising in sixth gear at a steady 85 miles an hour. The ride has been smooth, so much like that of a normal sedan that it's still a shock when I step out the Smart's driver-side door and am already at the back of the car. "Whoa, that looks like Urkel's car," says a long-haired gas-station attendant. "Geeks of the world, unite!" adds his co-worker. This guy--thin, wearing thick glasses, terminally awkward--is named Pete. He sells us two window-mounted plastic cup holders for $1.69 apiece (our European Smart lacks these, although it does have a huge ashtray; the second-generation model that's coming next year corrects the oversight) and then asks if he can sit in the Smart. Pete slides his long frame into the driver's seat and looks around, taking in the car's surprisingly spacious fishbowl interior. He messes with the gearshift and adjusts the mirror. He grasps the wheel with both hands. "Sweeeet," he squeaks. "Huh. I might have to get one myself."
Steve Urkel, the nerd-star of the 1990s sitcom Family Matters, drove an Isetta, a BMW-built bubble car that was one of the most successful micros in post-World War II Europe. With three wheels and a windshield-cum-front-door, Urkel's car must have been the prop department's dream come true. As an example of a car that reflects its driver's personality, it's hard to match. Although the psychology of car buying is murky--in market surveys, owners can always come up with a "need" that explains their desire--certain vehicles are clearly meant to appeal more to the senses than to a sense of utility. Here in Marshall, we're witnessing a burst of geek emotion over the Smart, something that has everything to do with image and little to do with practicality. "I don't like the storage space," Pete says. "But...sweet."
A few hours down the road, Jenny and I make a detour to meet Ron Durchin, a man infected with a similarly impractical love of the Smart and the owner of the only agency in the country that will rent you one. A tall, gregarious car freak whose father opened Chicago's first Budget franchise 38 years ago, he had invited us to his new 40,000-foot body shop, AutoWerks, the largest in the Midwest. There, inside a cavernous garage, he tells the story of his Smarts' arrival. After being converted for American roads by a California company, his six cars were stacked sideways on a semi and trucked out here. The truck driver took twice as long as usual, because every time he stopped, people peppered him with questions. The Smarts were finally dropped off outside the Budget office in Skokie. "We probably had 500 people stop by that first day," Durchin says. "It got so bad that we had to lock them, because every time we went outside, someone was sitting down in one."
After import fees and conversion fees and transportation fees, the Smarts cost Durchin about $26,000 each. (Those coming directly to the U.S. market will be significantly cheaper; Smart estimates a price point below $15,000 for the 2008 launch, with the Wall Street Journal reporting it at close to $11,000 for an entry-level model.) Durchin rents them for $60 a day. His Web site's hits have gone up from 40,000 to 105,000 a month since he began using the cars for advertising, and he hopes for similar things for AutoWerks after he fixes up one of the Smarts to look like a Mercedes that's been smashed in on both ends. Still, for him, the appeal of the Smarts isn't altogether rational. He's not making any money off them, and when the fleet came in, he borrowed one of the cars for two months just so he could commute in it.
He ticks off a quick list of what he likes about the Smart mechanically--its zippiness off the line, the steel safety cell that surrounds passengers, the fact that he can get 65 miles a gallon (I'm getting around 40, but I have a lead foot). Yet it's obvious that what he really likes is the spectacle. "You can take it to a bar or restaurant and have fun just watching people's reactions," he says. "It's the car that comes with a social life."
WILMINGTON, ILLINOIS, TO ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI
8.35 gallons, $21.62, 33 miles per gallon
"If they made it even smaller, what would they call it? The half-wit?" --Bill Shea, Shea's Route 66 Gas Station Museum in Springfield, Illinois
Past Chicago, we leave the freeways in favor of an old alignment of Route 66, and the American road becomes The American Road. We've already passed the world's first McDonald's franchise, not far from O'Hare airport, and now we're passing the first Dairy Queen as well. Perhaps because so many weird cars drive this route, nobody pays us much mind when we park the Smart below Wilmington's cone-headed, 28-foot-tall Gemini Giant, a fiberglass statue dressed as an astronaut, and run in to get burgers at the Launching Pad Drive-In. We get only a few stares when we drive through Dwight, home of the Waddle, an annual parade of hundreds of basset hounds.
Already we've brought the Smart beyond what's expected to be its natural range. It's a commuter car on a road trip, cruising the hinterlands, when some say it will appeal only to Hollywood types (Hey, look at me, I'm an environmentalist!) and to the urban creative class that's apparently ready to buy anything--iPods, RAZRs, you name it--that doesn't follow the proper rules of capitalization. (Smart, unlike dcd gW]'s copy editor, prefers to write its name as "smart." Its competitor the Mini Cooper is officially the "MINI.") But Dave Schembri, the president of Smart USA, points to three segments beyond the urban hip where he expects the Smart to sell well: first-time buyers (low price), empty-nesters (seating for two), and baby boomers looking for a second or third car ("It's perfect if you have a teenage daughter--no backseat"). Which is to say, Smart USA hopes that its market is just about everyone. "We're the rare vehicle with 50 percent emotional appeal, 50 percent rational appeal," Schembri says.
As we roll down Route 66, where automobiles were once escape pods for 1930s Dust Bowl refugees and a way of life for California-bound tourists in the 1950s, Jenny and I are entering a world dominated by that rational 50 percent--a world we hope will judge the Smart on its merits as a car, not a message. At Shea's Route 66 Gas Station Museum in Springfield, we peruse a collection of pumps, photos and motoring kitsch dating back 70 years. Bill Shea, the museum's wry 85-year-old owner, learns that I'm from Oregon and harangues me about all the climbers who keep dying on Mt. Hood. "If they don't have a purpose," he says, "then what in the hell is the point of being up there?" I tell him it's pretty. "They ought to put a restriction on people," he says. He pulls out an old point-and-shoot film camera and walks outside to snap a photo of the Smart. His assessment of it is typically no-nonsense. "Hmph. Not much room for hitchhikers."
ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI, TO MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE
7.89 gallons, $18.38, 34 miles per gallon
"I don't know what all it's supposed to do, but if it starts talking, I'm gone." --Marla, parking-lot security guard at Graceland's Rock 'n' Roll Cafe in Memphis
In the St. Louis suburbs, Jenny and I peel off Route 66 and join up with the Great River Road, a winding, sometimes hilly highway that parallels the Mississippi and is the stuff that car tests are made of. In its current incarnation, the Smart is said to top out at 85 miles an hour--though I've pushed it faster--and we're often the speediest thing on the road. I figure that its strange looks will inspire any cop who pulls me over for speeding to ask questions rather than issue tickets.
The Smart is not designed to be a road-trip car, but it's certainly a highway car--a Mercedes, after all. A product of DaimlerChrysler, it was born of a joint venture between the Swatch watch company and Mercedes, and it has a pedigree to live up to. The four wheels are literally at the four corners of the car--making for a wheelbase of 71 inches, 22 inches shorter than a Porsche 911's--and we gun the Smart around turns, hugging the road. Its acceleration, panned by Consumer Reports, which tested a pokier diesel model, is noticeably weak only on uphills (though perhaps I've been numbed by the acceleration-proof 1989 Mitsubishi Montero that I normally drive). The main thing is that Jenny and I don't feel small. The cockpit is roomier than my own SUV's, we're sitting upright and high off the ground, and we don't notice that the back half of our car is missing when we're looking ahead at the blur of fields and shortleaf forests.
Our biggest gripe is the transmission, which is fine in (clutchless) manual mode but hopelessly jerky in automatic. Perhaps more annoying is a mysterious power down--some strange Euro security feature--that's triggered when we leave the parked car unlocked for too long. More than once we've found ourselves sitting in the darkened car, locking and unlocking its doors and shifting through the gears as we try to get it going again. But all this is set for an overhaul in the second-generation Smart. The new American model will also come with a bigger, 71-horsepower engine, and it will have a top speed of 90 miles an hour. As if to prepare for the gluttonous U.S. market, it's also rumored to get worse gas mileage.
As we approach Memphis, high winds and a rainstorm hit, and the Smart is blown back and forth in a way that's reminiscent of my box of a Montero. I need to keep both hands on the wheel. We take shelter at the Memphis-Graceland RV Park & Campground, where a Smart-size cabin is tucked away on the corner of Don't Be Cruel Lane, not far from Blue Suede Lane, Shook Up Lane and Hound Dog Way. The RV park has free Wi-Fi. A sign in the bathroom reads "Don't spit out tobacco in our washroom."
Elvis was a car lover, the owner of a pink Cadillac, a 1966 Rolls-Royce and a pair of 250-horsepower Stutz Blackhawks. But the closest thing to a Smart that we see when we tour his Graceland car museum the next morning is a red MG that he drove in Blue Hawaii. He eventually gave it to his secretary. We've left the Smart in a parking lot outside the Rock 'n' Roll Cafe, and when we get back a security guard named Marla in a cap and heavy coat tells us it's been drawing a steady stream of curious tourists. A Hyundai Sonata driver, she seems afraid to touch the Smart and circles it warily. She asks the usual raft of questions. What is it? Is it electric? Is it a hybrid? What kind of mileage does it get? She's surprised to learn that its basic ingenuity is that it's a normal car. Just smaller.
MEMPHIS, TENNESSEE, TO HOULKA, MISSISSIPPI
4.10 gallons, $10, 38 miles per gallon
"I tell you what, I'm not saying nothing about it, that's a nice-looking car. But I wouldn't want to have a wreck in that thing." --Billy Joe Logan, Houlka, Mississippi
South of Memphis, Highway 78 is nightmarish, a three-lane artery clogged almost exclusively with semi trucks. Stuck among them, Jenny and I must look comical--or suicidal. As we creep forward, a toothless woman in a yellow J.B. Hunt hat leans out the window of a neighboring semi and yells down at us, "Hey, is that a prototype?" The wind and rain pick up, and we keep weaving between the giants.
"At least you're sitting high enough that you don't feel like a victim," Dan Hall, of the consultancy AutoPacific, says of the Smart. This is the kind of damning praise experts heap on the car, which will have to fight the perception that its size makes it unsafe. On its side is that rollovers, which are involved in a third of U.S. traffic deaths, are a symptom of trucks and SUVs, not of cars. And in statistics for single-vehicle crashes, small cars fare far better than pickups. Half of all road fatalities are from multiple-car accidents, however, and in these the laws of physics are straightforward: It's the little guy who takes the hit. The multiple-vehicle fatality rate for subcompact drivers is 94 deaths per million drivers, twice the average. The fatality rate for SUV drivers is 21 per million.
The problem for the Smart is not the Smart itself, but that it's caught in the middle of America's SUV arms race, with everyone trying to be the safest on the road by being the biggest on the road--a sort of vehicular mutual assured destruction. If the country migrates to "crossover" SUVs on car platforms (and this is a growing trend), the Smart will become safer. Also, the IIHS's dire statistics--already skewed by the fact that young, fast, dangerous drivers are more often in subcompacts than large SUVs--don't account for the fact that not all subcompacts are equal; the Smart is no Chevy Aveo or Hyundai Accent. In Europe's NCAP crash tests, the first-generation Smart got three out of five stars, better than the Ford Escort hatchback. The 2008 model will keep the "tridion safety cell," a roll cage of a cockpit that spreads impacts over the whole of the car, and will have four airbags and standard electronic stability control, a skid-prevention mechanism that the IIHS says can reduce the risk of fatal single-vehicle crashes by 50 percent. As for the antilock brakes, I use them to great effect when a cop in Oxford, Mississippi, waves us down. Turns out he just wants to ask about the car.
HOULKA, MISSISSIPPI, TO MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA
6.86 gallons, $17.15, 44 miles per gallon
"It's nice, but I dunno about fitting a beer cooler back there." --Wayne Coleman, regular at the Washington Oil gas station in Houlka, Mississippi
Tucked in the back of the Smart, in the five-cubic-foot luggage compartment that will be expanded to eight feet in the next-generation model, Jenny and I have everything we need for a weeklong road trip: one small internal-frame backpack (mine), one carry-on-size duffel bag (Jenny's), a camera bag, two jackets, two laptops, a queen-size air mattress and two sleeping bags.
These last couple things are so that we can camp out for a night or two. One evening, not far from Montgomery, we find a nice spot in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart. For $50, we buy a tent that's bigger than the Smart, set it up in the light rain and attempt to park inside of it. Our tent site is in a patch of pavement right next to an RV, but soon a manager comes out to tell us that tent camping isn't allowed for "liability reasons." Yes, even if you're inside your car inside your tent. We give up our plan.
The manager, a big guy in his 30s with a shaved head and an easy smile, is named Gray. Before working for Wal-Mart, he says, he and his wife ran a small retail store of their own. He already had Wal-Mart stock, and after doing some research, he decided he wanted to work for the company. Now he manages 375 employees and a megastore where sales top $200,000 a day. Fifteen miles down the road is another Wal-Mart Supercenter that does $55 million a year, and 15 miles beyond that is one that does $100 million. Of the $70 million or so that Gray's store makes in annual revenues, the net profit is $1.9 million--a margin of less than 3 percent.
Gray casts an approving glance at the Smart and tells us that he just replaced his Silverado pickup with a Scion. "I was spending $60 on gas every three days," he says. "Now I'm spending $20 every six days." Here in the land of Wal-Marts, people appreciate efficiency.
MONTGOMERY TO DOTHAN, ALABAMA
3.12 gallons, $7.75, 38 miles per gallon
"You should put a great big handle on the top. Then if you break down, you can just pick it up and carry it with you." --Donnie Mock, regular at the BBQ House in Troy, Alabama
We've picked the final stop of our road trip, Dothan, almost solely because of its Continental Drive-In theater, which operates four screens year-round below the starry Alabama sky. We're almost there when we spot a bar and restaurant called the BBQ House on a lonely stretch of Highway 231 and decide to stop in for some ribs. Parked outside are full-size trucks--an F-350, a Silverado--and parked inside are full-size people. Paul weighs 350 pounds, Donnie weighs 330, Chester is 6'3" and stands rather than sits due to a "broke knee."
At first their comments are polite but unenthusiastic, even a little snide--"Not much room for luggage," "I wouldn't want to get in a wreck in it," "Truckers must want to squash you like a bug"--but one of the regulars, Ron, seems to take the Smart seriously. "Well, I'll be damned," he says. "I need one of those just to get back and forth from my house." He makes his living delivering oversize signs around the country, and for that there's only one tool: his '07 Dodge Ram with the 6.7-liter Cummins turbodiesel. For his nightly 30-mile commute between his home and the BBQ House, he falls back on his hunting vehicle, a gas-guzzling Ford 4x4. The Smart is looking mighty appealing.
After Paul asks if he can put his Chihuahua, Chico, in the Smart, Chester decides to sit down in our "little buggy." He emerges impressed. "I tell you what," he says, "if I can get in there with my knee, anybody can get in there." He tells us that the last time he went to the drive-in was with a girl named Jackie Eddins in 1962, just before he joined the Air Force. "These cars will sell," he says. "We need these. We need a whole bunch of these." It's this reaction that must be Smart's dearest hope--that people will look at it not as a fashion statement, but as a simple solution to a problem.
At the drive-in, images of Jude Law and Cameron Diaz fill the windshield, and our rapture is interrupted only by the periodic automatic shutdown of the radio. The car is smart enough to let you turn on the radio without a key in the ignition but not smart enough to know that you might want to listen to a whole movie.
I'm checking us out of Dothan's Best Western the next morning when a maid named Freda taps me on the shoulder. "Is that your car?" she asks. "Lord, that's the ugliest little car I have ever seen in my entire life. Nobody in their right mind would buy a little car like that." It's a rental, I say. She asks why I'm in Dothan, and I explain that Jenny and I wanted to go to the drive-in. Freda laments that most of the other drive-ins have closed. "It's probably because of all the baby-making that went on there." I assure her that's not a problem in the Smart. "It's still weird-looking," she says. "It looks like it's been chopped off at both ends." A maintenance man has been listening in from across the lobby, and finally he interjects: "I'll bet it gets real good gas mileage, though." I tell him I've been getting 40 miles a gallon, and Freda pauses long enough to take another look at the Smart.
"What other colors does it come in?" she asks.
The Route To Prosperity: The Panama Canal, one of humankind's most earth-altering engineering works, is flanked by one of earth's most diverse ecosystems.
The Route To Prosperity: The Panama Canal, one of humankind's most earth-altering engineering works, is flanked by one of earth's most diverse ecosystems.
At the height of the dry season, the Río Chagres is more trickle than torrent, clear in its shallows and green in its pools. Winds rush down the valley, the roar building and crashing like ocean surf; brown leaves flutter from the canopy above. Foot-long sábalo pipon fish rise from the river's depths, while red-capped manakins snap and call in the distance. There are waterfalls and massive kapok trees, ospreys and blue morpho butterflies. But most of all there's forest: an endless, undulating mass of greens and oranges and browns, home to jaguars and some of the last harpy eagles in the world. Standing on its southern bank, I was only 20 miles from downtown Panama City—a fact I could hardly fathom.
By dugout canoe we'd come, my companion Phil Schaeffer grumbling all the way as the tiny outboard whined, the floor leaked, and a headwind sprayed us with the water of manmade Lake Alajuela. We'd puttered past the thatch-roofed village of Tusipono, where tourists in shorts and bright-orange life jackets stood on dry land alongside Embera Indians in red loincloths (they wear T-shirts on off days).
More slowly still we'd crossed hundred-yard patches of matted water hyacinths, bumping over logs much smaller than the one we were sitting in. When the lake arm abruptly ended at flowing water and impassible shallows, Phil asked, "Whose idea was this again?" I had to take off my shoes and wade onto cracked, sunbaked mudflats that promptly burned my feet. But here, finally, I could take in the forest and the celebrated Chagres River, the waterway that flows into both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. For the lifeblood of the Panamanian economy, it looked, I had to admit, surprisingly like a stream. Until the rains came, at least.
Think too hard about anything—one's own birth, for instance—and it can seem a minor miracle, the end result of an impossible convergence of random events and fateful timing. And yet there's something truly improbable, indeed miraculous, about the 400,000 acres of forests that have survived uncut in the Panama Canal watershed. Here one of earth's most biologically diverse ecosystems flanks one of humankind's most earth-altering engineering works. It's an intact ecosystem, not in spite of the 50-mile canal, but because of it. The engineers, it turns out, need the ecosystem: The forests provide water. Water runs the canal. The canal runs Panama. So in this verdant transisthmian corridor nearly 70 percent of Panama's 950 bird species and 65 percent of its 3,000 tree species can live just miles from 50 percent of its 2.96 million people. This is a historical side effect nonpareil, part of the United States' unlikely (in fact, almost entirely incidental) environmental legacy in Panama.
As the isthmus of Panama emerged from the sea, only 3 million years before U.S. canal builders chopped it in half, it precipitated one of natural history's grandest evolutionary events: the Great American Interchange. North American animals—tapirs, peccaries, jaguars—traveled south over the newly formed land bridge; South American animals, including anteaters and armadillos, moved north. Numerous species now overlap only in Panama, an oft-cited reason for this crossroad's staggering biological wealth. Meanwhile, hawks and songbirds migrating between the Americas have made the isthmus a choke point. More than 1.6 million raptors fly over one small section of the canal's west bank in a single year. U.S. military radar once recorded Swainson's and broad-winged hawks moving south at a rate of 40.5 per minute. "The sky nearly turns black with them," says guide Rich Cahill of Ancon Expeditions, the ecotourism wing of Panama's most respected conservation group.
Like the French before them, the Americans who came to build the canal were awed by Panama's wildness. At the dawn of the 20th century, though, a shortcut between the oceans seemed crucial to America's growing naval power—the "big stick" that then-president Theodore Roosevelt was wielding. So after orchestrating Panama's independence from Colombia and extracting a deal to control the 10-mile-wide Canal Zone "in perpetuity," America's utilitarian goal was simply to subdue its new holdings. Mosquitoes carrying yellow fever and malaria, responsible for tens of thousands of deaths during France's spectacular failure in the 1880s and 1890s to build a sea-level canal, were beaten back into the jungle. The Chagres—a monster that flooded every two or three years, swelling to 80 times its dry-season volume and demolishing railroad tracks and bridges—became the key to a new plan for a freshwater canal. Ships would follow the course of the lower Chagres for much of their passage across the isthmus; the river would provide almost half the water used to fill the canal's locks.
The mile-and-a-half-wide earthen dam that blocked the Chagres in 1910 was the largest of its time, and the resulting reservoir, Gatun Lake, flooded 166 square miles of rainforest. But when the canal was finished in 1914, chief engineer George Goethals commanded that the remaining forest stay untouched. It was a military decision: Jungle was the best defense against a ground attack. During the next 90 years, as 65 percent of Panama was denuded by cattle ranching and slash-and-burn agriculture, this militarized greenbelt remained essentially green. Canal Zone bases became prized for jungle training—and, unfortunately, for weapons testing. Before the American military pulled out of Panama in 1999, leaving behind tens of thousands of pieces of unexploded ordnance, it boasted that "the presence of U.S. bases in Panama has saved 80 percent" of the lands controlled by the Department of Defense. Even now this cynical claim is hard to dismiss: Some bases became national parks, while important bird habitat in 8,600 forested acres of Canal Zone bombing range is protected by the fact that no one dares go near it.
Driving south after the Chagres dugout trip, Phil and I bounced past the sagging metal roofs and "No Pase" signs, the yellow grass and raw dirt characteristic of rural Panama in the dry season. But within minutes we were back in thick forest, engulfed by Soberania National Park. Spanning 48,287 acres on the canal's east bank, this was one of the first U.S. holdings to revert to Panama under the 1979 Carter-Torrijos Treaty. Soberania means "sovereignty"; its famous attractions—the repossessed radar station that became the Canopy Tower hotel, and a World War II–era road that once serviced a strategic oil pipeline—underscore the extent to which ecotourism here is also repo-tourism.
That very morning, we'd been on Pipeline Road, where more than 300 bird species have been seen in a single day. It was my first visit to this legendary spot. To Phil, a former Audubon vice-president who owns the tour company Caligo Ventures, the surroundings were somewhat more familiar. We tagged along, in fact, with a Caligo group led by renowned Panamanian birding guide Hernan Arauz. A decade ago ecotourism was almost nonexistent here. But especially since the handover, times have changed. Ancon Expeditions' bookings are up 40 percent this year. In 2003, 865,000 tourists poured $790 million into Panama, rivaling even the canal in importance to the economy.
From the moment we parked, Arauz was a flurry of activity. As the Panama Canal Railway whistled nearby, setting off a troop of howler monkeys, he was already calling out names, sighting birds in the scope, identifying songs. A scrub greenlet caught his eye, then a golden-collared manakin, then a dusky-capped flycatcher, feeding on the fruit of a peeling gumbo-limbo tree (a.k.a. "sunburned tourist"). Then came a squirrel cuckoo, flying fast and low across the road, all chestnut feathers and elongated tail. We saw a keel-billed toucan. A collared aracari. A violaceous trogon. Finally, a white-necked puffbird. "It's not the same one we heard calling," Arauz said, "but it'll do." When we paused, we could hear the high hum of millions of insects. Raccoonlike coatis crashed through the jungle. An anteater feasted on termites high in a balsa tree, wrapping its prehensile tail around branches and scratching itself vigorously. "Looks like he's got fleas," someone said.
That evening Phil and I stood on Canopy Tower's fourth-floor viewing platform and looked out over 360 degrees of jungle. Built in the 1960s to defend the canal against air raids, the radar installation's perch atop 900-foot Semaphore Hill is still commanding—though boutique rooms, an aquamarine paint job, and a massive golden Buckminster Fuller–inspired dome make it a much less intimidating presence. Up here the canopy was almost at eye level, as were motmots, cotingas, and lineated woodpeckers. Two miles to the southwest, ships were passing through the Gaillard Cut, the narrowest part of the canal. Fifteen miles to our southeast, two dozen of Panama City's tallest buildings poked above the hills. We were back on the platform the next morning to watch the sun rise over the Pacific (yes, the Pacific). I noticed that only beyond the Gaillard Cut could I see any deforestation or roads. The other 270 degrees seemed perfectly pristine.
They aren't, of course, but my gaze took in a remarkable number of parks and nature preserves. Soberania is one of seven in the Canal Zone watershed, which has a significant chunk of Panama's national parkland (10.4 percent) packed into a sliver (3.8 percent) of its territory. And while early cutting reduced its jungles by nearly half, deforestation has ground to a virtual standstill. The economic imperative helps. No one wants to endanger the canal, the direct source of 6 percent of Panama's gross domestic product and the indirect source of at least twice that. "The well-being of the country, which is tied very concretely to the well-being of the canal, is also synonymous with protecting our natural heritage," says Juan Carlos Navarro, the conservation-minded mayor of Panama City, and the founder and first director of the conservation group ANCON.
It wasn't until the 1980s that scientists really began convincing policy makers of this link. The governing paradigm among canal engineers had been that the isthmus, forested or not, was a rain funnel that would always get precipitation thanks to its peculiar geography. Evidence began to accumulate worldwide, however, indicating that localized deforestation led to local drought. And a second problem, particularly worrisome for Panama, was becoming more apparent: After trees were cleared, the land could no longer hold water. Instead of being soaked up by a jungle sponge and slowly released, rainwater immediately rushed downstream; the difference between wet- and dry-season flows became all the more extreme.
The El Niño event of 1982–1983 was the turning point for protection, recalls Stanley Heckadon, a Smithsonian researcher and the former head of the government's environmental agency. The weather phenomenon stretched the dry season, usually three to four months, out to a debilitating six. With every ship through the canal's locks draining 52 million gallons of water—26 million to be raised 85 feet to the level of Gatun Lake, 26 million to be lowered back down—draft restrictions were eventually imposed. The drought began costing millions of dollars in revenues.
Meanwhile, in the Chagres Basin, which is the source of 40 percent of the canal's water, ranchers, loggers, and land-hungry campesinos were taking advantage of the extended dry season to push deep into the forest. "It was like the end of the world," says Heckadon. "There were fires everywhere, smoke and ashes—an awesome spectacle." More than 7,000 acres were lost.
To those who expect whistles and whirs and a rush of shouting men—the trappings of a great work of engineering—the most surprising thing about the Panama Canal is its utter tranquillity. On our last full day in the country, we experienced this up close on a boat trip around Gatun Lake with the encyclopedic Rich Cahill. As we cruised along jungle-shrouded banks, he pointed out three-toed sloths, white-faced capuchin monkeys, and the triangular nests of Aztec ants. In one cove were hundreds of black-bellied whistling ducks, thriving thanks to a hunting ban in the canal. In the next was a juvenile snail kite, a federally endangered species that lives in Florida that has shown up in increasing numbers in Gatun. We saw dozens of tiny islands with simple bohios—vacation huts that families lease for as little as a dollar a day.
In the main channel moved silent ships, giants with names like APL Almandine and Kuala Lumpur Express. Nearly 12,000 a year pass through, and since the 1999 handover, transit times have been slashed by more than 25 percent, from 32 hours to 23. Annual accidents have dropped from 29 to 12. Skeptics of Panama's ability to take over operations have been silenced; the five-year-old Panama Canal Authority (ACP) is already a point of national pride. So far its environmental record is also strong. The ACP has jurisdiction over the entire watershed—an area double that of its Canal Zone predecessor. The ecosystem is monitored via satellite imagery and a network of 52 hydrometeorological stations. Oscar Vallarino, the onetime head of ANCON, coordinates environmental policy and sustainable growth.
Sometime this year the ACP is expected to propose a plan to expand the canal with a third set of locks. Expansion may be inevitable: A tenth of the world's vessels—and 60 percent of those being built—are too large for the canal. The proposed project has environmentalists split. It would be almost as massive in scale as the original Big Dig; reservoirs to the west of the canal could flood 8,500 people from their homes. As disruptive as this would be, however, there would be a sudden incentive to save the western region's extremely biodiverse forests, where cattle ranching is at its worst.
The biological station at Barro Colorado Island, which we had passed on Gatun, is proof of a similarly positive side effect, created by earlier manipulation. Surrounded by water when the lake was formed, this 4,000-acre former hilltop has been the site of 80 years of continuous research. Here, Smithsonian scientists, who first came to Panama to battle malaria and yellow fever when the canal was built, began unraveling the secrets of the tropical forest’s cascading systems. By studying fragmentation's effect on wildlife—at least 7 mammal and 65 bird species have disappeared from the island during its century of isolation—scientists were able to impress the importance of biological corridors. Eventually, this groundbreaking knowledge would bolster conservation efforts in the canal watershed itself.
The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) is now the fifth estate in Panama, a juggernaut with a dozen labs countrywide and annals of research in its downtown Panama City library. The government uses the STRI's unrivaled expertise to set conservation priorities; its scientists are an early-warning system for environmental threats. This is especially true around the canal. In 1999, 40 STRI scientists led by Stanley Heckadon completed a major study on the state of the watershed. The findings: While deforestation is under control, poaching continues—and water quality is becoming a major concern. Rivers in Chilibre, an industrializing boomtown between Chagres and Soberania national parks, have levels of fecal matter four to five times that permitted under international norms.
The symbiosis between economy and conservation—a sort of trickle-down environmentalism—has served Panama well, but it can go only so far. The watershed provides all the drinking water for Panama City and Colón, so there's a very tangible reason to tackle Chilibre's pollution. Yet it's hard to put a finger on why saving the harpy eagle, the recently designated national bird, is an economic necessity. For all the emphasis placed on the canal and ecotourism, Panama's growing environmental movement is a battle for hearts as well as wallets. The ACP is in the watershed's schools, teaching children to be "guardians of the rainforest." Biologists are in Chagres National Park, asking communities to spare harpies and the sloths and monkeys they feed on.
I asked ANCON director Lider Sucre what his group's vision was. His answer was unequivocal: "Whenever there's an economic argument, we use it. But our focus is biodiversity for biodiversity's sake." ANCON advertises on Panamanian TV. Harvard-educated Sucre himself is a constant presence in the newspapers. The message is beginning to stick. Post-handover Panama is becoming a country with not just de facto conservation but the real thing: a conscious, deliberate, and entirely unaccidental protection of its biological wealth. Sucre and others are setting the stage for an environmental legacy that will have little to do with the canal—and even less to do with the United States.
Back on Gatun Lake, there were hints of this shift already. The boat docked at Dariencito, an abandoned U.S. military camp, and Cahill led us through the forest. Before us was a cement structure with dirt on its floor and sleeping bats in its shadows. Growing on its roof, already, were Panamanian trees: a gumbo-limbo, a 40-foot ficus, a half-dozen others. The jungle was devouring the old base whole.
Jacks of All Trades: The UN's self-styled ski-bum special forces
Jacks of All Trades: The UN's self-styled ski-bum special forces
On October 8, 2005, a magnitude-7.6 earthquake struck Pakistan, killing 82,000 people. The 13th- deadliest earthquake in recorded history, it was nevertheless a disaster best measured in terms of survivors: more than 3.3 million people suddenly homeless, scattered through a web of remote, landslide-prone valleys in a war zone. The epicenter of the quake was beneath the flanks of a 14,344- foot Himalayan peak in a region where 10 feet of snow can fall in a single storm. For the United Nations, keeping the survivors alive was a humanitarian mission that straddled remote provinces, tribal areas, and the disputed and war-torn Kashmir region.
As October turned to November and temperatures plummeted, the phrase most often used was "second wave": Casualties from exposure during the winter months were expected to outstrip those from the quake itself. Road closures from deep snow and avalanches, survivable in normal years, would leave half-starved and shelterless people cut off from the $5.8 billion relief movement. Two hundred thousand lives were in the balance.
As it turned out, the survivors' best hope lay with a handful of Canadian ski bums.
The Canadian relief team toyed with calling itself the Humanitarian Mountain Patrol, but in Pakistan, where the band of unshaven Canucks flies the flag of the United Nations Office for Project Services, they're the RRR: Remote, Reconnaissance & Response. Tasked to do avalanche control, clear snow, and provide search and rescue, they have a fleet of four Unimogs--Mercedes-built megatrucks used for snowplowing and all-terrain driving--and they have $2 million to spend. They have 15 of the best guides in the Himalayas, who were hired through famous Pakistani mountaineer Nazir Sabir. They have snowmobiles and quads and heli access and $40,000 of ski and avy gear from the Canadian retailer Mountain Equipment Coop. They have satellite phones and GPS units and Land Rovers--all mountain-tested during four years of relief missions in Afghanistan. But most of all, the Canadian skiers turned rescue workers have the X factor of international-aid work, which the typical UN bureaucrat lacks: the ability to tackle almost any task. "Out in the field, all that matters is common sense," says team project manager Chris McGeough. "You don't need the degrees, the proficiencies, the three UN languages. You need to be able to fix a truck, drive a snowplow, and work with the locals on the ground." In short, you need the resume of a lifelong ski bum.
Chris, 45, has a wave of brown hair and blue eyes ringed by crow's-feet. On the job he wears ill-fitting jeans and an air of pissed-off hurriedness. Chris grew up camping out in ski-resort parking lots with his parents and six siblings in a converted school bus, and then he fell into a string of respectable ski- town gigs. He ran a guide service and bed-and-breakfast in Whistler, backcountry guided in Verbier, and instructed beginners on a rotating "ski deck" carpet in Johannesburg, South Africa. Eventually he headed the road crew for the Banff Mountain Film Festival tour in Europe, which for a decade allowed him to base out of Chamonix, where he ran side businesses as a commercial photographer and a camera rigger for Hollywood films. He shot catalogs for Lowe Alpine, Petzl, Helly Hansen, and K2.
His friend Jean-Philipe Bourgeois, a boyish 37-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair and an improbable set of braces, used to work three or four jobs at a time to fund shoestring trips to the world's mountain ranges. Jipe, as he's known, built the more bummish resume: dishwasher, busboy, and dogcatcher in Whistler. Ski tech. Heli guide. Bobcat driver. Janitor. Gardener. Climbing model. Writer. Golf-course worker. Installer of interlocking stones. Yacht restorer. Night watchman and seller of woven bracelets in Greece. Timber framer in North Carolina. Logger in Brittany, France. Translator in Haiti. Trucker in Montreal. Tree planter in BC. Importer of handmade goods from Nepal. Guide and bungee weaver in Switzerland. Scrap-metal recycler, organic farmer, and maple-tree tapper in Quebec. Master of ceremonies and coordinator of Banff's North American tour. (Chris hooked him up. He also recruited Jipe to be a high-altitude cameraman at Latok II in Pakistan.) Adventure-travel guide to Kilimanjaro, the Zanskar Himal, and Everest Base Camp. Jipe also raises rabbits.
Hugh Smith, 41, now one of the heads of the International Organization for Migration in the quake zone, was a bartender when he met Chris and Jipe in Whistler back in the early '90s. Story goes that they became friends because Smitty (forever playing the Cameron to Chris's Ferris Bueller) was so impressed that Chris had a Swedish girlfriend he gave him free drinks in the basement pub where he worked. This lasted until Smitty was fired for giving out free drinks. But the pair remained friends and took on another in the form of Jipe, who was making his living collecting cans at the side of the road, moonlighting as a dogcatcher, and driving a backhoe.
None of the trio could be said to really live anywhere--in the last 18 years, the longest Jipe has stayed in one spot is six months. But they often returned to the same places: Whistler, Banff, Chamonix, Verbier, Quebec, Pakistan, the Bahamas, and Afghanistan. They climb and ski together, and when one finds a new job, he'll get the others in on it.
In early 2001, the three met Claude-Andre Nadon, 34, when Jipe was hired to do logistics for the Ukatak, Quebec's original winter adventure race. Naturally he'd brought his own crew. This was the code of the freelance jack of all trades then, and it's still their code today at the UN--hooking each other up with the bro deal on a grand scale. "You want to work with people you trust," Chris says, "and there's nobody I trust more than these guys." At the Ukatak, Chris became the race photographer, Smitty the race webmaster. Other friends set up the ropes and rappels. Claude, who was becoming a well-known mountaineer and filmmaker in Quebec, was the race cameraman. Compact and bushy- haired, Claude had already summited Tibet's Cho Oyu and would soon complete a harrowing climb of Patagonia's Cerro Torre. He would also win acclaim for An Everest from Within, a prizewinning film about an Everest attempt aborted 600 meters shy of the summit. To raise $80,000 to climb K2 (on the Pakistan/China border) he sold expedition T-shirts--at $20 a pop. A political science major in college, Claude's resume includes stints as a humanitarian worker in Haiti and Russia, census taker among the Inuit of northern Quebec, and manager of an outdoor store. His mom was a ripping skier. His grandfather was the first accredited mountain guide in Austria. He spent his summers surfing a huge river wave in downtown Montreal. He was a natural fit with the crew.
The Canadians' association with the UN happened by chance. In October 2001, soon after the U.S. had begun bombing Afghanistan, Chris and Smitty were in Virginia, where they'd spent a month sanding and varnishing Chris's 38-foot "project boat." The plan was for Jipe to fly in from Rome, and then the trio would sail the boat to the Bahamas--the first leg of an around-the-world trip.
But there was a hang-up. The day before he was due to leave Italy, Jipe went to a dinner party with a bunch of his sister's friends who worked for the World Food Programme. Afghanistan dominated the conversation. War was still raging in the south, and the truckloads of fuel and humanitarian aid keeping Kabul alive were all snaking into the country via the avalanche-ridden, 11,134-foot Salang Pass. If it closed, Kabul would be cut off. One of the WFP bosses turned to Jipe. "Do you know anything about avalanches?" he asked. Jipe said he'd gotten his certification in Canada. "How about heavy machinery?" the boss asked. Jipe mentioned the backhoe. "His wife started tugging at his sleeve," Jipe says, "and telling him I'd be perfect."
"So then Jean-Philipe calls me up," Chris recalls, "and says he's really sorry, but he won't be able to make it sailing. But how would we like to go to Afghanistan instead?" Chris took Smitty down to the bar for a few beers before dropping the news. "No, McGeough! No, McGeough! No, McGeough!" Smitty screamed. "Are you out of your mind? In the Bahamas there are beaches and girls in bikinis. In Afghanistan they're shooting each other. What's wrong with you guys?" Chris and Jipe left Smitty behind--though after surviving a few months without getting shot, they convinced him to come over. The sailboat stayed in dry dock.
At the top of Salang Pass there's a two-mile-long, Russian-built tunnel used by up to a thousand vehicles a day. During 23 years of war, the tunnel, along with the 12 miles of switchbacks and the series of avalanche galleries leading up to it, had been bombed and mined and littered with the wreckage of tanks and personnel carriers. When Jipe and Chris arrived, all that was left was a treacherous single lane of potholes and ice with no protection from the hundreds of avalanches that tumbled down from the Hindu Kush. "We got hit over and over at the south entrance of the tunnel," Chris says. Afghan drivers pushed forward regardless of the conditions, causing massive, multiday traffic jams and a string of carbon monoxide deaths in the tunnel. Local warlords, refusing to cede any authority to outsiders, brandished guns and ran the tunnel even when it should have been closed due to avy danger, with sometimes disastrous results.
Jipe and Chris were budgeted $30 million to buy heavy equipment, but somewhere between Russia and Afghanistan, the UN lost track of the two front-end loaders they'd ordered. (This still bedevils Chris: 'How do you lose a front-end loader?" he asks. "It's bright and yellow and as big as a house.") Fed up with the bureaucracy and the wait, they went to the Faizabad bazaar with a concept drawing and built their own snowplow. It was an ugly but functional machine--a six-wheeled, Russian-made Kamaz truck equipped with chains on its giant tires and dragging a piece of scrap metal that served as the plow. It cost all of $50, though in the days of the 1:180,000 dollar-to-afghani exchange rate, that was still a garbage bag full of cash. They also bought pickaxes and shovels, enough for a road crew of 2,500 men, and then they got to work.
Dynamite for avalanche control was off-limits--officials worried that if locals heard explosions, they might come out guns blazing--so Jipe and Chris toured with climbing skins up the surrounding mountains and ski cut the avy chutes. They climbed before dawn, usually digging a test pit up top to gauge stability and determine if it was worth triggering a slide. The biggest peaks were 18,000 feet high and striped with couloirs. The pair claimed first descents on 11 of them during their days off. "We were the only skiers in the entire country," Chris says. "We always got first tracks." They even dreamed of creating a hut-to-hut Hindu Kush Haute Route until they realized they were skiing a minefield, protected only by the depth of the snow.
Once Jipe was caught in a slide in one of the couloirs, but he managed to ski out of it. Chris wrote home to complain about his frequent confrontations with warlords who refused to heed his rules: "When I have approached these commanders to put an end to this, they invite me for tea. Maybe there is something being lost in the translation--I thought the F word was pretty universal."
The slides kept blasting across the road, so they stepped up their control work by jury-rigging bombs out of defused mines and U.S. military meal-ration packs. "How about a spaghetti and meatballs this morning?" Chris says. "That was our big joke." They'd stuff the ration bags with explosives, hang them over the edge of a chute, light the long fuses, and wait for the bang. Keeping the homemade snowplow going in minus-4-degree temperatures required similar ingenuity. Because there was no antifreeze, they learned to empty the water from the radiator every night and refill it in the morning. The cheap diesel fuel turned to sludge in the cold, so they lit a fire under the Kamaz's fuel tank before starting it.
The Canadians came back the next two seasons, and in the winter of 2004-2005, when Afghanistan's central highlands were drowning in snow, Jipe and Claude were there with the Unimogs to fight it. One of Jipe's favorite photos from that era is telling. In it, a white Land Cruiser is navigating a newly cleared road between two 30-foot walls of snow. On one side of the gap is a man with a snow shovel, and on the other is the clear outline of a ski ramp. During at least one of their snow-clearing missions, the men of the Remote, Reconnaissance & Response team were compelled to build a gap jump.
There's a game of cricket on when photographer Beth Wald and I arrive in Muzaffarabad during week 21 of the earthquake crisis. Crowds of bearded men wander by; a Red Cross helicopter is parked in the corner; an orange wind sock hangs limp from a pole. The city is gray and brown and dusty, clogged with buzzing scooters and jeeps. White tents sit in the front yards of crumbled homes and families cook dinner over open fires. A string of white peaks stands out from the drab, rubble-filled gray of the city. Muzaffarabad, normal population roughly 740,000, current population unknown, is the capital of what Pakistan calls Azad Kashmir--Free Kashmir--and the seat of the relief effort.
It's the middle of February and the UNOPS team is meant to be out there proving its worth. But there's a strange vibe in town. Less than a week has passed since mobs in Islamabad, enraged by the Danish cartoons of Prophet Mohammad, trashed a bunch of McDonald's and Pizza Huts, and now President Bush is about to make a controversial first visit to Pakistan. Islamist Islamist parties have called for a general strike; imams are whipping their congregations into an anti-Western furor; the UN bureaucracy is so freaked out that it's swiftly grinding aid work to a halt. Jipe, whom Beth and I ran into in Islamabad just after he'd finished pulling stitches out of his eyebrow with a Leatherman, is heading home. After four months of working 16-hour days seven days a week, he smashed himself in the face with a wrench while trying to repair the Unimog. He needs to hide out in the sugar shack at his maple farm.
Also missing is the snow. It's the mildest winter in living memory, a miracle for everyone except, perhaps, the mountain crew (though Chris, Jipe, and Claude would never say so). Expecting to finally be recognized as a sort of NGO 10th Mountain Division, they're now struggling to reinvent themselves.
Chris dumps Beth and me off at the "guesthouse" Smitty runs at the IOM, where we're offered the floor, and rushes off to the UN compound. "They're too uptight to let you into the compound," Chris says, "so let's not even bother trying." The guesthouse patio slowly fills with relief workers. Bob Marley and Bob Dylan thump out of the stereo. The aid workers are barbequing goat tonight; it's going to be a party. As it builds, one worker, high on local hashish and a little drunk, comes up to us and rips into UN bureaucracy. "It's an elephant. I'm battling an elephant," he says, looking out over the scattered lights of the broken city. "No, no...it's an amoeba--the UN subsists only on its own parts, feeding itself."
The next morning we meet Claude at a muddy gear depot halfway between Muzaffarabad and the Karakoram Highway, where the crew's new Ski-Doos and Bombardier quads are kept in a prefab shed. A buck knife hangs from a carabiner on Claude's belt, and the pockets of his cargo pants are stuffed with two additional pocket knives, three rolls of tape, a screwdriver, some cord, an iPod, a box of pills, Unimog keys, and a cell phone. Claude and Chris look around the depot until they find a pile of hollow steel beams, which they use to build a precipitous ramp up to the five-foot-high bed of the Unimog. Then Claude pulls a quad around and stands over it like a horse jumper as it inches up the beams, wheels spinning. Chris pushes from behind. The wheels kick the beams back when it reaches the top, and everyone scatters.
The quad is going to the Bagh district, to the southeast, but Beth and I are sent to the north, dumped in the lap of Claude's climbing partner, Martin Boiteau. Claude and Chris race off to coordinate efforts with other UN agencies. Martin, an experienced Himalayan guide, is on his first UN assignment, courtesy of Claude. We wait for a police escort before driving farther into the North-West Frontier Province, where cartoon protests have been particularly ugly. One blue police pickup leads our convoy--an officer with a rifle peering out of its covered bed--and behind us is another police truck. We pass through a market filled with oranges and long-bearded men with angry faces; they cloak themselves in dark shawls to protect from the cold rain.
"Everybody told us it was impossible to go to Bana," Martin says as we drive to Bana. "The road was closed--there was nothing to do. So we sent some of the Hunza guys up there and they moved the rocks. People down in the UN camp were like, 'How'd you do that?' They thought it was a miracle. All we had to do was move some rocks." The Hunza guys are Nazir Sabir's expedition guides from the Karakoram. We grind up a muddy track pinned to a cliffside and catch an aerial view of a massive quake-refugee camp on the banks of the Indus River. It's home to nearly 20,000 people. The tents are situated in rows and laid out like a map of the Allai region so that Pashtun clan structures can remain intact.
With Martin and two of the Hunza guides, we set off from Bana the next morning to visit villages accessible only by foot. In Gangwal, elevation 7,247 feet, only a handful of residents remain; the rest are either dead or down in the camps. There were once 1,500 homes; now there are 200. The corrugated aluminum sheeting given out by aid agencies has become a currency here--it covers the roofs of the rich or corrupt. In a muddy field, the village's children use sticks and rocks to construct miniature replicas of the houses they once lived in. Martin attends to the infected eye of an old man.
After we set up our tents, the village elders, led by an English-speaking schoolteacher named Mohammed, surround us and tell us what has been lost. In this valley, the mud walls of the homes are built so that bees will come nest in them, and honey flows from the walls. Not every house has them-- the bees are a gift from Allah--and before the earthquake, it was the schoolteacher's brother, the imam, who was so blessed. Now the homes have collapsed, along with the imam's mosque, and the bees are gone. Mohammed has food and shelter, but he wants a new bridge across the river, a new micro-hydropower plant and mill, a new mosque, and more corrugated roofing. Martin, who thought he was coming to Pakistan to fight avalanches, can provide none of these things.
A few days later, Claude takes us by Unimog and snowmobile to a high pass near Bagh. A group of doctors and NGO workers is trapped on the other side by one of the few patches of snow in Kashmir, and they need supplies. With the Unimog, Claude could surely open it, but the Pakistani Army won't let him--it's too close to the Indian lines. We drive up switchbacks until we hit the snow, and Claude backs the Unimog up to a bank and unloads the snowmobile in a process nearly as harrowing as the quad- loading at the depot. He jumps onto the sled and zips away up a spine of the Himalayas, peering off into Indian-held territory, but soon he bogs down in deep slush. The snow is melting; it'll be easier to reach the stranded NGO workers via another road. There will be no heroic rescue, but the Canadians aren't concerned with being heroes; they just want to help. "Let's go home," Claude says.
The team stays on for a while in Pakistan, coordinating refugees' return to the mountains, looking for people to save, and running head-on into a hardening bureaucracy that has less use for men of action than it does for paper pushers. The Canadians lobby superiors to set them up as an always-on strike force, funded year-round, based in Dubai with a training center and a warehouse of equipment. It may yet happen, but in the meantime, they don't stand still. Come summertime, Jipe is in Greenland and Iceland, guiding kayaking and trekking trips while planning a move to Ethiopia. Smitty hunkers down with his partner and two-year-old son in Muzaffarabad, directing traffic for the IOM. Claude, who spends a few months in Italy with the Iranian girlfriend he met in Pakistan, considers going to Lebanon. And Chris is finally sailing his boat through the Bahamas, completing stage one of his around-the- world cruise, waiting for the phone to ring with news of the next crisis.
I catch up with Claude one sunny, late-summer afternoon in Montreal at an outdoor cafe. As always, as everywhere, he seems in his element. I ask about his favorite memory from Pakistan, and he brings up a day in late December when, in a small village above the snow line, he got his hands dirty rebuilding an old woman's home. "It was just one house. Just one woman," he says. I wonder what the Muslim villagers thought of him that day--a Westerner who wasn't a Green Beret or hash-smoking backpacker or technocrat in a passing motorcade--and realize they probably didn't think much about him at all. He wouldn't have seemed too foreign.
It’s All Downhill From Here On Up
It’s All Downhill From Here On Up
Objectively speaking, being lost in a wilderness of shirt-tearing, skin-scratching, path-obscuring ten-foot-tall rhododendron bushes is pretty miserable. And two hours after we lost the trail, wandered into the thicket, and started crawling over all those logs—just before the wasps stung Lisa six times—Jim even went so far as to admit it. "You know," he said, "this is pretty miserable." His tone suggested he was merely noting an established truth about hiking in rhododendrons—personally, he wasn't all that flustered. But he did say something, and for that we were grateful. We kept moving.
At eighty-one years old, Jim Harrang walks just like he walked at seventy-one and probably fifty-one and probably twenty-one: deliberately and relentlessly, taking long strides on long legs, silent except for periodic bursts of good cheer. ("Say, this could be the world's longest bushwhack." "These rhodies are a good reference point—after this, most anything's gonna seem easy." "Well, Mac, there's always next weekend.") Soft-spoken and pathologically optimistic, he’s the subject of a cult of personality in our hometown of Eugene, Oregon. Get to know him or know of him, and you realize all his adventures follow a basic pattern: First, he leads a group of people half his age on what is promised to be an “interesting” trip. “Interesting” is Jim’s word for “grueling.” Next, they run into adversity, perhaps in the form of rainstorms or blizzards or ten-mile uphills. But Jim doesn’t acknowledge any of it as a hardship, and they slog on for hours and hours and hours.
Jim had been his typical hopeful self when he proposed our hike a few weeks earlier. He and his wife Nadine had strolled across the field that separates my parents’ house from theirs. Nadine brought a homemade cobbler, Jim a half-baked plan. "We've got some serious business to discuss," he said when he arrived. Over dinner, he described the Oregon equivalent of a buried treasure: a forgotten trail, unmaintained since World War II, that climbed into the wild heart of the Cascade Range. The trail didn't appear on modern maps, he said, and he was one of the few people alive who knew of its existence. He spoke of waterfalls, meadows, and old growth. He promised we would pass through four distinct bio-zones. He described blazes, left on trees by long-dead Forest Service workers, that would help us find our way. When the Harrang kids were kids—they’re now in their forties and fifties—this was the family’s secret route. Jim had decided it was time to show it to another generation.
He failed to mention that the last time he'd hiked the trail was in 1987, but that, no doubt, hardly seemed relevant at the time.
When I was growing up, Jim’s role in my life fell somewhere between guru and grandfather. He drew my parents into his orbit soon after they bought the farmhouse next door in 1976, the same year I was born, and I was raised not only with Jim stories but in the presence of the man himself. It was Jim who introduced my parents to what would become the family passion, river rafting. Some of my earliest outdoor memories—cross-country skiing at Santiam Pass, floating the McKenzie River, my namesake—include a hazy recollection of someone my dad referred to as “old one-stroke.” It was a nickname for Jim, whose raft was always so perfectly aligned in rapids that he seemed to glide through with a single stroke of the oars.
Once, on a trip down the Middle Fork of Idaho’s Salmon River, my parents, sister, and I watched from camp as Jim, then in his sixties, bouldered on a rock above the water. He fell in, lost his eyeglasses, and had to run the next four days of river half-blind. This, my parents explained, was inspiring.
Until they moved on to my more dependable sister, the Harrangs called on me to watch their house and feed their dogs when they were away. It was like sitting in port, watching the ships come and go. They rode off with bikes or boats or hiking gear, returning days or weeks later. The destination might be the three highest peaks in Africa, or maybe Alaska, which required rafts but also rifles, in case of a bear attack. Or just somewhere in Oregon. In down periods, Nadine worked in her garden while Jim was in his gear shed, saddling up, or downtown at his office. (He heads one of the state’s top law firms.)
Jim never gave me advice, but every now and then he’d give or lend me a book: an American Alpine Journal chronicling the year’s boldest mountaineering ascents, for instance, or the biography of famous Oregon outdoorsman Prince Helfrich, who’d spent a lifetime exploring the Cascades. By example, Jim showed that going out into nature was a completely normal thing to do—even a necessity. “A night indoors is a night wasted,” he told me. He had structured his existence around the idea that the outdoors weren’t an escape from real life but the basis for it.
But Jim’s support was as much logistical as it was spiritual. My first self-led mountaineering trip, a spring climb with two classmates up 8,744-foot Diamond Peak, was only possible thanks to Harrang gear. His ancient crampons and unwieldy glacier axes featured heavily in our photos; his orange climbing rope, which we never needed, made us feel tough. I began asking to borrow equipment so often that he instituted an open-lending policy at the gear shed. I liked to walk over late at night after last-minute planning sessions with friends, using my headlamp only once I’d entered the shed to avoid waking anyone up.
The furtive trip became second nature: slip behind barn, step over blackberry bushes, undo wire securing gate, tiptoe through the Harrang yard, open shed door at a snail’s pace lest its squeak set off the dogs. The rope, crampons, and axes were hanging to the right, just inside the door; paddles were knee-high, lying flat with the oars; the inflatable kayak was in another room altogether, along with the two big rafts.
The essay I wrote to get into college was an ode to my then-seventy-year-old neighbor. “In the house next to mine,” it began, “a few hundred yards off, lives one of the people I admire most. His name is Jim Harrang and he has the distinction (along with his wife, Nadine) of being one of the few neighbors I truly like. The fact that Jim didn’t cut down the forest I grew up in, or doesn’t practice with his band until three am, like other neighbors, is not reason enough to respect the man as much as I do. I respect Jim because he is living the life I hope to live in the future.”
When I ended up wanting to defer college for a year, winter in the Tetons, and earn money for a spring trip to Europe and its Alps, my mom tried to enlist Jim in her all-out war to keep me on track. To her dismay, he was one of my only adult allies. “That sounds great,” he said. I took the year off.
About sixty miles east of Eugene, the old McKenzie Highway branches off the new McKenzie Highway and starts winding up into the Cascades. These days, people drive it less to reach civilization on the other end than to see the wilderness areas—Mount Washington and the Three Sisters—that lie on either side. There are lava flows and glaciers, black bears and brown trout, huckleberries and stands of Douglas fir. My parents, who briefly lived in these parts before moving next to the Harrangs, like to joke that I was named after these thirty-seven miles of two-lane road. Thanks to climbing trips and fishing trips, I saw a lot of the old highway growing up, and it was odd to think that Jim’s secret trail lurked on such familiar ground. Yet that's where he steered his minivan when it came time to sniff it out.
It was late October and the days were already colder, shorter. We camped just off the highway, then got an early start, hiking due south from a parking lot, a cement outhouse, and a sign that had welcomed us to the Willamette National Forest. Within minutes, Jim had us on track. The trail started out as a spur off of the popular Proxy Falls loop—drive-by tourists’ favorite mile-long hike—and at first it was a veritable autobahn. But after fifteen feet the space narrowed and nearly disappeared. Our five-person hiking party kept going, clambering over a downed tree and following the faint path into a fern-filled ravine. The forest darkened, a headwall rose above us, and suddenly there it was: a blaze, the first of hundreds, seared into the trunk of a trailside fir. Jim had told us what to expect, of course, but nevertheless I felt a strange rush of discovery. The trail was underfoot. The blazes were real. Even as the forest crept to reclaim it, the treasure was right here, just yards away from discovery by the rest of the world.
Early on, we learned to distinguish blazes from natural scars: If there was only one—not a matching mark on the other side—it was probably just a scar. We peered at tree trunk after tree trunk whenever we got off course, quietly fanning out in a dragnet until someone yelled, "Hey, I've got one." Also early on, Jim began assuring us that the hike was going well. When we crested the first pitch and came to a narrow granitic fin, jutting from the earth, he advised me to "fix this in your mind, Mac." It was an ideal landmark. When we spotted a forty-foot plume of water that cascaded onto the mossy rocks below, he declared confidently, "Now that might be the waterfall." We hadn't known we were looking for one. When we hit a streak of obvious blazes a half hour later, he sounded a triumphant note: "I think we're on it," he said. "Here's another one." Then, "Yeah, there's one here." Then he yodeled, calmly. Then, "I think this is it, Mac." When the streak ended below a broad lava field fringed by yellow and orange vine maples, he was more pensive. "This is kind of like life itself," he reminded us. "The future is uncertain."
At camp the previous night, I’d stayed up late with two of Jim’s latest young co-conspirators, Lisa and John Manotti, poking fun at his inability to say anything negative. I shared my dad’s story of a Christmastime cross-country ski trip with Jim and family. Deep, heavy snow had hidden the trail to the Cascades’ Burley Lakes, and they started to get off course, inadvertently climbing the steep flanks of an 8,000-foot volcano. When the clouds cleared and they realized their mistake, they headed back, my dad falling over and over again. Frustrated and exhausted after the twentieth face plant, he was again struggling back to his feet when Jim said, “Golly, Dave. You sure are good at getting up from falls. That’s quite a talent.”
More recently, in the canyons of Utah’s Escalante, Jim was spotted dipping his hiking boots nonchalantly in a water pocket. Someone asked what he was doing. “Well, I think I might be having a little bit of a toe problem here.” Two toenails had turned completely black; to even brush them must have been enormously painful. They cut the big toes out of some running shoes, and he donned them and a full backpack and hiked out twelve miles the next day.
Lisa and John told me about their first Cascades climb with Jim, a successful ascent of Mount Washington, when his insistence that they park at an obsolete trailhead condemned them to a post-sunset bushwhack back to the car. (Followers soon learn to carry headlamps at all times.) When they finally got back, Jim's only comment was this: "Well, that certainly was a full day, now wasn't it?" The Manottis still employ that phrase all the time, just as my parents and I say "interesting" when describing hell. We’ve taken to repeating an apparent Harrang family motto, which Jim's kids must have come up with during a walk with Dad: "It's all downhill from here on up."
Somewhere in all this, it seemed, was a blueprint for how to commune with nature: Be bullheaded. Never let the fact that you’re having a horrible time of things get in the way of the good times. The wonder of your surroundings always outshines the specifics of your difficulties. Never admit that you’re cold, lost, hungry, or hurt. Never admit that you’re discouraged. Never admit that something sucks. Ignore adversity. It’ll go away. Hardship, it turns out, is the spice. With sufficient underplanning and a good dash of stubbornness, a jaunt in the Cascades can be every bit as life-changing as a Himalayan expedition.
As far as Jim has ever gone—the Andes, the Alps, the Caucasus—he has always seemed most content in the state where he was born, exploring the mountains where he grew up. After his tour with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division in World War II, he returned to found the University of Oregon’s ski team with some Army friends and some Army skis. (They competed in all four disciplines—downhill, slalom, cross-country, and jumping—on the same seven-foot, government-issue wooden planks.) In the 1940’s and '50’s, with a cadre of climbers that included Willi Unsoeld, who went on famously to conquer Everest's West Ridge, Jim pulled off a number of first ascents in the Cascades—but he never joined them in the high Himalaya. For his eightieth birthday, he summitted the tallest mountain in Oregon, 11,239-foot Mount Hood.
His connection to the home state rubbed off on me. During summer breaks from college, when many of my friends stuck around the East Coast for this or that impressive internship, I made a beeline back to Oregon and worked as a rafting guide. The first time I ran a river with my boss, Jim happened to be along. She watched in silence as I botched the run down Pinball, the trickiest Class IV rapid on the Umpqua River, missing the entrance chute and getting sucked all the way to the right. I bounced sideways over rocks and holes just inches from the bank. But Jim knew just what to say. “Wow, Mac, I hadn’t even noticed that slip route. What a great idea to save yourself all that maneuvering.”
Even now, after living in Jackson Hole, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., New York, Seattle, and again New York, I’ve clung obsessively (and probably illegally) onto tokens of Oregon identity: driver’s license, vehicle plates, mailing address for anything important. I still spend at least a month there each year. Any opportunity to go home, I take, and the visits invariably revolve around some epic ski, trek, climb, or paddle in the Cascades.
Jim had neglected to bring a topo map on our hike. So had I. It didn't matter much, he'd reasoned—the trail wasn't shown on it anyway. Thankfully, that wayward disciple John Manotti had been overly cautious, and it was his map that we all huddled over once we were good and lost in the rhododendron thicket. The topo showed lots of valleys and creeks and ridges, and I think we followed one of those ridges for quite a while. The rhodies made it hard to tell. We wandered for two hours, maybe three. Lisa informed Jim that she was ready for another bio-zone. We ate a snack. But the trail never reappeared, and eventually John's map—and the swarm of wasps that beset Lisa as we descended a brushy hillside—persuaded us to turn around.
By the time we hit the car, Jim was calling our hike an "exploratory mission." By the middle of the next week, he'd dismissed the wasps as "kind of a fluke." Meanwhile, Nadine had instructed Lisa on how to make a meat-tenderizer poultice to reduce the swelling from her stings (somehow, Nadine had had occasion to master this remedy), and I had become obsessed. I spent my days poring over historical maps in the University of Oregon library. My studiousness, though certainly not my stubbornness, may have been a break from Harrang tradition; I lack his ability to make things look effortless. But the real hike, not the mere exploratory mission, was planned for the coming weekend, and this time I wanted to be fully prepared.
The oldest Three Sisters map I dug up, a topo drawn in 1925 by a geologist named Edwin T. Hodge, didn't show Jim's trail. Nor did any subsequent USGS quadrangle, from the first one, made in 1932, to the current one, printed in 1997. On the 1930 Forest Service map of what was then called the Cascade National Forest, however, a weak dotted line climbed up the headwall next to Proxy Falls, switchbacking its way to the base of the Sisters. In 1940 the line was stronger and more obvious. In 1967 it was even drawn in red. After that, though, it vanished. The maps all showed the same important detail: Not far past the lava field, where we'd gone straight uphill and found rhododendrons, the trail cut left and forded Proxy Creek. We'd missed the crossing, simple as that.
The paper trail intrigued me. Why had it been mapped and official for only thirty-seven years? Had the Forest Service simply lacked the resources to maintain it, as Jim supposed? My calls to the McKenzie Ranger Station finally led me to Jim Drury, an eighty-eight-year-old former fire ranger who still lived up the McKenzie River. On the phone, Drury could hardly hear me and I could hardly hear him. He wheezed proudly about the days of trail building and twenty-six-inch rainbow trout—he'd started with the Forest Service in July 1934—and about the fires he had fought and the fires his father had fought. Drury said the trail was a "way trail," one designated as a way to get from A to B in a time when recreation wasn't a priority on public lands. Trappers used such trails; hunters, too. If the Forest Service worked on them, and sometimes it did, the maintenance was done so firefighting crews could quickly access the high country. Though Jim Harrang remembers it as a leveled, clearly marked thoroughfare, Drury couldn't tell me much about this particular trail: It was already there when he entered the Forest Service, and he had hiked it only once. When the recreation boom happened in the 1960’s, the outdoor enthusiasts usually stuck to more hiker-friendly routes.
I liked that the trail was a relic from another era, but more than that I liked being reminded that the era wasn’t so long ago. For me and my peers, none of us alive long enough to see America’s changing relationship with its wilderness, going outside for the sake of being outside has never been an alien concept. It’s eye-opening when you realize that “backpackers” or “river runners” didn’t really exist when our parents were born—that the culture of outdoorsiness ushered in by pioneers like Jim Harrang is still spreading.
Jim assembled a strong crew for the final assault. My dad, infected by my obsession, came along, as did our longtime friends and fellow Jim groupies Carrie Gagen and Dennis Smith. Neyo León, a Venezuelan mountaineer who'd recently moved to Eugene and had taken English classes from my mom, was there, too. And John Manotti. But not Lisa—she was still convalescing at home, sprinkled with meat tenderizer.
We bristled with maps. I had photocopies of the one from 1930 and the one from 1940 and the one from 1967. I'd also bought some 1997 topos for good measure. Dennis had found a 1957 Forest Service map that showed the trail; using it and computer-mapping software, he and Carrie had made everyone customized topo printouts marked with the approximate route. John had the map that had saved us earlier, plus an altimeter and a compass or two. I carried a GPS and, at the trailhead, took the unprecedented step of turning it on.
We started out early, just as before, and we found the spur, just as before, and we climbed the headwall, just as before. When it came time to cross Proxy Creek, we crossed it. And there, on the other side, was the trail, just where it was supposed to be. We couldn't believe we'd missed it the first time. The path—sometimes faint, sometimes clear as day—traversed the slope and climbed up a mossy creek bed and gained a ridge where nary a rhododendron grew. Up and up we went in the open woodlands, passing a beautiful clearing where frost had flattened the long yellow grass and where red huckleberry bushes still bore fruit.
Farther along, we filed through thin slots in a forest of Christmas trees, the dew on their branches soaking through our clothes, and followed riverine channels of matted grass toward the cloud-covered Sisters. Jim walked up and over the dozens of logs in our way with such ease that Neyo's curiosity got the better of his shyness and he asked me, in Spanish, how old Jim was. I told him. "Increíble," he said. Rain started to fall, intermittently. We lost the trail, then found it again, twice in quick succession. We looked often at the maps and altimeter and GPS, and even marked a few waypoints, but we never really needed them.
Lunch should have been a victory banquet, since we ate it at our goal: Eileen Lake, with its views of the Three Sisters and its fiercely cold wind. But we didn't have time to savor our success. A storm was brewing and it was getting late. So we devoured our sandwiches and, for a change of scenery, headed back via the next drainage over, Linton Creek. Our way down was marked by mud, meadows, forty-five-degree slopes, 300-foot waterfalls, and, mysteriously—wonderfully— more blazes: the remains of yet another forgotten trail, one that, I later determined, doesn't appear on a single map between 1925 and 1997. We were too rushed to investigate. When darkness hit, we were separated from the car by more than a mile of fallen logs and slippery rocks. We fumbled for our headlamps. Jim led us onward. "Well, guys," he murmured, "at least we can say we made use of all the available daylight."
Recently, a little over a year after our triumph, I went back for a third attempt on the trail. It happened to be the weekend of my ten-year high-school reunion, but three friends and I decided our time was better spent climbing the Middle Sister. Matt, Natsu, Simon, and I piled into a car and headed up the McKenzie, and halfway there, I had a thought. “Do you guys know my neighbor Jim?” I asked. They did, at least by name; they’d all used his ice axes and kayak over the years. “Well, he showed me this secret trail.” I convinced myself that we could walk it to the base of the mountain, camp, climb to the summit, camp again, and return. Then I convinced them. By the time we were on the trail, it was 4:00 p.m.
At first I was proud of myself for being able to find it, and my friends were impressed. The waterfall was especially beautiful in the afternoon sun. Despite our loaded packs, we made good progress. But when sunset came, we were still in the thick of the forest, denied even a glimpse of the Middle Sister. When it became totally dark, it was revealed that Simon had forgotten his headlamp. For some reason, I gave him mine. We lost the blazes almost immediately. I pulled out my GPS and found that the nearest waypoint I’d marked was named “Mid-bramble”—and Matt and Natsu began to complain. Channeling Jim, I pretended nothing was wrong—which, friends say, has been a pattern of mine since high school. For three hours we stumbled in darkness through the same rhodies and head-high firs, zigzagging up and down a ridge. I kept assuring them we were close. We ran out of drinking water. The hiking ended nearly at midnight at a nondescript flat spot in the forest, where I tried to press the group to go on and Natsu screamed at me in an expletive-filled breakdown.
The next day, having given up completely on the Middle Sister, we got lost again trying to make our way down to Linton Lake. Monsoon rains soaked us the next night and the morning after that, and we reached the car wet to the bone, barely talking to each other.
I sent Jim an e-mail when the trip was done, telling him I’d be in town and offering to give a full report. But he and Nadine were preparing for some adventure in New Mexico, and the gist, no doubt, he already understood. “Any time before our departure that I catch a glimpse of you,” the eighty-one-year-old replied, “I’ll be bounding across the fence.”