The Great Wide Open: Montana, Wyoming, and the American Prairie

As a last hurrah before launching into graduate school, I took a two-week road trip in August with a dear friend, Jessica Kilroy. I met her in northeast Utah as she finished a five-day rafting trip on the Green River and, after a much-needed night’s rest, we packed up the RV and my three dogs and hit the road for north central Montana. Our destination: The American Prairie Reserve, where Jessica is participating in an intermittent yearlong artist residency (she is a recording artist).

I could tell many a hilarious tale about our journey, and perhaps I will elaborate in the near future. Suffice it to say that our trip was full of laughter, biker gangs (thanks to Sturgis), ghost stories, shockingly racist small town folk, gracious dog-loving ranchers, terrible books, incessant snacking, plagues of mosquitoes, welcome respite in unlikely places, intentional detours, awe-inspiring storms, and plenty of wide open spaces.

For now, please enjoy this video I made with footage from our trip. The music is by Jessica, composed using sounds she recorded on the prairie during her spring visit.

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Time machine: Northern Vietnam

Our path through the frontier.
The road through Ha Giang province.

There are few places in this world that still hold vestiges of the distant past, where you can imagine yourself transported, transmuted, transfigured by the landscape and people around you. The far northern region of Vietnam is one such place.

Ha Giang province borders China in the northernmost reaches of Vietnamese territory and is often referred to as “Vietnam’s final frontier” — rugged, remote, and scenic. This region is also home to the recently designated Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark, a UNESCO World Heritage Site as of 2010.

The landscape is surreal: towering karst formations create a labyrinth of near-vertical cliffs and ravines, gaping caverns, and a few very sinuous roads. The steep hillsides are cultivated by colorfully-clad hill tribes such as the Tay and the H’mong people. While you might occasionally see the indigenous folk riding a motorbike to the market or making a call on an old cellphone, you will see no farming machinery here; water buffalo still pull plows, and tribespeople still tend every plant by hand. Continue reading

We will not be herded: Bai Tu Long Bay

wpid-img_20150501_202155.jpg We really dislike organized tours.

Being told where to go, what to look at, when and what to eat, and being ushered around with a bunch of interminably obnoxious other tourists as a public spectacle is not our idea of a good time. We will not be herded.

Having said that, there are several instances when organized tours might make sense:

  1. When the intended destination presents significant logistical challenges that the use of privately arranged transportation can solve,
  2. When the site to be visited contains esoteric cultural information that would be difficult to decipher without a knowledgable guide, and/or
  3. When a guide is legally required.

For us, Bai Tu Long Bay fell into the first category. We had read online that the journey there from Hanoi requires several transfers, and the relatively undeveloped tourist infrastructure exacts a financial toll on a cornered market. We only had two days before we wanted to head into the north country, and we just didn’t have the patience to hack our way through the DIY process for a two-day boat ride.

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The City of Gentle People: Dumaguete

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“Why are you going to the Philippines?” A Canadian man inquires of us at a bar in the Tokyo airport. I don’t know what time it is. Five o’clock, perhaps, or maybe noon. Regardless, the traveler is slightly drunk, slurring his words, leaning in a little too close.

“Why not? Beach time, some scuba diving, jungle hiking… doesn’t sound so bad,” Ben replies.

The man snorts, takes a swig of beer. “I don’t know. I spent the entire time there shitfaced. I planned that trip for the wife. And man, the food there is terrible.”

Fortunately, experience and perception are relative. After a week in Dumaguete, we’re placing The Philippines squarely in the win column.
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Sacred places: Utah’s canyon country

IMG_20131130_105913Every one of us has a sacred place somewhere. I believe there is a physical place on this earth that occupies an unsullied space in each of our lives, where we retreat when we are in need of respite. This is not a “happy place” per se; it is instead a powerful place, forcing us into a state of retrospection, introspection, and an openness of spirit.

For me, that place is the canyon country of southeastern Utah.

There is something about the mesas, towers, and gaping expanses of this place that speaks to me, draws me in and holds me willing captive. We go there on the pretense of climbing, but what I feel is far more than the cold sandstone against my skin, the hollow breeze whispering in my ear, or the echoing cries of coyotes in the night wind.

My memories of this place stack on top of one another in a multifaceted tapestry of joy, sadness, triumph, pain, curiosity, fear and healing. There is a rawness here that envelops me, leaves me exposed to both memory and discovery. This place has its own voice, and it calls to me from open country. Continue reading

Flashback image gallery: Belize

Placencia.
Placencia, Belize

Ben is driving our 4×4 RV home from Oregon as I type, and I’m so excited to get it in the driveway and to start working on modifications for our PanAm trip!

But for now it’s Friday, which I am dubbing Flashback Friday. Really, this is just a catchy name for an excuse to post photos from previous travels. Eye candy until we hit the road again.

I won’t regale you with tales from that trip, as most of the details have faded into the sweet, hazy mélange of recollection. What I remember from those two weeks spent in Belize in 2009 is comprised of distinct scenes, not necessarily in chronological order. Smells, sounds, tastes and textures. Such is the nature of memory. Continue reading

Still point in a turning world: NYC

This doesn't need any explanation
This doesn’t need any explanation

There is nothing I can say about New York City that hasn’t been said a million times. There is no story I can tell of this place that hasn’t been told and retold by countless others. But every iteration, every telling of these stories builds upon the words and thoughts of every other. They cannot exist independently from the aggregate whole.

As the art of Oliver Laric reminded me today, in the telling and retelling of such stories, people reveal not so much about actual events as about themselves. Every truth reinforces a repetitive illusion; every lie creates an alternate universe in which that lie is true. This endless intertwining of stories — and of selves —  is how I become overwhelmed in a place such as New York City. Adrift in a sea of humanity.

But I do not shy away from being so lost. I embrace it. I fling myself headlong into the teeming masses, the human machinery of urban existence. Continue reading