Balinese Construction Workers

A few reflections on the construction workers of Bali.

One of the things I do when I am in another place is to notice the work being done by the people who live there. In Bali, the workers stand out for many reasons. For one, Bali is the most distant place I have ever travelled from Toronto, which automatically means that work-practices will be unfamiliar at least, and in some cases drastically different. This is certainly true for the construction workers here and the work they do.

It piques my obsessive curiosity to see people working with their hands. I want to learn about them. I would like to be taught. Construction is one of the ways that I engage with the world around me and I always feel connected to workers in the trades. I want a chance to work alongside them. I feel comfortable and at home when I use my body and hands. It’s grounding to be connected to the workers of a community. And connected to the work being done.

I should mention Bali’s agriculture briefly even though I know nothing about it. Agriculture here is vastly different than in Ontario. The farms are smaller here, often situated on hilltops or mountainsides where jungle has been cleared away. Mist alternates with blazing sun in sometimes very deep valleys with perfectly terraced rice, fruit and vegetable acreage. To give some idea of the vast appeal of these plots of land, in the mid- part of the island of Bali, there are rice farms that are bustling tourist attractions due to their unforgettable beauty. But such farms are everywhere. The Balinese people are so friendly that one hardly needs a guide or to pay a ticket price to visit them. Just hang a left or a right anywhere near the mountains.

There are many farms where people are making crop to feed their families, and maybe to sell a little to local wholesalers and stands on the road. Incidentally, I stopped into a local produce wholesale operation north of Mengwi and it was well worth it. It was like a smaller, tropical version of Ontario’s food terminal on Queensway Ave in Toronto- an extravagantly busy place with buyers, sellers and grocers everywhere. I was a bit out of place in the one in Bali, and the workers politely ignored me as I took photos and observed them. I found one group of guys playing dominoes in a dark corner amongst huge stacks of 100-kilo onion bags. They invited me to play, but I declined, and instead watched mesmerized by the exact game I’ve seen played so many times in Toronto. I have to say these guys were the best I’ve ever seen at “smacking the bone down”- slapping their next domino. Onto the table.

I do not think it’s immature to describe the agricultural regions of Bali as a paradise. The other day I was driving north on a scooter in the center of the island and decided to take a steep side road down into a farming village. I stopped and watched a young man and woman of perhaps 30 years of age, farming rice and fruit on the side of mystical mountain terrain and sculpted hillsides. I desperately wanted to ask them if I could work alongside them for a few hours for a meal or something, but I was not bold enough. They appeared, as do most people in this place, happy, healthy and expressing deep tradition.

Ok, onto construction projects.

There is an absolute ton of construction projects going up here in Bali. We have been to Canggu, Seminyak, and Ubud, and also less populated areas such as Aumen. These areas are thriving with building projects such as temples, guesthouses, villas and stores. I stop at them to learn and talk. The other day in Canguu, I wandered over to a crew doing concrete in a new three story building. Six guys and three women appeared to be finishing up for the day. They sat against a newly constructed wall on the main floor of the building, and one young fellow noticed me as I crossed the as-yet-unlandscaped, tool-and-mud-laden approach to where they were sitting.

Knowing what smart asses many construction workers are in Canada, I smiled, hoping to get into a bit of banter. I asked the young guy, “Are you finally done yet?” It almost always gets a sarcastic come-back reaction in Toronto, and, to my delight, he sure enough smiled and said, “Yes, we’re done. Can’t you see? All ready. But no English, no English,” and the others started laughing. Part of the humor of course was that he spoke perfect English. With the others laughing at me, he launched into what I imagined anyways was a stream of insults in Indonesian. It really made me feel at home. In fact, though I did not do so, I wanted to ask the crew if I could spend the next day working with them, but again I did not, thinking they would say no.

Some of the projects I’m seeing- including the one with the sarcastic young concrete guy- easily parallel the sophistication and forward design of Toronto projects of the same size. They mix and match different traditional and new age materials, and they get some gorgeous results. Traditional Balinese architecture is utterly stunning, and mixing some cool new looks into it makes for amazing buildings that are completely unique.

Construction here is simpler for one legitimate reason and perhaps one reason only- it does not freeze here. Ever. Freezing water is probably the single biggest building problem in the northern hemisphere. It requires building elements that can be conveniently ignored in places where it does not occur. The nut of the problem is that water expands while it freezes- unlike nearly any other substance known to man- and this expansion during frost can snap concrete walls like they’re children’s lego; allows ice to burrow itself upwards against gravity beneath roof shingles only to re-melt on ceilings below; freezes water pipes bursting them like cheap garden hoses; uproots too-shallow post anchors and mangles the decks built over them; and is generally the thorn in the side of architects, building developers and tradesmen alike.

But Bali has alternative construction complexities. Canadian workers do not face rainy season. The island of Bali gets half of Toronto’s annual rainfall in the month of January alone.

Thatch roofing is common here even in the cities, but there are greater and lesser degrees of expense poured into these. Thatch roof is gorgeous. Environmentally, thatch also sits at the extreme polar opposite of modified bitumen roof shingles like they use in Toronto. Thatch here is generally made from grass “alang-alang”, but also from a palm plant product called “Ijuk.” I first noticed Ijuk when Lisa and I were on the scooter going through Aumen. We began to notice scores of massive heaps of what we arrogantly believed to be black hair from some kind of animal… Alas, we were totally mistaken. They were the coiled up coarse long hairs from a certain palm tree, ready to be sold and turned into roofs.The site of them still makes me imagine a 50 foot giant humanoid with black hair down to his ankles then shaved and bundled.

Thatch roofs can be made more or less expensive and durable by using less or more of the tied-together shakes or shingles from the alang alang or Ijuk. The less rows of these the roof has, the more the structure is vulnerable to saturation and sagging come the November- March rainy season. The higher quality roofs- such as the one Lisa and I noticed from our seat under a hut where we stopped for a cup of Luwak Coffee this week- has more rows of thatch shingles over the run of the roof. The young woman giving us a tour of the coffee plantation explained: The more of these rows, the more sound the roofing system.

The other common roofs here are rounded red clay systems seen atop temples and homes.-similar to the ones seen commonly in the southern US- especially Florida- and finally, there is corrugated galvanized iron.

The clay roofs are expensive and challenging to install and repair. But the corrugated metal products are not. The same metal is used in Canada, but usually only in rural communities. This is unfortunate. It is due almost exclusively to their apparent lack of aesthetic appeal. I have always wondered about this, however. Corrugated metal lasts forever, looks just fine, can be painted and repainted any color with ease. And, unlike bitumen shingles, metal is not a disgustingly polluting environmentally unsound product that comes as the butt end of our obsession with dwindling petroleum reserves (end of rant).

Corrugated metal comes in huge 4x 8 sheets. Using larger size individual pieces of material means way less work and way less expense. Also, to install a “skylight” on a corrugated roof system, I noticed that the Balinese roofers simply install one small section of clear corrugated glass instead, and voila, there’s your skylight ! As a side note, installing skylights on roofs in Toronto, is one of the most challenging things a roofer does. Leaks tend to be a huge problem and skylights are really expensive.

Roofers have it tough here, same as they do in Canada, mainly due to extraordinary heat. Like Canadian roofers, they are get sun constantly and are deeply tanned from the unrelenting exposure. But the heat in Bali is incomparable. Way hotter and everyday.

Balinese workers also- and I hope this does not sound rude- but tend to have more nimble body types. I say this because the best Canadian roofers generally have a similar build- especially those doing shingles. They are usually lithe, quick and agile men. Only difference here is that they are men or women.

The concrete projects here are interesting to watch. They are not that different from Canadian projects. Workers build wooden forms and tie iron rebar in preparation for cement pours for walls, pillars and beams. One difference to note is in the way they do it: Out of literally dozens of projects that I’ve watched, I have only seen two sites using pump trucks and barrel trucks to aid in the process. Even large,, five story buildings had workers mixing concrete with a ½ horsepower, 5 cubic feet mixer, and then delivering the fresh loads of material by bucket on ladders or scaffold, or via wheelbarrow or another hand device. It is also very common to see people mixing it in a wheelbarrow, which is a skill unto itself (and quite a nice way to work with cement).

Also, a noteable difference is the raw materials that go into concrete mixes in Bali. There is a dark grey rock that appears to be a volcanic type stone, rather than limestone gravel like in Toronto. The concrete itself has a darker hue prior to mixing- it is almost black on some sites, but also verges into reddish hues. Also, there are various sand products here- some are dark grey, but there’s one that looks almost like yellow salt. The workers here use it to form beds or as screenings under interlock stone.

Scaffolds here are usually made of bamboo, which is a perfect scaffold structure. It is light, strong and easily shape-able by cutting it. It is also relatively cheap. In contrast, Canadian scaffolds use steel vertical side pieces and cross bars that are also very heavy, along with heavy boards or aluminum decking as planks. I have erected them many times. It absolutely sucks ass to do so.

I remember a bricklaying crew I worked with when I was 25. Out of all the extremely difficult things I was doing in my day- carrying loads of about 15 bricks on a thin metal rod and hustling shovels-full of mortar up and down the length of building, there was still no word I loathed more than one of the bricklayers would yell, “Scaffold up,” or sometimes just “uppie.” Each time we went “uppie”, it meant about a half hour of overhead lifting of 2×14 boards at least 12 feet long, saturated with mortar or other very heavy things, then pulling up 80 pound sections of cross-structure and carefully slotting them into the tops of the ones below. The harder your bricklayers work, the more those damned scaffold pieces have to be lifted up to keep going “uppie”. Well the Balinese bamboo scaffold appears to avert some of the more shitty elements of scaffolding, though perhaps they are not quite as strong as steel- I don’t know. I have seen the bamboo here erected as high as five stories, carefully tied together with rope at their joints.

Construction culture is similar. Same as on Canadian sites, workers bum smokes off each other at break time. The men on the crews, however, do not seem to ogle women who happen to be walking by on the street, the way it still happens on Canadian sites. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that women appear to make up at least a quarter of the construction labour force here, and would probably smack the heads of the men being disrespectful. This culture in general seems more reverent, respectful and polite. But I digress: Women construction workers in Bali are every bit as touch and raw as the men, and would likely not put up with that shit.

Also, I have spoken to several workers on sites that were family affairs, where a family member purchased the property, and the family then went to work on the development of it, men women children and all. Those sites put a vastly different cultural spin on construction than one generally sees in Canada.

Just the other day in Ubud- an epicenter of westerners, high-end shops, restaurants, an entirely vegan street and multiple yoga studios- I saw a group of entirely Balinese women walking payloads of dirt up a ramp to the street from a deep basement below. I stopped to talk out of pure curiosity. They told me the basement was being dug down to get more ceiling height. I stood in wonder. I can assure you that digging down a basement is one of the toughest, nastiest, brutal kinds of work in construction that one can find. The women were all older- about 6 of them, 45 -60 years of age. carrying 3.5 gallon plastic buckets on their heads while methodically walking up the ramp and dumping them into the back of a truck. They each wore slippers, and were clad in long skirts and head-scarves. They joked amongst themselves while doing it.

Though there are women in the construction trades in Canada, they make up maybe 0.5 percent of the workers. I have also never seen a woman on a roofing crew. I have never seen a woman on a basement dig-out crew, for that matter. And I have definitely never seen a group of women who comprised the entire basement dig-out crew. Of course I have seen- in recent years especially- many women doing the more technical trade elements of construction work, too- concrete, bricklaying, electrical, glazers and drywall finishers.

By far the most interesting projects here in Bali for me are the temples. These are being built almost everywhere we have gone. There is a project in Canguu right now that is using dark-grey stones and brick. It’s about 2 miles north of the beach, on JL Raya Semat. The building is comprised of terraces, overlapping layers, open floor spaces, open air, gorgeous tile work, clay roof and amazing stone work of traditional Hindu motifs. If there is one project more than any other that I would love to work on for a day while I am here, it would be this temple. Just to understand how they build them. Maybe I will get the courage to ask them tomorrow.

 

 

 

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The Power of Drishti

There are 9 common drishtis, or gazing techniques regularly utilized in Yoga. I have been really using them regularly and they have totally transformed my inner practice. That’s why I’m writing about them now.

Deliberately manipulating the eyes- known in ordinary language as the “windows to the soul,” creates a more sound inner yoga practice… a yoga aimed at quieting the mind, observing the self and moving past it.

The eyes are formidable entertainers, however. They do not exactly like to give up first billing in the theatre of mind’s entertainments and distractions. All of the senses are of course capable of pulling a yoga student away from their personal and immediate yoga goals- like when in deep savasana, your neighbor cranks his new Harley Davidson up, leaving your ears and mind ringing. But the eyes are constantly making this kind of noise. As it relates to my own mental practice, the eyes seem to be the sense organ most affiliated with the constant production of “self” or ego that is the purpose of yoga to transform.

The eyes compare, search, notice, investigate, flit, flutter and express. They sense danger one moment, and the next they are bidding one to enjoy the glance of a handsome fellow yoga student! There is a tremendous power in eye contact- consider for example the highly important yet differing expectations regarding eye contact depending on the culture or nation in which you find yourself. The eyes express the self in so many ways- they announce it- like no other part of the body.

But the eyes can also express divinity, discipline and laser focus. Drishti is the manipulation of eye expression to drastically transform these visual circumstances.

The genius of the technique of drishti is that it teaches us to express soul, depth, love and connection to god. And its really the simplest of techniques that require little more than a sentence of instruction. For example, I find when I reorganize for even a few moments the quality and object of eye-focus, an inner world beams open. Adding drishti to practice is like adding an extra glimmer of previously unnoticed light to a prism.

The eyes are so powerful. They can just as easily be used to yoke as they can be used to distract. These are several of the drishtis I have come to regularly utilize in my practice to yoke, or connect.

Hand (hastagre). Focusing on the hands is incredibly rewarding. I especially use this technique during seated meditation, prior to or after practice, with hands at heart centre (Anjali mudra). This morning I used this technique. I focused on the tips of my two middle fingers. Just to be a yoga nerd, I incorporated the idea entailed in chapter 1, verse 40 of the Yoga Sutras as well, where the student visualizes infinitely small objects to achieve stability.

While seated in rock pose, I studied and reveled at the fineness and detail of my finger tips, – the etching- like quality of the pads’ unique prints, and the vast intelligence and experience of my hands.

I also use this drishti during tree pose. It makes the pose far more challenging in terms of balance, and in that regard alone, it is worth trying. With a little practice, gazing at the hands during tree amplifies the tendency of this pose to relax, calm and steady my mind.

Mind is immediately quieted by this eyes-down-at-the-hands-in-heart-center position. I sometimes feel like I have entered a small room that is still and welcoming, and where I can hang out for hours.. Not only that, but the muscles of my eyes relax in this position. Furthermore, this small dedication is a way of observing the small self and its habitual agitations. In hashtagre, one immediately notes the mental challenge of “not looking around,” while at the same time feeling the benefits of “not looking around.”

Secondly, I use urdva drishti. This gaze is loosely translated “upward” but that can be slightly confusing, since this gaze (to me) also entails focusing horizontally and outward into infinity or space. This is the drishti I use in chair pose or warrior 2 nearly always. It has required probably the most practice for me to feel like I’m getting it. However, it’s simple to begin. Lean back, for example in your chair pose, and blur the eyes. Its that easy. As you try, begin to control the “blur.” That is, blur your eyes so that if some object were 4 or 5 feet in front of you, it would be in focus… but of course there is nothing in front of you. “In space.” The small self has no clue what that is, but the big Self does and it grabs hold quick when doing this technique.

Of course, as the name implies, this drishti is also used in upwards gaze- poses like warrior 1 or advanced versions of tree. However, I have found that simply looking at an object on the ceiling of your studio, or a leaf on the tree in the park, does not meet the definition of this particular gaze. Landing on an object does not have the same impact on the practice as“looking into space,” and that is the essence of this drishti for me.

The benefits of this one are numerous. Once again, used in tree pose, it immediately puts one back in the beginners seat- where we can always benefit from hanging out for a while. It’s worth tripping and falling and flailing 10 or 100 times to really nail gazing into space upwards in tree pose and keeping one’s balance. It’s incredibly liberating, and adds to all the muscular benefits derived from balance such as knee and ankle strength. Soccor players do this one to keep from getting injured. Plus, if you master it a little at home each day for 15 minutes, you can show off at the studio the next time you go, since few people tend to be able to look up and balance.

I also highly recommend this gaze to advanced students in mirrored yoga practices. I have certainly used the mirrors in Bikram and Moksha/Modo studios to greatly enhance my pose techniques. But my mind also uses the mirror to be self- absorbed. It’s that self-eye connection that warrants being cautious about. I have to remember that the mirror in Western cultures means the place where we check our make-up, abs, or hair before going out. Some of us stare longingly like Narcissus into our own reflections as we get better and better at the poses. But the flip side is that some more unfortunate students- people with body dysmorphia conditions for example, associate mirrors with feeling bad about themselves. It is there, in that precise location, that urdva drishti can come to the rescue. Use it in chair. Practice it in warrir1 and 2. Even at your local Moksha studio.

Urdva eye technique also produces a similar feeling to hastagre. I feel like I am in my own peaceful little world- and I am. The eyes love it, too, while they relax, and the constant need to “identify objects” in one’s surroundings dissipates. This drishti also influences the self to take a noteable backseat to my practice. It adds an extra bit of divinity to the work. It’s a bit blissful in that way.

The final eye-gaze I will discuss is bhrumadhye, or “third-eye- point- gaze.” This technique is often done with eyes closed. I then look upwards by about 15 degrees- into the spot in the head behind the middle of the eyebrows. Its simpler than all that sounds: just close the eyes and look slightly up.

This technique can be used in nearly every one of my practices- usually during seated or lying-down meditation. It produces a nice feeling for the eye muscles, and creates the same kind of “container” or small room in which one feels protected and calm. This technique is said to increase intuition, as the point between the eyebrows contains the 6th chakra, and focusing on it evokes it’s talents.

I also use this gaze anytime I feel like it in poses like warrior 1, downward facing dog, or chair pose. It can make my practice immediately more personal, but at the same time a little more ecstatic, and connected to the higher self. It certainly affords the student a break- as do all of these techniques- from the mind’s powerful, distracting and nearly obligatory operation of the visual organs.

By taking the eyes back from the wandering mind, I teach myself daily lessons about the power of yoga to reconnect me. Drishti is a whole realm of discipline that I only recently began to fully incorporate into my asana practice. It produces immediate results, especially towards the work of an inner yoga.

 

A Boy in The Desert

Isaac stepped from the plane onto the tarmac in Blythe California. The heat beat in rhythmic waves from the yawning expanse of desert to the south of the airport. It was like a hot mouth breathing on him.

Though he could not entirely distinguish the thought, on some level he sensed he was spoken to or watched by the group of distant mountains that had caught his eye. He felt an impulse inviting him to let go of his bag right on the ground, and walk straight for them.

This was vastly different than Winnipeg. He closed his eyes and let the sun beat on his forehead, then removed his hat to expose his head. It felt good. He was leery from so much time in Winnipeg’s winters.

The hardened beauty of the place made Isaac forget that his grandparents were likely already waiting for him at the airport pickup. He also did not notice that the other 12 passengers from his flight moved undistracted along a walkway towards the tight group of low-rise buildings that made up the single terminal. He stood alone, still enthralled by the land beyond, distorted by profound distance and heat.

Isaac was transfixed. There was tough soil that splayed open into splendid vistas, but abundant plants as well and what he imagined were 100 other life forms teaming above and below the aching dry soil. He recognized some of these shrubs and cactus from pictures in books such as saguaro, but others he did not, like ocotillo and prickly pear and sagebrush.

He then noticed the crusted edge of asphalt tarmac, which died off precipitously to that endless desert beyond. A wall should have been here, he thought, constructed at the edge between the two places, they were so radically different from one another. The airport was limited and well understood; the desert was limitless and utterly mysterious. The asphalt, airplane and the small dust-hewn, tin-clad buildings were but a placeholder for the civilized, erected against the bright quartz, and fearsome, endless landscape that ended 10 or 100 miles distant, depending on which direction he looked.

His eyes saw perfectly, and thoughts wandered undisturbed. He forgot for the first instant since it happened that only last week he had stolen his parents car again, sped the highway north from Winnipeg at 120, flipped after skidding on a tiny patch of ice, and killed his three best friends, his girlfriend and himself.

“Excuse me,” he was interrupted by the steward from his flight. He had an easy southern drawl, “…But are you being picked up?”

“Where am I?” the boy idly responded and he dropped his small bag. He looked up at the friendly face from American Airlines.

“You’re in Blythe, California,” the starch-clean and handsome attendant responded. “Are you being picked up?” The boy did not answer right away, so then more concerned: “Is this where you intended to travel?”

“Yes, I am,” Isaac finally said. The steward gestured kindly: follow the others, the last of whom had already reached the doors to the terminal.

He shuffled up to the simple structure, into and then out of the cooled lobby of the airport, back into the heat at the taxi stand in the front. Just to his left, and the moment he walked out the doors, an engine turned over and Isaac’s grandparent’s white Chevy Impala swiftly slowed in front of him. He got in.

They started up the 50 miles of slow uphill to the western edge of Arizona from Blythe. Isaac was hungry, and as he, Etta and Wayne spoke, the boy distracted himself from his empty stomach with the windows of the car and the voices of his loved ones.

“We had rain last night,” Wayne stated enthusiastically but Isaac was unimpressed. “The wash behind our park almost filled,” grandpa followed up.

“It doesn’t rain here, Isaac. And it’s a flash flood,” Etta said. “It doesn’t happen much but when it does…”

“A flood, ok.”

Etta peered at him through the sun visor mirror. “You look hungry.” “Wayne, we should have stopped in Blythe and got into the Henry’s for some lunch.” It was an old ritual for the three of them. They had spent many a slow Sunday just chasing that same 84 Chevy Impala into the rural reaches of Indiana or Illinois on afternoons just like this to get to a good country restaurant.

“Didn’t you eat Isaac? Don’t they give them food on the plane?” Wayne replied, in a wining, loving tone.

“No,” the boy said. “The ride to Chicago didn’t have anything cause it’s only an hour, then it was only two and a half hours to LA. So nothing, I guess.”

“Ill make us something when we get to the trailer.” Etta said. “Should we call your mother and tell her you’ve arrived?”

“Don’t.”

“We are going to have to tell someone,” Etta said to Wayne.

“Don’t. Please,” said the boy.

Wayne shook his head to himself, then zeroed into the tiny side mirror to pass a slow moving truck. Etta pressed her husband: “Don’t you think so?” His foot accelerated the car and it jumped down into second gear. Wayne focused on the road for a moment, without answering: “Wayne…” Etta repeated.

The car kicked back up into third, then Wayne responded: “If he doesn’t want to tell anyone, we don’t need to. It’s up to him.”

They reached the trailer. The boy was famished. The Chevy took full grip of the loose earth for a moment and stopped at the side of his grandparent’s home. Isaac noticed that the trailer park, like the airport in Blythe, was right on the edge of the desert, with nothing to separate the two. Weary, the boy got up to get out of the car.

“Why did you leave, Winnipeg, Isaac?” Wayne asked.

Then Etta right away, “Why did you have to quit your school year?”

“It doesn’t matter,” and he reached for the handle to open the door.

“It does,” Wayne said, piercing into the back seat out the rearview mirror. “It does. Now you’re going to be a year behind. And what happened with your girlfriend?”

“Forget it,” Isaac whispered and he left the confine of the back seat, skirting the conversation for now. He didn’t have the heart to tell them that their grandson Isaac was dead. He wondered if they already knew.

He ascended the three-step porch behind his grandparents. Once inside, which was cooled by a swamp cooler, they sat together and thought about what to eat, and continued their conversation.

“We saw scorpions this morning- on the porch,” Etta said.

“Oh,” the boy said back. He peered out the main window of the trailer to the landscape beyond. The profound remoteness and silence of the landscape around the trailer seemed to grow and shrink in time with impish breezes that passed by loudly with payloads of rock and soil against the aluminum sides of the abode, like rushed couriers in a city street with no time to stop. Some of these breezes built into more formidable gusts that would have easily pushed him over. Some even became full-fledged dust devils, 50 or 100 feet high. Then, silence.

He snapped back into the conversation. “Isaac. Isaac? Are you listening to us? What do you say? What are you going to do about your school year?” Wayne said.

“Yes,” the boy responded, absently, still looking outside. His anxiety peaked for a moment, as he again thought he noticed an intelligent force in the desert outside and the way the breeze seemed to move. Not malevolent, but instead almost humorous. A pushy prankster, also lost in this place, but who wanted Isaac for a playmate.

They had dinner, watched TV, and Isaac went to bed in the small motor home-turned-guesthouse right next to the main abode.

It was the busiest time of year in the otherwise tiny village of 6,000, which became home to 20 times that size for a brief time in the winter when roaming caravans of sellers came from across North America who bunked here and sold their goods.

Isaac kicked the sheets down to his ankles after not sleeping well at all. There was no one to play with.

“Why don’t you walk over to Mike and Simon’s,” grandma said as the boy rubbed his head and walked into their trailer. They were family friends and itinerant jewelry makers from Florida, who attended caravans through the south. “They love company,” Etta insisted, “and I’ve told them all about you for years.”

He didn’t need any more convincing. With some water, a couple of apples, and 5 bucks, he set about the 3-mile walk to the other side of town.

The desert is a chronic insomniac who never slept. Isaac walked a windy overpass at 8 am that was shaking each time trucks passed underneath, mostly going west. He smiled when another oil tanker, grain hauler or container transport zoomed beneath him. At the other side of the overpass, he turned east onto the main street.

He slowed his pace to take in the central avenue of the town just waking itself up. The permanent businesses stood like fire resistant cardboard buildings to the biting desert sun, just now peeking over a ridge of mountains.

He counted five gas stations, three motels, a truck stop bigger than many airports, where tractor trailers ceaselessly growled cantankerously in and out. There was a breakfast joint to Isaac’s right, with about 6 customers. Then a mechanic, and a little further along, a small brick building- the town’s civic- historical center, which was closed at this time of day.

Isaac wandered over to this building. As he did, the breeze picked up and he became aware of the same indefinable sense of humor, which drew him and seemed to speak. As he reached the glass doors and saw his reflection, he scolded himself for thinking that way. “There’s nothing talking out there in the desert,” he said to himself. Besides, it would have seemed stupid to say out loud.

He took two concrete steps down, closer. A small pristine American flag sat motionless on a wooden pole, anchored to the brick wall.

He peered though the glass with hands folded over his eyes to shade the bright sky. Survey maps hung on the walls that scaped the desert around the town in black-pen drawings with altitude measurements in concentric oblongs. Notably, these topographic maps excluded the town in which Isaac stood, as if it did not even exist. They instead featured the desert.

Isaac did not know that many of these maps were drawn to assist gold and silver miners, whose hopeful and ravenous trips into the unrelenting desert for plunder, whose trials, rare success and fateful errors made it necessary and possible to produce geographic depictions of an area nearly uncharted by Western mapmakers prior to the 1900’s.

Photographs littered the walls. One in particular caught Isaac’s attention. It was of a group of miners hung behind the service counter and it’s tiny register. 10 men were arrayed before a camera, still geared up from a recent gold expedition. They smiled at the photographer’s lens, though the muscles in their faces were nearly exposed from exhaustion. Their heavy tools and boots seemed too big, and their countenances verged on exasperation or joyful relief. Something darker and unspeakable was present but ill defined. Something had happened to them that had nothing to do with gold, and this mystery somehow conveyed through the haunting photo.

A man whose hair was turned up into gold hairlicks and coils, held a brass banner: “Goldstrike, Hope, Arizona.” There was a date but Isaac could not read it.

He moved along to several large newspaper clippings hung on the same wall as the photo. These told a different kind of story that were much more common. The Phoenix Herald, headline: “Ten Years Later: MacDonald Mining Expedition Lost and Never Found.” The Yuma Post: “6 Men Search for Gold, Only 3 Return.” The Blythe Register: “How Many Miners Will It Take? Governor Issues Stern Warnings to Arizona’s Hopefuls.” Dozens of others spoke for themselves.

The boy tugged again lightly on the door hoping it might suddenly be open.

Had he been able to enter the building he could have found five complete four-drawer metal file cabinets, each cramped 3-feet deep with chronological evidence of many such stories about the joys and tragedies of crossing over into the desert. They were mostly tragedies, though, of people lost in and never returned by the desert.

He continued to walk. He had to cross back over the freeway to go south, along a road that shot straight south to Yuma. Isaac was hungry and his pace quickened across the bridge. On the other side, he stopped, drank and fed himself an apple, noticing how difficult it was to eat, his mouth had run so dry.

He easily found the entrance to the trailer park where Mike and Simon had their jewelry making display. There were sellers, buyers and makers of things. Trailers piled on top of one another organized into chaos. By the end of the day, travelers, hippies, leather makers, hustlers, addicts, jewelers, indigenous artists, children, and turned on smoking bar-b-ques would compete amongst one another.

The boy walked slowly. He was excited, and did not exactly know where in this hustle of activity Mike and Simon’s trailer was. The cool morning was over, and the sun blazed at 10 am. Sage burnt, sweetgrass was in the air and other scents from the nearly in-bloom winter desert were rising into his perception. He did not recognize these most of these smells.

Customers wandered between the overhangs of the motorhomes of the merchants. An even larger crowd- the sellers themselves- passed between each other’s places and picked up raw materials and other goods while they laughed and talked with one another like old friends.

Isaac stopped for a moment. A medium sized dog cantered by without an owner and Isaac followed it with his eyes as it turned a corner and disappeared, knowing exactly where it was going. A large man carrying a heavy box then nearly strode over the boy and briskly apologized without turning around. The boy was mesmerized and disoriented.

A hurly gust, laden with dust, sprinkled him with tiny stones from a space between some trailers to his right. He yawned and the wind pushed him to one side and he had to adjust his feet. Then, the gust died down. He again thought he noticed laughter in the source of this wind.

He looked over to a large bearded man sitting asleep on his chair with his arms folded across a crisp white t-shirt. Behind this man was a display full of weapons.

The boy noticed the guns. The case they were in was out of reach, right next to the big sleeping man. Isaac looked at him for a minute or even longer, taking him in, but only then did the boy realize that the man was anything but asleep. In fact he was looking right back at Isaac through tiny dark eyes from a face shrouded in black beard. Their eyes met and the man faintly nodded.

Isaac stared at the array of instruments beneath the glass. A series of nickel-plated revolvers, from a .22 caliber to a .357, shined up. “Can I see one?” Isaac asked, looking at a pocket sized four-bullet .32 caliber magnum.

The man, who had since looked away from his only customer, looked briefly back into Isaac’s face, and without a smile said, “Nope.”

The boy was slightly embarrassed for having asked. He looked up towards the next vendor, and a man and a woman standing side by side were also already looking at him. They had witnessed his exchange with the gun dealer. They smiled. Isaac got closer to them. He began to make out the items they had for display. As Isaac approached, the woman said hello.

“Hello,” Isaac replied. Ceramic bowls and plates of red sand mirrored the colors of the desert, hung without prices attached. Silver pictographic pendants and necklaces shone like crystal in the heat. There was a snake weaving up between storm clouds, lightning strikes, and stars in the sky. Without speaking, the woman opened the case and carefully grasped the one the boy was looking at, pulled it out and handed it to him.

He found it strange that she knew which one he was peering at. The piece felt good in his hand. He smiled and handed it back. As the woman placed it back Isaac then noticed several dolls in the corner of their wall display and he asked what they were.

“Katchina,” was the only thing the woman said. Her look became slightly more serious. He was not offered one.

Another gust of wind flit through the trailers to the left of the man and woman. “Do you like this place?” asked the woman.

He thought for a moment. He did not know if he was afraid or enthralled. “Yes.”

The man spoke up. “That desert is not for boys.”

Isaac did not understand. He awkwardly asked after Simon and Mike. “Of course,” said the woman. “Go down this lane make a right, and they will be right there. They usually have lots of people around.” Isaac thanked them and proceeded to walk, with the image of the doll floating through his head. “We’ll be by there later,” said the woman. “If you’re around for dinner.”

Five minutes later, the boy found himself at his destination. Mike was on a picnic table in front of a hut, busily making something from melted metal and turquoise. Simon was chatting with someone, but as the young man approached, Simon noticed and welcomed him in a large display of friendliness.

“Hello! What are you doing today?”

“Just walking,” Isaac replied. “I am the grandson of Etta and-“

“Isaac?”

Surprised, Isaac replied, “Yes… but..”

“Etta told us you were coming,” and he laughed, and for the first time Mike looked up and also laughed, and now Isaac could see that face of the boy who Simon was talking with. “This is Aaron.”

“Hey,” Isaac said.

“Hey.”

“Aaron is 11 years old. He’s visiting from Sacramento,” said Simon.

“That’s cool. I’m from Winnipeg,” said Isaac.

“Winnipeg? Isn’t that way up north?” asked Aaron, and they all broke out laughing.

“I guess you’re right,” Isaac replied.

Simon chimed in. “Alright everyone, we were just about to eat. Isaac, you look like you’re about to double up and start moaning.” Aaron laughed and the boys looked at each other and smiled.

They sat and ate. “How was the flight Isaac? Etta tells me you are here for a couple of weeks?

“Yeah, I think its 13 days.”

Simon was showing off the things he knew about the young man….He had been looking forward to finally meeting him. “What sports do you play Isaac?”

“Lacrosse.”

“Oh, yes, lacrosse.” Simon turned to the rest of the table, “He’s one of the best players on his team.”

“He’s one of the best players in Winnipeg,” Mike chimed. “Aren’t you son?”

“I guess,” replied Isaac.

“That’s cool,” Aaron spoke, looking down into his lap as he did. He made himself part of the conversation by knocking his knees together or shaking a foot up and down. But he did not look up, reserving with his eyes his enthusiasm at meeting a boy near to his age.

“Do you play lacrosse?” asked Isaac, and Aaron shook his head.

“I used to play baseball, but I stopped,” said Aaron, shrugging his shoulders, maintaining his focus on his knees. “The field was too far away, and I had to take care of my little brother.”

Isaac smiled, “I love baseball.”

“So what are you boys going to do today?” Mike nearly demanded- they were going to have to get out and do something rather than sit around.

“I don’t know,” offered Aaron.

“Why don’t you boys take a hike or something,” Mike retorted immediately, nodding out towards the open vista behind their trailer.

“They’re not going off into that desert…” Simon responded, but caught his own parental tone.

“Sure… why not?” Mike insisted playfully.

Aaron: “Yeah why not?”

“Yeah Simon, why not?” Mike chuckled, glaring humorously at the young men. “You boys know your way around, don’t you? Just be careful.”

“But where? Where would we go?” asked Isaac.

“I don’t know, Simon… where do you think they should they go?” Mike playfully asked his partner.

“Oh, why don’t they just walk up the hill behind Etta and Wayne’s park? That’s good enough isn’t it?”

Mike laughed. “Have you ever been up that hill Simon?”

“No,” he admitted, and Mike laughed again.

Mike got up, and waved a hand over the landscape beyond, now fully immersed in the sun. “That hill behind Etta’s place is too small! These boys need adventure. Something rare, something… adventurous, by god. Look where we are! They need to experience… that.” Mike splayed his arm out, presenting an object of wonder to an awe- inspired crowd.

“Adventure’s good,” replied Aaron, looking at Isaac as he did.

“Yeah it is,” said Isaac back. The boys both smiled.

“But they’ll wander off into this heat and get themselves lost,” added Simon, now futilely. His statement was followed by dense silence while they sat thinking.

“I know,” said Mike. “Why don’t they go down to palm canyon?”

The boy’s ears both peaked. Then, simultaneously: “What’s palm canyon?”

“Wayne didn’t tell you about it?” Mike stood up, “We’ve been a bunch of times… Let me show you.” The older man tugged the scruff of Isaac’s shirt, standing the boy up playfully. He put his arm around Isaac’s shoulder and they sauntered to the back of the trailer. “Here’s a better vantage point, Isaac. You’re looking due south into Sonora.” Mike’s smell was coffee, well-laundered clothes, and an expensive aftershave from yesterday’s trip up to the casino for dinner. Isaac was was eating it up. Mike’s hairy arm was thick and muscular and Isaac’s slim shoulder fit just beneath it. “Come over here Aaron.”

The other boy got up. Mike put his arm around him too and pointed into the distance towards a set of small mountains. “Those mountains come from the east there and end nearly at the highway south that goes to Yuma.”

“How far?” asked Aaron.

“60 miles,” said Mike, looking down and smiling at Aaron, who nodded his head as if it was nothing. But a small shiver ran up Isaac’s back. It was impossible. How could that be 60 miles? It looked so close.

Mike noticed. “Seems impossible, doesn’t it, Isaac?”

“Yessir.”

“The first time I came to Sonora,” Mike said, “I never wanted to leave. Hell I guess I found a way not to. It’s so beautiful.”

“Yes,” both boys agreed.

Mike continued. “But if you go don’t be fooled…This place has a 100 ways of tricking you… into thinking how nice it is….how pristine….how warm…. welcoming, that sort of thing. I won’t say much more. Do you understand?” The boys both nodded.

“Palm canyon is right in that little range, about 5 or 6 miles’ drive east of the highway. There’s a dirt road, then about a mile hike before you reach the bottom of the valley. It sounds complicated, but it’s hard to miss. The only dense bit of green in that whole valley of dry, quartz mountains.” Mike beamed with a smile.

“Ok,” replied Isaac, and tried to pull away but Mike tugged him back in with his burley forearm and pulled the boy’s chin so they were eye to eye. The older man’s eyes were focused and gamely.

“Whatever you do, don’t climb. Those cliffs are sheer and crumbly rock. You don’t want to end up out there ass-over-tea-kettle by yourselves. And look out for each other,” then let both boys go from his grip.

Aaron looked up at Isaac. “Come on lets go,” and Isaac nodded his head.

Simon helped them pack for the trip, which was only supposed to last several hours. Mike was already back to working on his pieces to sell by the time they started for the canteens, some food, and a blanket in case it cooled down.

Mike went back to work. “They’ll be fine,” Mike kept giggling to himself and when Isaac nervously looked up at him, Mike winked and smiled mischievously between the swift, expert movements of his craft.

“How are they getting there?” Simon asked Mike.

“They can take the Pony. You can drive, right Isaac?” Mike.

“Yessir,” he said. He had just got his license.

“See, they’ll take the Pony. Can you drive stick Isaac?”

“Yeah.” replied the young man steadily, but then under his breath to Aaron, “barely…”

“Yep. They’ll be good, Simon. Take the Pony, boys. Have yourselves a day.”

Simon and the two young men walked beside the trailer where the white Hyundai Pony sat like it hadn’t moved in weeks. Simon got into it, turned it over and it started right up.

“Well I guess she must be happy with me today. Sometimes it takes a couple of tries,” Simon chuckled to himself.

Isaac was nearly as excited about getting to drive as he was about the trip. He got in, adjusted his seat, and Aaron got in beside him. They looked at one another and smiled. Behind the dashboard of a car, suddenly strangers no more.

Simon shut the door, and they drove off barely saying goodbye, out of the trailer park, towards the two-lane highway going south.

Isaac struggled on the first few turns, grinding the gear down into second, then back up into third, and Aaron laughed.

“I thought you said you could use a shifter,” Aaron joked.

“I can. I just don’t know this car.”

“Yeah sure,” Aaron retorted, and they both broke up laughing.

“It has been a while,” Isaac admitted.

“You like diggin them guts?” Aaron asked.

“Eh?”

Aaron laughed again. “Eh? Eh? (chuckle) Girls. Pussy. You like fucking? I do. I got like three of them going right now, and I’m digging them guts, I’m tellin’ you.”

“Yeah,” Isaac replied, “of course.” Aaron started to talk about his exploits. He actually wouldn’t stop. He was telling Isaac about the friends he had in Sacramento, the girls he was fucking, and all of the weed they smoked. There was no other traffic on the road and as Aaron kept talking to Isaac about his real and imagined exploits, they came to like one another.

The turn off came for Palm Canyon, it was quite obvious just as Mike had promised. Isaac began down the five mile desert dirt road, with smoke-like-dust spewing out and up behind them, shielding what they were leaving behind for a relieving moment, the rearview was an oblivion of dust and questions.

The road ended in a small circle, where they got out, unpacked their stuff and started towards the well-walked trail that made its way between large boulders and up a slow incline to the base of the tiny range of mountains. Isaac looked on, but he could not make out palm trees or any greenery for that matter. Aaron noticed the look on Isaacs face. “This is fucked. Maybe we should go back.” The over confident 11 year old now politely obliging a more cautious tone. Isaac started up the trail without saying another word, and Aaron followed.

 

****

At the foot of the mountain, the boys stood in the splendor of the small valley. It was a thin, rare wedge of water-fed beauty, 150 feet wide and a mile deep. There were small palm trees everywhere. Isaac leaned back to see rock faces that rose 400 feet then seemed to pass away into the sky right where the sun was too bright to see.

They walked deeper, and they made out the faint sound of a creek. The air was luminous, with a noticeable humidity and scent of moisture, just as one finds in a greenhouse. The palm trees were maybe 5 feet high, like bonsai, stunted from hanging onto the rocky perches and sharp edges of the canyon walls. There were hundreds and hundreds of them.

“Palm canyon,” Arron said for both of them.

“Yes.” Isaac replied.

The trail that marked the middle of the canyon ended in a flat area where they could sit and decide what to do next. Various pathways led only up, and to the sides. At half-day, the canyon wall to the north made shade on them while the other half of the valley was bright and fully in the sun. The space had the quality of a large atrium.

They knew that they had to explore upwards- towards the top.

“Should we leave our backpacks here?” Isaac asked.

“No, we should bring them.”

Aaron started up one of the trails that seemed to exist between large outcroppings of rock and the other followed. Its pathway was like an invitation to continue to digress from the plan and advice not to climb. As they went on, Isaac noticed there were no perfect trails, and the footings were sometimes bad. Their feet slipped from under them, but that only slowed them down a little.

Isaac noticed his calf muscles and quads aching in a way they had not done since he last trained with his team… running stairs in the coach’s building. But the younger boy kept pressing ahead without complaint, so Isaac kept up behind.

About three quarters of the way up, a rock protrusion about 15 feet high presented itself on the path they were taking. There was no way around it. “We have to figure out how to climb it I guess,” said Aaron. “But we don’t have any climbing gear.”

“Yeah. We can probably do it though, it’s not that high.” Isaac said.

“Ok. You go first,” Aaron stated flatly and they both began to laugh.

The rocks were more daunting once the boys were on it. The red stone was like granite but softer. The possibility of failure did not enter the boys minds. The secure shelter of the canyon blocked them from thinking about the expanse of unimaginable difficulty offered by the coarse unsettled desert above, which would be their only option for leaving this place if they could not make it back down. They pushed on, past where one would have given credit to two boys from cities, houses, cars and parents.

In a way, the desert was playing prankster. It invited them along without displaying it’s shrewder intentions. It was lonely for company at all times. Adventurous young men were among its favourite guests.

They were steadily escaping the cool shadows cast over them. were The weight of the sun on rock, dust and the unprotected skin of the young men was sudden.

They moved towards the top without conversation as if they knew a pinnacle existed that might inform them to turn around. Aarons feet were beginning to hurt and his mind seriously considered ending this hike out of hunger and inexperience. The craggy rock and blatant heat had whittled down his cockiness and unearned bravado to almost nothing. Isaac’s shadow slanted towards the top, and that’s what he was following.

Isaac’s mind cranked out the worn phrases of his lacrosse coach in rhythm to this steps upwards. Don’t stop. Its right there if you want it. Your goals lie just beyond when you want to stop. Don’t stop. Keep going. Don’t stop. Not for anything, or anybody.

Slam. The sound of the Buick hitting the post that instantly stopped it and killed him and his friends. Don’t stop. Be crystal clear. What do you want? Figure it out and do it. But this was nothing like his coach said it was. Did he ever mention death?

Aaron stopped. He had nearly had enough. His legs were drawing near to actual fatigue and failure. He turned to Isaac and simply begged with his eyes, and Isaac could not resist. They stopped.

They were lucky to be near to a miniature plateau, a flat of about 10 square yards to sit and eat and rest and look up to decide if moving on was an option for them. The setting of friends and family and dinner at the trailer park loomed above their desire to climb to the top. So did the brief clear warnings of Mike, the Navajo couple selling the katchika, and the reports displayed in the city office that Isaac had passed on his way through town this morning.

Here, words meant less. The value of verbal exchange really had to compete with the desert. Words punctuated the nearly perfect language of the desert: silence. Words did nothing to dispel heat. Nor did they add to the endless stone and prancing light shows playing across the distant mountains. The boys ate, drank and then decided to move on. The sky above won out. The air pulled them in. The desert let out a chuckle and a gust picked up that cooled them off a little.

Isaac moved slowly. Each hand grasp was surer than the last. Each foothold established the next.  Each good move made the next move easier. The boy below became a man above. By rock, sand, sweat, the thrilling qualities of muscle against doubt and stubbornness against possible failure or death. At some point past afternoon, Isaac reached the rim.

He laid his hands flat on the top of the canyon wall and used his arms to curl his lower body up and over as well. And then he looked down.

Aaron stood 35 feet below looking up. The two boys’ eyes met and they stared at each other, with understanding. With humour. With wisdom. And with love. Isaac would move on, Aaron would turn around.

Isaac rubbed his eyes. Newly christened by the climb and days events, an understanding had reached him. It made him so grateful. It was a small gift and a single message. Isaac stood up looked beyond his situation. The gaping space of the desert disturbed him, but it was softer. What he thought should be there was not; what he did not expect, presented. His weary gaze flit and flirted with the sight of this immense, beautiful and misunderstood land.

Desirous only of rest, the young man wandered on- into the expanse cast before him, which now openly invited the boy on with gusts and breezes and what Isaac thought he heard out of the silence, someone said the word, “welcome.”

For a few minutes, he resisted. But then he came around. The elements be damned he thought. He moved on, towards the deep purple mountains waiting for him at the horizon, just as the sun gave signs of beginning to set.

 

*   *   *   *

Aaron struggled back down the cliff side as carefully as he could. He made it back to the car, managed to get it into gear, and drive the way back to Mike and Simon’s trailer. There, dinner was just being served. Etta and Wayne had stopped by, along with the couple from the Navajo craft stand, Mary and John, with their two children. The group was laughing and drinking when Aaron pulled up.

He rushed out of the white Hyundai Pony and into the arms of Simon, weeping. “Isaac’s gone.”

“We know,” Simon responded, and the boy sat at the table. After a few moments, someone poured him a drink from behind, and they each raised their glasses and smiled.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Drive to Kelowna From Toronto

I decided to drive to Kelowna to meet Lisa, rather than fly. At first I thought it was a great idea to hitch-hike, and told Lisa so. You can imagine what that conversation was like, I am sure. By the end of it, she had at least convinced me to take the car instead, which I am truly grateful for now. The drive was long enough. The hitch would have killed me.

The Prius and me and the road. Sounded good enough to me.

There was a lot of planning and I’m not the best planner. I spent a week getting our house in Toronto ready, and the day to embark on my drive finally came… and then it went. I suddenly kept finding things to do around the house, and I realized I was distracting myself from the truth: I didn’t exactly want to go. Not as much as I thought I did about 30 days earlier, when we were planning this caper. The idea got more and more realistic the closer I got to my deadline, which was last Friday morning. So then it was Saturday. Then Sunday. And I still wasn’t gone.

There was stuff still not done around the house. Lisa and I decided to rent it out for the 6 weeks we’ll be gone on this trip. One week in Kelowna with Leslie, Rory, Hayden and Freddy, then a flight to Australia, eventually ending up in Bali for a few weeks. We are pretty much going to go for as long as we can hold out financially, and before we get bored. Then we’ll come home.

The driving out west, however, was just an add on to that plan by me, at basically the last minute.

I woke up Sunday at 9 am. Lisa had helped me pack the car the previous evening, and I had no excuse left not to go, but by that time half my brain was fully engaged in doubting my ability to drive that far all by myself. The thought “Maybe flying would have been easier,” kept intruding in vain.

“Yes, old boy,” the other half of me said back to myself, “Sure flying would have been easier. But what’s the fun in that? Get on it man! Seize the moment! Seize the day!” I said other personal things to challenge my inner doubter, and I finally got up to go.

It’s not a great sign though, when the length of a proposed trip was bothering me on the very first day of an at least 4-day drive. The adventure of it led the decision. But the forcing myself to do it was at least half the battle. I took a couple of photos with me and the car packed full of stuff in front of our house in Toronto, thinking just how big Canada is, and how many hours behind the wheel it would take.

I still ran several errands, just to put it off a little more. I didn’t leave until 11 am Sunday.

I got DVP to 407 east to 400 north, intending to be past Sault St Marie by the night. Traffic was bad getting out, but after about an hour, the city dissipates just past Barrie. The trees set in. The granite rock and thousands of lakes set in. The hillbillies, the indigenous people, the towns, the pricey gas, the parks. Canada, in all your lengthy splendor and glory, here we come.

Sault St Marie is far, but it’s the first long stretch, so the body is fresh and the impact of driving won’t have set in yet. It had been a long time since I was far north of the city, and it’s easy to forget just how massive the province of Ontario really is.

At my first gas-up and feed, north of Parry Sound at a roadside Lick’s Hamburger joint, I ran into some patched members of the Outlaw biker gang. They looked really tired, death-like tired, dope tired, road tired. The two men had women beside them, whose patches read, “PROPERTY of THE OUTLAWS.” Not the kind of chicks you want to be caught checking out, let’s just say.

I tried to talk to the guys a bit about motorcycles, as they were standing right behind me in the very busy line for our burgers. They weren’t hugely interested, though they did smile and acknowledge me. I told them I had seen a Hell’s Angel on a BMW roadster just the other week in Toronto, and they all shook their heads. “Not us,” the one guy said.

As I focused on them out of the corner of my eye and out of curiosity, they reminded me of four hardcore meth addicts, sunken eyes and devious glances across the room. But there’s also this deeper fiber to card-carrying members of an underclass and criminal gang. They are openly admitting to vice, whereas the rest of the people in line in that Muskoka burger joint hide theirs and pretend to each other debauchery doesn’t exist. Bikers also maintain an appreciable adherence to the ethic of the felon, for whom right and wrong and their consequences are really quite simple.

Whatever was going on with them, one thing was for sure: It looked they hadn’t slept in about two days and had just been riding. I ordered a hamburger and a coffee and walked back to my car. I wondered if I was going to look that tired and tainted and raw at the end of my trip.

I was about 100 kms south of Sudbury and I did get the rest of the way to the Sault in one shot. The Prius, I was discovering, was a really good car for this kind of drive, a fact which might surprise one given the car’s relative fame as a gas-friendly commuter vehicle. Well it’s even better on the highway, comfortable with enough pep to make solid passes etc. And it just sips the gas: I spent all of 25 bucks on petrol by the time I was in the Sault.

My car’s gas economy was more than made up for by the dent put into my wallet from getting soaked by the small restaurants along highway 1. Walking into the local watering hole and family restaurant in Espanola Ontario at 4 pm, with my shorts, knee-high colorful sox and black leather expensive shoes, doesn’t exactly help one come off as a local. So I kind of asked for it. But 19 bucks for a Rueben sandwich at, “The Bavarain Inn,”? I had predicted from the peeling white signs for the small restaurant along the highway that I would be walking into a welcome plethora of potato pancakes, sizzling schnitzel and sausage, and a blonde waitress or two.

It didn’t quite work out that way. The only thing other than bottled beer still available on the menu that day was the Reuben sandwich and frozen French fries. So that’s what I ate.

I pushed through to the Sault just as it got late. I drove through town, really enjoying the city as it fell asleep on a Sunday at 10 pm. I wanted to see the stadium where the Greyhounds play, as I thought it would still be the old arena where my friend Graeme Bonar played several stellar years of OHL hockey. Funny thing was my phone died and I actually had to ask directions from a group of folks walking down the main street, as to where the Greyhounds stadium was.

I approached two women and a man, and they kindly helped me to get into the right direction. I told them my friend had played for them in the 80’s, and they asked who my friend was. “Graeme Bonar,” I said, and the older ladies eyes lit up. She remembered Graeme well, being a lifelong Soo fan.

I drove to the stadium, right downtown. But it was new, not the old one my friend played in, so I drove on. I got a coffee, which was not a great idea, thinking I was going to easily find a nice safe spot to set up a camp and sleep out under the stars.

But in fact the split second that I left the Sault, darkness so sudden it was shocking befell my little Prius and I. Another thing I had forgot about this drive: It’s really, really dark at night. Even more than the dark, however, is what comes along with it: Signs for moose. The yellow sign for this in Ontario, by the way, leaves nothing to the imagination. It’s a black pictogram of a Moose, running forward, head and antlers down. “Charging moose,” the conveyed message. The words, “Night Danger” just beneath it.

So, hopped up on coffee and fully wishing I had just stayed in the Sault, remembering stories of truckers who had had their entire tractor-trailers written off after running into a full grown moose, and wishing I had actually planned this part a tiny bit better, I searched the sides of the road for signs of a park or reasonably mass-murderer-free rest stop to lay myself down for the night.

After about 35 minutes of pitch black driving, I stopped at a small provincial park, Batchawana Bay, and laid out my new sleeping bag. I bought a great sleeping bag from mountain equipment coop, which was warm and light. But it didn’t help me sleep. When I got up the next morning after tossing and turning on what I only realized in the daylight was a small beach, I could see that I was only about 45 feet from the highway, and the sound of extremely loud semi tractor trailers kept keeping me awake.

The other fear I had now was the fear of bears, which was happy to replace the previous fear of charging moose. Moose bad when driving, bear bad when sleeping. No sleep for Bob.

I got up and got soaked by another small restaurant at the front of a campgrounds in Montreal River. It’s beautiful country with the same basic architecture of granite rock and low, mature pine trees, and winding roads through slightly mountainous terrain, converging onto a beautiful lake. I could have sat and looked out over that bay all day.

Each place I went, I had a similar feeling- I could have just stayed right there for a while. And I wanted to harvest that feeling. I didn’t want to be in a rush. But that groaning sense of my destination’s distance took hold and made me want to push on like a trucker. Whenever I looked at my map, I would zoom out to either my next destination- 8 or 9 hour’s driving ahead- or else peer at the number of kms left to Kelwona BC. Doing so helped me remain motivated to push forward, rather than lean back.

What makes driving such hard work? For me its what it does to the back, mainly, but also the hips. Mine get stiff and sore from immobility and the later parts of a day spent driving are usually spent shifting in my seat multiple times and switching between right and left hands to hold the wheel, while a small knot in my lower trapezius seems to grow and grow till my whole upper back is feeling it.

It becomes quite desolate after the Sault , and its 6 ½ hours between there and Thunder Bay. But somehow in my mind, I was like, “Its just a quick jaunt.” No its not, Bob. Its long. Really long. And there’s very little between those two cities, except Wawa. And it REALLY slows down around Wawa.

I stopped in Wawa for the first time ever. Other times on this same journey, I just pushed right on through. I wandered around the downtown at like 2 pm. I sensed that the city reached a peak at some point in the past and never rebounded. It’s not dead but it seems to be dying. Wawa is also mythological for hitch-hikers, who the story goes, can’t catch a ride out of that area once dropped off there. It’s actually true. The last time I hitched out to Vancouver Island and back when I was 21, I got stuck with my thumb out just east of Wawa for 20 hours before a kindly trucker finally picked me up. It was the longest I ever waited for a ride.

It was extremely hot all through Ontario, by the way, which also made places like Wawa and Marathon seem even more like small, desolate desert towns, just hanging on to the side of an impenetrable and rugged landscape around.

As I drove out of Wawa, I reflected on the qualities that one would need to survive this northern terrain and I was reminded of the bear, a creature perfectly suited to the place…. An animal designed by the creator to thrive in the ancient Canadian Shield and flat-topped mountains around Thunder Bay. Whatever amount of fear, respect and wonder the bear deserved, as was exactly the same amount this land deserved, as fast and dangerous and intelligent as they both are.

Towards 6 o’clock on Monday, I got to Nippising. 25 kms later, I was at my friend Andre’s place, in the township of Hurkett. His place is a cross between a house, a cabin and a cottage. It’s just off the highway, and it has all the amenities, even though Andre is completely “off grid.” The only running water he needs comes down a fast-moving stream 20 yards behind the house.

I had been to Andre’s many times, and sadly, this would be the last time. Andre recently sold the place and was in the process of cleaning up the property and moving out west with his partner when I arrived.

Also, since I had last been there, Andre had become vegan (and quite the cook), and he had a really nice salad prepared for when I arrived. I dug into this while we talked.

Andre is a seeker. We know each other from the rooms of recovery, and we were all friends together in a much closer way with Harold (aka M), Lenny, Kenny, Reggie, Alice and some others. The sun took its time going down right outside the back patio door, as we talked about the things Andre had learned in his time at the cabin. Andre espouses living with the animals and plants of nature as a lesson and experience in fulfillment.

The profound silence of the area became clear each time there was a break in our conversation, or when punctuated by the occasional distant sound of large truck on highway 1. While listening, I realized Andre had done something I had thought about many times- and even formed part of my current intention on this drive out west- and that was the experience of isolation.

And its not like Andre was or is lonely. Aloneness is a quantity calculated in part by the expectations of one’s surroundings. For example in a city, if you stay inside your apartment for three days, you might qualify as a loner. But in the country, the rhythm of seeing people is different. Necessity brings people together more than anything. When you’re in a place like Hurkett where it’s less built up, you observe that the connection between people is the single most basic and essential infrastructure of any community, and that all other frameworks from larger communities are extrapolations of this: Trains, phones, lights, cable tv. All intended to bring people together.

Andre is a metals dealer and scrap metal recycler, an occupation that brings him to locals in Nippising or the city of Thunder Bay at least weekly. But he didn’t “have to” go into town anymore. Yet even after 10 hours at Andre’s cabin, I started to feel like I “had to” get near a city or a town. Like I was missing something. A feeling of wanting to know what is going on or at least be a little part of it. And that’s what can be troubling about the country- it seems like nothing is going on. I mentioned this to Andre. He laughed and replied that it takes time for the soul to settle before that agitation is replaced by noticing all the exciting things happening in the natural world, and realizing one’s place in it.

After a good 6 hour sleep in the generous loft of Andre’s cabin, I took to the road, with a design of at least getting out of Ontario, if not into Winnipeg by night.

I drove highway 17 through Upsala, English River, Ignace and Dryden, before the gem of a town Kenora.

In Marathon, I ran into another set of bikers- this time three patched members of The Hells Angels on their way out west. I felt a synchronistic theme coming on, so I thought I would photograph these three chaps, and proceeded to do just that as they re-mounted their bikes. They didn’t like that too much. As I walked away after snapping about 10 shots of these guys stepping onto their bikes like they were horsemen in the wild west, one of them rode over beside me and asked me what I was doing. The other two had black 1340 Harley’s from the late 1990s, each with Hell’s Angels insignias across the windshields. But the guy who rode up to me had a smaller, white sportster- chopper, with tight straitbars way up high, just like Dennis Hopper’s bike in Easy Rider. There was no insignia on his bike, and his tank had a unique design of a black feminine head with long hair swooping back along the tank, and a single gold tooth in her smiling, skeletal face.

“I’m just snapping a few shots. You don’t mind do you?”

“Yeah I do. You should have asked.”

“I’m just taking shots for me and my wife along the road.” (Evoke wife/ children whenever frightened by bikers or other dangerous people).

“Let me see those pictures,” he said and I obliged without hesitating.

So I opened up the pics on my phone and pulled through the ones I had taken of them. “Sorry, I should have asked. Do you want me to erase them?” At that point I was scared, cause this guy was not letting up and he was actually scrutinizing each photo and looking up at me from his helmet each time he did.

“No, just next time, ask,” he finally says. I guess they’d gone through it before. But I also had to wonder what they were up to… Aren’t Hells Angels almost always up to something? Maybe they were on vacation. Do they get vacation? I’m just going back to my Prius now.

They took off west in a hail of dust and small fragments of asphalt. I waited for a good ten minutes before I decided to move as I hoped to not run into them again down the road. I hoped they were headed to Dryden or Vermillion Bay, but unfortunately, they were going a lot further than that, and I happened to run into them again up the road.

Kenora is very pretty. I got through it at around 6 pm- perfect timing to snap a few shots of the boats out on the bay, and stop for a well-deserved piece of fudge.

My plan for that day consisted almost entirely of the thought of getting to Winnipeg. No other plan. Nothing. Ok, so I got to Winnipeg by about 10 pm. I like the city. It reminds me of midwestern cities I’ve spent time in, in the United States, like De Moines and Chicago. Moving east to west, Winnipeg is the first time the attitude amongst the people begins to seriously shift to “Westerner.” No longer ruled by the notion of craggly rock, hills and a million little places to pull off the road and hide, hunt or fish, the Canadian Prairies are flat so that everybody can see what everybody else is up to. There’s nowhere to hide, and the people become, for lack of a better term, simpler, more transparent, and with less to talk about.

What often does not get mentioned is the elegant open beauty of the westerner’s wide open skies, and the intricate quality of the generations- old cultures of farming communities. One goes from not being able to see anything more than a hundred yards off the highway all through western Ontario, to being able to see 40 or 50 miles to a distant hill in the big sky Manitoba prairies.

I realized on this trip that part of that western attitude is also partly built on that long drive, which changes at Winnipeg, whereupon you find almost three full days of driving across the Prairies before reaching the mountains. The drive across that part of Canada builds a sense of endlessness, openness and in a way, pointlessness, which is one of the sensations that pervade one’s mind as you drive across Canada’s flatlands.

Anyways, even though it was night, there was no place I wanted to afford to stay in Winnipeg, and I was certain that Portage La Prairie would have accommodations for me, no problem. So I drove out of Winnipeg after stopping in for an hour downtown checking things out- including travelling to the seedy parts of the city, which is always one of the highlights of any trip to a distant city.

On the other side of Winnipeg the highway picks up to 110 kms/ hr, so Portage La Prairies was about an hour. But dammit, when I got there, the hotels were all booked. Every one of them. They were full and it was 11 pm. The first hotel just shook his head as I walked to the counter to ask. “No vacancies, I’m sorry,” he said.

“Really?” I answered.

“Yes. There must be something going on, as none of the local hotels are taking any new guests this evening.” Fuck.

Portage is a small but well-established town and I could not believe that no one had a bed. And I knew that just outside of the town limits, it was pitch black again, not safe to drive and plus I was exhausted. I had to find somewhere to stay.

“Thanks,” I said to the man at the Motel 8, and proceeded to drive to a couple of more places to inquire.

The third and final one I stopped in that night had a unique design. The motel was a square configuration, with the room doors facing inwards to the parking lot, and only a small driveway as an entrance off a side street rather than the main road. I therefore could not see the many vehicles parked in the lot. Even more poignantly, I could not see the three motorcycles of the bikers I had photographed 750 kms ago in Marathon. The exact guys I had hoped not to run into.

But as I pulled the Prius into the little courtyard formed by the parking lot, there they were. All three of them were outside their motel room. And did they each look up at me at the same time, with the same look on each of their faces? You bet they did.

I’ll be honest I got scared again. How the fuck did I end up in the exact same little town, in the exact same little motel (there’s about 15 motels in Portage La Prairie), especially at the one place where the occupant’s vehicles were shielded from view? I knocked on the glass of the hotel manager but no one answered. The sign said no vacancies. I slunk back in my car and reversed out.

I had to ditch the motel idea now. I had to find someplace outside to lay my head down inside my sleeping bag. It was Tuesday. It was the one night on my trip that reminded me most of hitchhiking, where you really come to understand the comfort and luxury of other people’s indoor accommodations.

When hitchhiking- a form of travel I had used at least three times on this very route back in my teens and 20’s- you end up dropped off in the most unlikely and challenging places, often in the middle of the night if you were with a ride doing a long stretch of driving. Just in case it needs to be mentioned, the world is not made up of communities that love transients, so the moment one crosses over into being a transient, is usually accompanied by thinking about the police for laying ones head down in public, locals staring at you for being so obviously not from that place, and the realization that distant, barking dogs in people’s backyards, had it better off than you on this particular evening.

Keep in mind, I have a great little sleeping bag. I pursued an empty field to get some rest. I searched the town driving around getting more and more tired. It was super dark, 1 am, when I finally settled on what seemed a reasonably dark spot, in a small stand of tress with soft, high grass in which to put the bag down.

I laid down. It got cold so I zipped up tight. My mind was still scared, but not of bears or moose, but of locals or a Manitoba deputy rustling me out of bed to kick me out of their town.

My back really couldn’t take the hard ground. I guess my mind and body are soft from all that city living. I definitely fell asleep towards the end of the night. Maybe an hour, I discovered I was right next to a well- used train tracks and a commercial feed operation that apparently had a delivery at 5 am Wednesday morning.

So instead of a nice relaxing morning, a 50-car CN locomotive blasted its horn about 16 feet from my face. I think I peed myself a little it was so loud. There was no getting back to sleep. Derisively, I packed up and drove onward out of Portage La Prairie.

I stopped for gas around 9 somewhere in Manitoba. I was dead exhausted. But the prairies came into full spectacle by mid-day. It reminded me more and more of America’s south west, like grassy desert with a spattering of trees here and there.

I got tired at about 1, and decided to take a nap in the grass. I took a right turn up a dirt road off the highway, and drove for about 10 mins. I got out of the car and the sound of the highway had completely evaporated, replaced by sheltering silence. I pulled over and set out my sleeping bag and laid down and had a nice hour-long nap just next to the road.

I made really good progress that day, especially at 110: all the way to Medicine Hat, with a couple short stops along the way. For example I had a nice chat with a couple of fellows over a coffee (one was 85 the other 78) in Brandon while I ate another Ruben sandwich at a family restaurant.

One tiny side note: I love eating at family restaurants, especially with all-day breakfasts, or the kind with all-you-can-eat salad bars. As a child and in my teens, I had been primed to look for this very kind of place, because me and my grandparents would go for long drives into the countryside in Indiana on summer nights without much else to do. So I always associate these epic driving trips with my grandpa Wayne and grandma Etta, who were always driving, and known for taking long trips spontaneously to grab a bite to eat somewhere out of town at a place that had a smorgasbord.

I stayed in Medicine Hat at a local motel that was clean but a bit run down right next to a corner liquor store. I could finally sense the end at that point, and had decided before I fell into my longest sleep of the journey, that I would try for Kelowna during the next day’s drive.

I got up at 10 am on Thursday morning. I crossed the last 300 kms of flatland prairie, which in that part of Alberta is not used for farming. Farms in Saskatchewan make for green or yellow vistas of vegetation in all directions, but in Alberta, it’s mostly ranching or oil, land use which makes for brown, parched and dry-as-a-bone visuals. It gives the landscape an eerie and extra- desolate feel.

It was also at this point in the trip that the smoke from the ongoing forest fires in British Columbia had migrated this far west, and so the sky was also fog-thick with smoke. In otherwise clear skies, the sun hung behind thick layers of grey. It appeared high in the sky but instead of bright, it was an orange globe like at sunset. Though I can’t say it was depressing, it did give the already gloomy landscape an extra-dystopian feel in those miles leading up to Calgary.

I routed around Calgary, even though I wanted to stop. I had hoped that the skies would clear in time for me to get into the foothills of the mountains just west of the city, but alas no luck. The smoke stayed thick, those fires were not abating. As I tracked west, I continued to follow whatever local station had the CBC, and though the news kept predicting the smoke would clear, it did not do so in time for the drive through the mountains.

This- aside from the many other splendors of the drive across Canada- is my favorite part of the trip. The flat prairies are suddenly replaced with mountains that seem to erupt out of nowhere. It’s thrilling, impossible to forget, and the highlight of the trip in many ways.

Even though it was smoky, it was still beautiful. The quality of driving shifts also, from dead-straight to long turns, steep mountain climbs and serious plummets where you have to pump the brakes. (And a lot of construction slowdowns). I made it into BC, through the towns of Revelstoke- a high end tourist trap in a gorgeous valley between mountains- and finally Sicamous- the town that I had been thinking about the whole time because it’s the place where I got to finally tear away from the Trans Canada highway and go south for a couple hundred clicks through Shuswap river country, then the last few miles into Okanagan valley, to make West Kelowna by nightfall.

I had a perfect evening for this part of the trip, and the reports on the radio confirmed what I could see- that the smoke was clearing a tiny bit. I took 97 pretty much the whole way, and finally arrived to Leslie and Rory’s house by 1030 pm Kelowna time. Lisa greeted me with a nice long hug, a sausage and corn dinner. I even got to say hi to Freddy and Hayden, who were still awake for some reason.

It was a heck of a drive, but I’m glad I did it. I’m glad I got the time to spend alone, thinking, and just experiencing the countryside and the many unique communities one experiences along the way. I needed it. It actually helped clear my head, and brought back lots of memories from the other times I’ve travelled across the country.

 

 

 

My 8 Week Keto Journey

This last Christmas I went on a 13 day binge on sugar. I became sick and decided again to quit sweets for good. I was aching all over, my stomach hurt and my body was not performing. Worst of all my mind was cloudy and foggy even after coffee and getting lots of sleep. Perhaps even more unfortunately is that I’ve become used to all of those consequences from my all out sugar addiction.

It’s not fair to judge exactly that point in time because technically I had a hangover. And you know when you have one of those smokes that just makes you want to cough up a lung and quit forever? It was like that. So, I decided for about the 22nd time in my life to quit eating sweets. And I started to think about how.

I turned to ketogenic diet for the first time.

I had tried it a little bit before- using high good fat and low sugar- but I had never fully tried almost zero complex carbs such as bread and pasta, and I had also never really got my fat content high enough for it to be keto. From what I understand, eating high good fats can help with sugar cravings big time and as it turns out, it has. I looked back at my previous experiences trying to stop eating sweets, and it was often the case that I kept eating other complex carbs as well. I don’t think I ever once stopped craving sweets, though I have given them up before.

We flew to Kelowna to visit my wife’s sister, husband, niece and nephew for the rest of the holidays. On the plane ride I was working cashews into my mouth every time I wanted to eat. It was a start. Cashews, coffee and flight anxiety helped me force from my mind the thought of a sandwich. It was a long flight.

Got to Kelowna and I knew it was going to be hard. If you’ve ever met a sugar addict like me you’ll know from asking them that the best time to eat sugar aside from all day every day, is when visiting with family or friends. The cake comes out, my frown turns into a smile while my fork clinks and clanks to the bottom of my cake plate.

So not eating sugar can cause some social tension. Try saying no to a piece of pie from mom, and other such devilish tempters. Then, double that stress for avoiding flour or potatoes from people who are feeding you three times a day.

So I used the time out in BC to get it out of my system… Actually resisting the carbs when offered and deliberately forcing myself to eat other things during meals solidified my compunction to keep strong for when I would get back home. It helped that my sister in law helped make it easy with access to shakes and letting me keep my own food schedule and stuff in the fridge. With keto, my food scheduling radically changed.

So I started eating avocados, coconut oil, my own version of bullet proof coffee, nuts seeds and eggs. Meat too. So it’s not exactly the keto recommendations, which are moderate protein. I’ve eaten tons of protein.

Anyways it was really hard at first. My purpose became quite singular for that first week: stay away from sugarcane products, flour while wolfing down tons of good fats and proteins. After about two days of feeling a bit dazed and hungry I got an influx of the energy promised in the reading I was doing on the subject. As I kept going I kept getting more energy.

The hardest part was at night when my inner sugar health thief comes out, smashes daytime healthy Bob over the head with a donut- shaped cane like Mr Hyde, and falls asleep in a hypoglycaemic haze. And that thief came out bad for that first week at night, but I just stuffed myself with the food I was allowing myself to eat, and refused to answer his knock.

After I got back to Toronto I kept going. And as I’ve kept going, Ive noticed my cravings for sweets subside.

Three weeks in I was feeling as little craving for sweets as I had in 40 years, even at night. I began to study orthodox keto more and applied as much as I could. Keto folks like intermittent fasting, which is hard to do. It’s just less eating, eating less frequently or even abstaining from food. My version has been to have one solid bullet proof coffee in the morning and honestly I sometimes I don’t eat till 130 in the afternoon. Unheard of for me, and I was full of energy the whole time. No hazy, hungry, something-is-wrong-so-I’ll eat feeling.

Also, I began to lose weight. First four weeks, I actually had no weight loss, but in the last three weeks: 10 pounds. I’ve added more good fat, and got some of the protein content down. I’ve also been stepping up yoga and the gym. My work schedule has also changed for the better and I’m getting better rest. All this has added up to a more fuelled and focused me, some weight loss, and better mental energy. Those things are totally true, and some of them are related to my new way of eating.

I’ve been trying to lose the last 20 pounds of the weight I gained 9 years ago when my doctor put me onto a med to help me sleep. I was always a wiry strong 185, but after this med, I went up to 245 pounds within 6 months, ended up fighting off 30 of it, but I have struggled to get the rest down. I hope keto is a way of doing that too.

In the last 8 weeks, I have had two sugar eating episodes, late at night. One was graham crackers. The other chocolate. I also have eaten one slice of pizza, one whole pizza, and about 5 slices of toast. But other than that, no complex carbs for 8 weeks. Not bad for a food junkie that literally ate carbs at every meal his entire life, and has been struggling with sugar addiction for 40 years.

Here’s my bulletproof coffee: 35% cream, big tablespoon of organic coconut oil, smaller tablespoon of organic butter, blended, warmed in the microwave. Add strong organic coffee.

Keto bars: raw peanuts, raw almond slices, raw pumpkin seeds, raw sunflower seeds, peanut butter, fibre-based sweetener, butter, cacao powder, flax meal, coconut oil. Combine and bake.

Shake: beets, beet greens, kale, coconut oil, peanut butter, half an avocado, egg yolk, low glycemic frozen berries, water. Sometimes I add a high quality all in one shake powder or protein powder.

 

The Invasion

I brought home expensive wine that night before Russia. The first glass stopped halfway to my wife’s mouth, its contents trembling along with her hand. She looked up at me. “What do you mean you’re going?”

“I’m the only one that will do it,” I said.

“So what, that doesn’t mean you should.” Lisa could see it was pointless. I had that look in my eyes, that fire-like addictive substance of fear, obsession and excitement. It was the real reason I did my job. She brought the wine up to her lips, dispatched the entire glass in two gulps, got up from the table without touching her steak and went upstairs to our room. I was going to have to work harder if I wanted to get a little warm and fuzzy with the wife before I left. I finished my dinner and let things cool off for a couple of hours.

She was mad because she was scared. So was I. The reports coming into the States from Europe were from so many credible sources that our paper finally sent someone. I drew the short straw. I was a reporter for the Chicago Sun Times and I was assigned to investigate stories coming from a rural Russian village about something that had crash landed in one of their fields. You may rest assured that none of us- none of the reporters assigned to the event- were very confident we would ever come back alive. There was a sense of dread… even doom. The woman who booked our travel arrangements at the paper was normally really talkative and friendly, but when I picked up my itinerary for this assignment, she wouldn’t even make eye contact. The look of stark pity on her face summed it up.

I remember that Monday morning when I first found out. My voicemail had blown up from nearly every corner in journalism. Yes, my work phone stayed in a drawer on weekends. There was an urgent message from my good friend John in Munich at the US foreign office. I called him back. “What is it?” I asked.

“You haven’t heard? Something happened in Russia, not far from Moscow. A ship landing. Not human origin.” I giggled, knowing that me and John spent many a night drinking and discussing shoddy journalism, and a growing lack of integrity in the field. “I am not fucking with you,” he went on. “There’s a blackout from the Kremlin and diplomats everywhere from Washington to Prague are trying to wet down these rumors. Check it out yourself. I have to go.” And he hung up.

I raced down to my editor’s desk and crashed through the door. He sat looking out his window, peacefully. “What the hell?” I said. I was like a badger then. I had some issues with… diplomacy.

“I know, Bob. Calm down,” he said.

I couldn’t believe it: “You know about this? Why aren’t we on it? This is huge.” He got up without looking at me and made himself a small drink from his mini fridge, taking his sweet time. He shot it down and planted his ass back into his chair.

“You know shit like this can sink a real news outlet. You chase down enough rabbit holes got nuthin but dirty water, you can bet yourself out of a job in this racket.”

He was right. I took a breath, calmed down a bit, grabbed a chair and thought about what to say next. “John Silver in Munich confirmed, plus three others from the feed all saying the same thing.”

“Fine,” he said, “you can go.” A smile broadened the concern written across his face.

“I never said I wanted to go,” which was a lie. I smiled right back

“Well you’re going anyways,” he said and poured us both a 9:30 am Remy Marin.

By seven o’clock that same evening- after my wife stormed away from the dinner table- I had phoned all my relatives, and assured my mother that all the rumors that had spread couldn’t have been anything more that a hoax, and I was simply going to debunk the whole thing. And I was lucky enough to get some goodbye loving in with Lisa- I didn’t know then that I was going to be gone for the next twelve weeks, on this crazy story.

I sat back in my seat the next morning as the plane lifted out of New York on a cool, sunny Tuesday and I went over what I actually knew. Not much: A ship of unknown origin had landed just north of Moscow. That was it, but it had got everyone talking. Some people were saying they had seen little brown aliens running around. Some people panicked, some people celebrated. I was going to see a guy named John who said he saw the whole thing. I wondered, just as my ears popped, if this was just a plane ride and a few nights in a shit hotel away from my wife. We had reached altitude.

John was my first of many interviews on this story. I first spoke with him over the phone the night before leaving. His English was very good.. He had been out walking his dog when he witnessed an airship come to a severe and sudden skid across the back of his neighbor’s long field. Curiosity pushed him past his fear. His trusty female Doberman helped too: “With one word she is ready, you understand?” he said proudly.

“I went closer to see, with my Klatchka on a short leash.” John stopped talking and I thought we had been cut off. I asked him to go on. “No,” he said. “I do not know who could be listening. I will only meet you in person.” So I went.

John’s town of Ozerestokye is about 35 miles north of Moscow. The Kremlin definitely wanted the town’s people to keep silent but none of my good contacts took that very seriously… The KGB also released a “military command” for the people of Ozerestokye to not speak to any foreign reporters- so I had to sneak around a bit to get there. Fortunately for me, the people of Ozerestokye didn’t give a damn about the Kremlin and the various things Mother Russia asked of them.

John and I met 36 hours after the incident. I got in through Ukraine. I had to drop my laptop, phone and everything, and crossed into Russia as a beet field worker to keep things under the radar. I didn’t want to miss this meeting. We met in front of his house and shook hands. John was thin and had a brisk walking pace and began immediately to talk. “This was day before yesterday, in the night,” he said, beckoning me towards his house. “I haven’t slept since.” I believed him on that at least. Whatever he needed to tell me was weighing on him, physically.

We walked around to his back yard. From about twenty-five meters, I could just make out the pit left by some force of impact. “Is that it?” I said.

“Yes,” he answered. “When it smashed down, we thought it was to explode. Klatchka and I saw the whole thing.” Dogs weren’t much of a second witness, I secretly thought.

We ambled towards the crater it had left, and as we did he whistled, summoning a massive Doberman that came out of nowhere and heeled at his side. “When Klatchka is with me, I do not even fear our local bears. Her ruthlessness is a prize. You must see it.” I nodded and smiled as if I understood ferocious canines. Lisa and I had a Morkie at home.

Unlike his neighbours who were all farmers, John was a hunter. He said that the vessels’ last few moments in the air reminded him of, “Watching an injured beast lurching and dying right in front of me.”

“What exactly did the ship look like?” I asked.

“It wobbled,” he said, as he used his hands to outline its erratic movement in the sky. “A disk, I thought. Very difficult to know shape and size…impossible speed through the air.” It looped above chaotically, he said, nearly fading from view, then returning full swing, “Like a boomerang.” It came close several times to cracking up into a stand of trees in the back of his field.

“Klatchka wouldn’t take her eyes off it. I ducked when it passed back over our heads. The air became very heavy. I cannot describe it, like a wall of warm air pushing through.” He was nearly in a trance just watching it, he said. He reported later that he had felt hypnotized by some unknown force. “Then Klatchka started barking, and it woke me up.”

The cadence of his speech became rapid and he peered down to the ground as many do who are recalling a bad memory which maybe no one will believe. “I was scared and raised my rifle. I was worried my dog would draw them to us, so I whispered, ‘Klatchka stop, stop barking. Stop now.’ But she would not.” He looked at me with wide eyes and gathered himself. “Then it stopped and fell straight down from about 10 meters up.”

We inched closer, traipsing over the knee-high troughs in in the rows of last year’s lentils. As we did, his dog drew to the ground and began to slink along behind, whimpering. “We hunt bear- I have never seen her like this,” John said.

We got to within 20 feet of the pit, which was marked off by frayed police tape, barely hanging on in the wind. On one end was the unmistakeable mark of where something had crashed: the soil there had been carved clean as if by a guillotine or large shovel. At the other end was a hill of dirt about 45 feet high, where the earth had been pushed forward like a wave. I reached down and touched the ground in front of me- it was still very hard.

John went on. “About three of the neighboring families had already arrived, and stayed back of maybe 15 meters.” They heard hisses and metallic clicks coming from the thing.

All of the other witnesses confirmed these facts in nearly identical detail. The one exception was the town’s mayor, who maintained a more diplomatic position, in spite of the fact that he had not been present for the crash landing and the drama that ensued just after it.

“These people are simple,” he said to me on the day after I met with John. “Do not believe everything they tell you. You probably do not understand Russian farmers. Have a drink with me.” We drank strong beer while the mayor smoked a small Cuban cigar. He seemed to want to position himself as the centerpiece of my story- I was used to this sort of thing and I let him go on thinking he would be. He later gave an official statement to the press that concluded, “The ship of our visitors must have been built in heaven itself, and landed gracefully upon the welcoming, cooperative and fertile soil of Russia (translation).” It was the most common tact taken by leaders from various nations in response to our newly arrived visitors. That is, before we figured out what kind of visitors they actually were…

Let me get back to John’s version, though. It was getting late and chilly and we walked back from the crash site towards his home for something to eat. “It is the first time I have eaten since all this happened,” he said. “Maybe telling someone has given me back an appetite.” He cooked us venison and potato stew and continued his story while I sat at the small kitchen table. “Everything got still for over one hour while the ship just sat there. No one said a word.”

Suddenly, whatever organism was inside turned on some kind of loudspeaker. “Those of us gathered outside- good Russians, let me tell you- we could hear them but we could not see them.” I admit I was getting spooked. I was actually starting to believe him. I scanned the room nervously where blue-faded pictures of his relatives stared back at me from the kitchen walls; the head of a large brown bear slung over the fireplace, its glass eyes spelling out unheard warnings; a rifle case half open in the corner with a well-worn brass latch; the wood stove; and next to it, Klatchka, sitting right in front of the only door, staring outwards, whimpering and panting. “Don’t mind her,” he said and went on.

“A voice came out of the microphone- in perfect Russian by the way- and introduced themselves: The Boronstock, who roamed the galaxy, using planets for resources and entertainment.” John said one of his cousins smirked at him and whispered, “Did they say ‘entertainment?’”

“We had begun to feel a chill in our bones,” John continued, “at what this thing was saying. Even poor people like us can understand, you know. But then something changed,” he went on. “There was a rumbling in the background, and another voice. There were two of them!”

Whoever or whatever had the microphone barked at the other one, muffled though, “Like when you cover the telephone receiver for a moment. Then voices that john assured me were not Russian, German or English. “They got louder, one yelling over the other. Then even louder. Then they were almost screaming.”

The microphone must have been dropped and John said he believed they began to fight over its use. “They were arguing, there is no doubt,” he said. An object was thrown and something screeched out loud. “Whatever was inside that ship, I swear a fight took place between them that lasted at least two minutes.”

I took a breath. I tell you, this part of the story had few variations, even after I interviewed every single person present, and went over police reports. In journalism this is very rare. Yet I found myself very troubled to believe. That is of course until I eventually saw our visitors in action for myself.

John went on. “We heard crashing. Something broke like glass. It sounded like they were cursing each other.”

John said that he and the other onlookers began to shake their heads. “One of the grandmothers said “Idiotski,” under her breath and laughed, which got all of us giggling.

“Then something went off with a bang and we stopped laughing. A pitiful cry was heard, then silence.” The microphone was slowly retrieved, and the creature cleared its throat to resume its message, which began:

“To the many people of the earth before us.”

The suspension of my disbelief had reached its outermost limit and John must have noticed the look on my face. “It sounds impossible?” It had been a long day, I said and I asked John for a drink. I told him a good journalist needed to be open to anything, but also picky. I liked him and felt that I could be frank.

He continued. The organism emerged from its ship several minutes later. John and everyone else present agreed that it had an unmistakeable look of surprise on its face- though it were hard to distinguish the gestures of a thing so hideous and unseemly. There were rapid, furtive movements to its skittish black eyes. It seemed to be constantly looking about and it regularly turned its head to peer behind itself- the way a fearful person does in the street. Its nose was wet like a dogs, but shinier, and a loathsome white tongue frequently licked it with a mucous-like saliva, which ran down to its lip, only to be re-swallowed every few seconds. Their mouths curled down as if always in complaint, with thin lips. Later, when I saw one of them, their appearance reminded me of features which one generally associates with a bias towards dishonesty. It stood about four feet tall, had a long torso, short legs and wore a cream coloured gown.

It must be noted that for all its hideousness, we later came to discover that their species had a robust appetite and even crude talent for the erotic…

 

*   *   *

I Skyped with Lisa that night on an internet connection that wasn’t great. When the screen switched on at her end, I could see she was still a little pissed. But I had a sarcastic smile stretched across my face.

“What is it?” she said, and I told her about John and Klatchka. “Great, you made a new friend,” she said. I told her about the pit and the police tape. “A hole in the ground in the middle of Russia,” she retorted back. So I told her a little more about John’s story and the crash he witnessed. “Did anyone else see it?” she said.

“No, well, I mean there were other witnesses who came after it crashed…”

“Was there anything more? Or can you come home now?”

I explained the rest of the story, and told her that at least 15 other people said the exact same thing.

“You’re telling me that an organism has flown halfway across a galaxy, crash lands in a field in the middle of the night, only to end up in a fistfight over a microphone so it can give a speech to 15 Russian farmers?”

“Yes, that’s the story,” I said and smiled. She smiled too, and we had a decent little laugh. I actually felt a relief. Maybe it was just a hoax, I thought to myself. “They’ve called a press conference in the Dominican, for tomorrow,” I said and just then our connection was lost.

I attended this event, flying out of Moscow after claiming to the US consulate I had lost my passport. It didn’t matter. By now, the floodgates had opened and reporters were getting into Ozerystokye like bull sharks on prey. I admit that my story was the first that broke about John and his incredible tale. He swiftly became a bit of a celebrity.

The Dominican press conference went well except for one small detail towards the end. First off, the Dominican President could not have been more proud and he sent his very top aide to assist the creatures, whom he described as, “Our alien friends.” The Boronstock spent the afternoon on the beach and when they finally took the stage they delivered a four-hour speech in the sweltering, Caribbean spring heat. “Cronky,” was the name of their ambassador, their leader was an alien named Glotten, who was unable to make the press conference because he was indisposed at the moment.

Most of us were drenched in sweat and started to become impatient but Cronky stood up there and rambled through a history of their species, referring many times to the great degree of refinement and beauty their race possessed, “The likes of which humanity had probably never been exposed.” There were few real details, however. It seemed rather to be what my friend Able Adams from the New York Times described as, “A protracted series of self-congratulations and blustery pretensions.”

All we were thinking about that day were the plans these creatures had for the earth and its inhabitants, but when Cronky finally addressed this, it was three and a half hours in. We were done- we couldn’t take any more. I remember I had forgotten my recorder that day, and the small notepad I was using became so soaked with sweat from my writing hand, that I could make out little of what I had written. I am pretty sure Cronky said we would fall under their strict control and that everything would be explained. He said that what we needed to know now was that this was not the first time they had taken over a planet from a lesser race, and that fighting them would only make things so much worse.

Just then a smarmy little grin passed across his thin lips, but it was so hot that I thought my mind was playing tricks on me.

We were falling into heat-induced dementia, to the point where I just didn’t care what this little thing was going on about anymore. It reminded me of the three-hour Pentecostal church services my dad used to bring me to when I was a kid in west Texas. I just remember squirming and begging for it end. I know they were talking some really important stuff, but I couldn’t help it, I just couldn’t pay any more attention.

Then Cronky pulled out an overhead (which he had borrowed last minute from us) and began to place photographs onto it, which projected onto a fold out screen. They were snapshots of organisms, “From other planets.” We woke up a little, out of fear. It looked like these creatures seemed to be in various states of agony and despair- though their alien features masked their expressions to us, and so we relied on Cronky commenting on each photo. He pulled up one particular photo on the overhead that I do remember. It was brownish and faded, and reminded me of photos guys take after they’ve caught a fish. “Look at this pitiful organism,” Cronky said, “look at the pain and suffering.” I winced, partly to try to make out the details of the photograph. It appeared that the poor thing was being hung upside down by its ankles, and two Boronstock stood at either side, mugging for the camera.

Cronky pointed to one of the Boronstock in the picture, and said proudly, “That’s me, when I was much younger.” He seemed to really enjoy this. He began to giggle and kibitz back and forth with the other Boronstock who stood beside him. They were in fond memory of earlier times. To be truthful, it was crass.

They caught themselves suddenly, or else noticed that none of us were laughing, and few of us were even paying attention- it was too damn hot.

“Do not underestimate us,” he said sternly, clearing his throat and speaking English again. That was the end of the conference. He took a long gulp from a glass of brown liquid on the podium, licked his lips, looked around and tried to walk down from the stage.

This is where things got interesting. Cronky would have been fine, except that he fell on those three short steps leaving the stage, cut his knee open and nearly broke his leg. We gasped in terror. An American medic was later praised for her quick response, as she was able to stabilize the wound, and assuage the creature’s great distress. Cronky writhed on the ground uncontrollably and cried out for almost 20 minutes. We watched helplessly while the medic appeared several times- in my opinion- to try to break off the strange embrace between the two of them, though she denied this to me later when I interviewed her. Thank goodness that Cronky’s wound turned out to be quite superficial.

Two well-known papers in France immediately did humour pieces on the aliens’ apparent lack of physical coordination. Our galactic invaders immediately shot back with a press release of their own, which appeared in several major news outlets the following day. According to them Cronky had, “Tripped on his long and impressive garment, the exceptional beauty of which could not possibly be understood by such a lowly species as the human.” Someone should have been holding up the draping fabric of his gown, they said. They admitted that our lack of awareness was not at all surprising to them, so they would have mercy on us for screwing things up. Meanwhile, the world sat spellbound and confounded in front of our televisions, radios and newspapers.

Though their arrival had provoked nearly total chaos and fear amongst the people of the earth, a small anecdote from that first Dominican press conference hinted at something far less sinister: It was something that we humans could at least make sense of. You see, Cronky was drunk. The human aide from the Dominican president’s office who was assigned to coordinate the event told me later that the creature who fell off the stage that day had not tripped on his gown at all. “He was hammered,” she said. “In the hour leading up to his speech, he and his two associates must have downed at least twelve half -litre bottles of local spiced rum. I should know, I was the one who kept running out to get them more.”

They called another press conference. About a week later. I flew there too. They wanted us to convene in the parliament building in London so they could announce a list of world leaders with whom they wished to work. They wanted our help with their invasion! So we came, from around the world, and clambered into the stodgy, wooden interior of the parliament house, until every inch of every hall were filled and still we spilled out into the street. Our leaders gave speeches at their own press conferences leading up to the event, arguing why the Boronstock should pick them for the momentous task.

The day arrived for the London press conference. It was scheduled for one o’clock. Then a call from Cronky- at 1:15- Glotten was running behind they said-they would be there by two. Two came around and they still weren’t there. At 2:30 there was another call. They suggested we should all go have tea, because they weren’t ready yet, due to the immense preparation required. Five o’clock was much more appropriate, they said. So we had tea, delivered to the 5000 of us in attendance. Then five rolled around. No call, no show. Grumblings from the huge audience were heard, though everyone still waited. By 9 pm, people started to leave- we had flights to catch, and kids at home. I was supposed to Skype with my wife that night after dinner, but I didn’t get back to my hotel until well after 1:30 in the morning. They just never came.

The explanation for their absence, though heavily underreported at first, became the touchstone of a growing doubt about these creatures’ true intentions. It had turned out that the leader, Glotten, was partying in a well known brothel in London with Cronky and their other associates. They had run up a 72,000-pound tab, which they couldn’t pay. They had no money. As the owner of the establishment could no longer take the constant insults his galactic guests were hurling at him and his staff, and the poor way in which the women attendants were being handled, he called the police. In one small article left to the back of the London Herald, a female worker from the brothel had this to say: “They were the randiest creatures you’ve ever seen. They wouldn’t take their paws off us. They stayed awake for days drinking! It was awful.”

The British Prime Minister stepped in and proudly paid the brothel owner’s invoice for the party. There was a very strange picture published in one of Paris’ more liberal papers that showed this grey- suited diplomat from the British prime minister’s office shaking hands with the brothel owner and cutting him a check. The prime minister meanwhile tried to use it as an opportunity to show the Boronstock and the rest of the world what true cooperatives the Brits were and how, “We intend to be fully amicable to our new visitors and their aspirations.” I’ll be honest, as an American- as a southerner at that- I felt my stomach turn a little.

This incident was followed directly by another like it, two days later. The Parisian mayor at the time personally invited Glotten to the Opera, hoping also to dig up favours for his city and nation, and to create a nice chance for publicity. Manon by Massenet was running and everyone of importance in France would be there. I caught wind and got there just in time to witness the spectacle that ensued.

Our visitors attended in grand fashion: The world’s entertainment press photographed them as they approached the doors to the Palais Garnier. Though the mayor never admitted it publicly, a driver from their limousine, a ticket taker from the opera and one of the photographers who dared get close to her alien subject all confirmed to me that Glotten and his associate got sauced before the performance.

Things were going well until towards the end of the first intermission, when the Diva opened the curtain and came out in rare fashion, stunning the audience. She wanted to address her stupendous and galactic audience members, and a spot was proudly put up onto the box where Glotten and the mayor were sitting. But as everyone’s eyes adjusted, we could see that nearly everyone in the entire group had fallen asleep during the first act. The Parisian mayor’s wife nudged the mayor awake, and he in turn nudged Glotten, alerting him to the unexpected bath of attention.

Sensing a moment of celebrity, Glotten and his assistant stood- haplessly forgetting just how drunk they were. The full house in attendance applauded almost wildly. Glotten was steady on his feet- we learned that none of the other Boronstock could hold their liquor as well as he. His alien assistant, however, swooned under the light then teetered and lost his balance. The audience gasped and stopped clapping all at once, just as the creature fell over the handrail, 35 feet onto seats below. A woman screamed and a brief panic set in. A medic was called but it was too late. Apparently their bones were quite thin- much thinner than ours, and the poor alien had crushed his skull on the edge of the dense, 100 year old walnut seats of the Palais Garnier.

The death of the visitor sparked rumours about some kind of retaliation and people all around the world were generally in a panic. The only response from them, however, was another press release, this time lambasting the Diva of Manon for her untimely and spontaneous deviation from the show. It was our fault- again. I gathered reports- from five or six people from the orchestra pit, who hopelessly watched the creature expire: they all agreed on one thing: that the dying organism absolutely reeked of hard liquor.

The press was suddenly becoming less interested in these events. It was actually my wife who pointed this out to me, during one of our Skype calls after the Paris incident: “Bob, haven’t you noticed something?”

“What?” I said.

She smiled. “Every time they set up a press conference or something, they don’t show.” I had to admit she was right, though no one from the mainstream press had yet alluded to it. “Either that or they go on these long tirades about their species. The plan to take over the earth never gets discussed, or it always gets put off. They haven’t given us one detail and they haven’t actually done anything.” We giggled then started to laugh. It was at that moment that I remembered John from Ozerestokye, and the Russian grandmother who got everyone laughing during the Boronstock’s scuttle over the microphone. My wife was right. Nothing up to that point matched what an alien invasion should look like.

Cronky’s incident about a week later at a Cleveland Indians game was no exception to this pattern of dysfunction. Apparently the Boronstock loved gambling, as well as drinking. We found out later that Cronky had bet a huge quantity of money on the game against the Yankees that Sunday afternoon. A consortium of nations who wanted to help the creatures’ state of abject poverty had donated the money to them. Unfortunately, a large Indians lead got blown in the 8th inning by an admittedly shoddy outing from the Cleveland bullpen, and as the go ahead run rounded third, a teenage girl sitting behind Cronky began to cheer most innocently for her beloved Yanks. Perhaps it was in bad taste on her part- after all it was a Cleveland home game- but the response she received was truly unfair. The creature- drunk by that time- wheeled around to chastise her. People said Cronky was frothing at the loss of his monies and his hatred of Yankees baseball and became quite abusive. The poor girl was only 14.

The group of people near them in the stands along the third base line, casually turned to see what was up. Such incidents were not unusual for Indians games against the Yanks. But after about 45 seconds of a vicious verbal berating by this drunk little alien, the girl’s father finally stepped in and told the creature where to go. He was a big man- a New Yorker.

The over confident Cronky then turned his attention to the dad, and started into him with little thought of what he was saying. The daughter- and it must be noted that this was the very first act of human aggression against our visitors- took what was left of her hot dog and planted it directly onto the creature’s bald, brown head. She followed it with her drink and giggled at the mustard dripping down his brow. The crowd gasped or laughed in equal parts.

Everything became still. Sensing his own embarrassment, Cronky looked around at the crowd and perhaps briefly thought of controlling himself, but his temper got the best of him and he lurched from his seat and grabbed the scruff of the girl’s Yankees jersey. People began twisting to get out of the way and holding up their cameras and phones. Somebody whistled for the cops. The creature would not let go, however, and the father, unable to contain himself any longer, quickly landed two excellent right hands directly onto the creature’s poor forehead. It reeled, and for a moment nearly caught its balance, but then fell into the back of the Cleveland dugout, vomited and passed out.

We started to really lose interest as a whole. Major news outlets either stopped reporting for fear they would look like tabloids, or else tabloids were the only ones reporting these events. I suppose it was because we were less afraid, and other really important matters began come back up in world journalism.

My wife and I continued to talk via Skype as I followed these shenanigans around the country and the rest of the world. It was exhausting, and our conversations produced much-needed relief from the weariness I was beginning to feel from all the travel. It was like covering a war, but one that was only ever about to take place, and whose main aggressor seemed far more interested in getting hammered in the worlds dirtiest corners than they were interested in taking over our planet. I needed home, and just about then- twelve weeks to the day they arrived- I finally gave up full time coverage on the story.

My editor pulled me off, right after it came out that their leader, Glotton had slept with the Russian president’s wife. She and Glotton had apparently become good friends in the days after their crash landing. Her reputation for heavy drinking drink was well known and she and the alien leader became inseparable. They often drank together into the night and commonly ended up in friendly arguments about who was more intelligent- the Russians or the Boronstock. The creatures’ ship was large enough to be their home, but it was damaged in the crash and was uninhabitable. So, homeless, they had been staying in the guest- house of the Russian President, where everything took place.

As it happens sometimes in human affairs, the combination of drinking and excessive amounts of time spent together between a male and a female who have a natural liking for each other- well… you understand. Things happen. I mean, how did Svetla think it would turn out? The Russian President had been completely oblivious, until the one night he happened to come into the room where the two of them… in front of the television… it was disgusting. An aide and a security detail of three men accompanied the President during his discovery, and, knowing the story would have been impossible to contain, the Kremlin held a press conference to announce what had happened.

It was truly dysfunctional. I attended and stood at the front with the press while the President made a brief speech. His wife and Glotton stood on either side of him with doleful expressions on all of their faces- at first. Svetla was gloomy, crying and apologizing. Yet just as the Russian president was disclosing the horrific revelation of the affair, Glotton’s expression changed. A grin- I swear it was a grin, we all did- began to invade the corners of his unseemly mouth. His beady, black eyes darted back and forth. A reporter from Moskow noticed immediately, raised his hand and asked impatiently what Glotton thought was so funny about this embarrassing affair. Glotton quickly retorted that his expression was one of profound sadness and grief- not a smile at all. He added that no one understood him- especially not anyone from a race of creatures as illogical and short sighted as we humans.

He then told a long story about how he had been more poorly treated on earth than on any other planet he had visited. He went on to discuss that his job was really stressing him out right now, and that he really just needed some affection. He sobbed.

It’s really funny the things we notice or don’t notice. I Skyped with Lisa one last time before heading home. Towards the end of our conversation, she remarked, “What happened to their women? All of the Boronstock are men.” We both thought for a minute on that one, then Lisa snorted, “Maybe their women kicked their asses out of the house,” and we both howled in laughter.

I caught the red eye out of Minneapolis where Cronky had been admitted to the hospital after another fight. I got home that night twelve weeks after I had left. An alien species had crash-landed the earth, only to end up a bunch of hedonistic drunks.

I walked up the three steps to the front door that Saturday morning in July, put the key in and turned the knob. In exhaustion and gratitude, I embraced my wife. She looked up at me and her lips curved into a smile. “I’m pregnant,” she said. “It must have been that night before you left, I’m exactly twelve weeks along.”

The Boronstock stuck around. Their ship was broken, so they kind of had to. We just kept feeding them liquor wherever they went, and pretended to listen to them go on about some invasion. After all, they had done this before.

 

I love hot yoga.

Yoga has benefitted me greatly. Hot yoga has benefited me even more.

But many from the yoga industry in North America take issue on the topic of the heated yoga room. Hot yoga got real popular real quick after Bikram Chodhury created his Bikram method, which is practiced in 100+ degree temperatures. Other yoga studios and companies have followed with heat, such as Moksha Yoga and YogaFit Sweat. In the beginning of the sizzling trend, the health benefits of the temperatures were taken for granted. Bikram and his teachers touted nearly miraculous qualities of practicing in the heat- not surprising for folks who came to partake in an empire of branded hot yoga and hot yoga teacher trainings.

Since then, a pendulum shift has occurred- a swing back from the high claims made by Chodhury and other disciples of the hot yoga reformation. I find these pendulum shifts  very interesting. New camps sprout up all around us, decrying the very foundations of the work of the generation that came just before: A new US president takes office and begins immediately to undo the work of the previous eight years; new psychotherapies erupt out of the calcified ruins of what only ten years ago were considered revolutions in easing people’s psychological suffering; and yes, hot yoga has now been through it’s own 360 of sorts, with a culture-wide retraction of the claims once made about its tremendous health benefits.

Even Moksha Yoga founder Ted Grand takes up efforts in this reversal. In a recent article in Sweat Equity Magazine, Ted said that “There’s plenty of science behind sweating and detoxification, but nothing I’m aware of regarding hot yoga.” The article goes on to frame the pendulum shift as a debunking of hot yoga health benefits myths. (http://www.sweatequitymagazine.com/health18.html).

Ok, so Ted can’t claim his yoga has the same health benefits of sweating…I get it. He’s got to be diplomatic. But there’s a huge body of scientific literature supporting sweating and saunas as legitimate health practices, and tons of research into yoga. Both of these also come with thousands years practice. The only article I could find about hot yoga was one that tried to demonstrate the level of safety of Bikram Yoga, published by the American Council on Exercise (1). Yet I’m still very curious about hot yoga, and l wonder whether one day some miraculous findings might come out regarding it. I would at least expect some studies to begin to ask questions: Is yoga in the heat more healthy than yoga without heat? Does practicing yoga in the heat improve health in any way? What ways? The testimony of now millions of hot yoga practitioners-certainly a narrative form of convincing evidence- is enough signal an interest in more rigorous forms of scientific research.

Of course this pendulum shift away from yoga that is hot is understandable in another way. When a proponent of a popular thing suddenly finds themselves less than popular, people tend to start running for cover. Bikram- as most people know- has gotten into some really unpleasantly hot water over the last few years, being currently accused and sued from various people for inappropriate sexual behavior and improper firing of employees. It’s little wonder why people would want to distance themselves from the man behind Bikram Yoga and some of the less scientific claims he has made about practicing in the heat. Health trends like hot yoga sometimes ride the coat tails of their figureheads like Bikram, and when the figurehead is in some way discredited, so doubt spreads all over the trends they’ve created. But what if the trend is a highly beneficial practice?

If I was asking whether hot yoga benefits our health, I would begin by asking what we already know about similar things. For example, scientifically, we know a lot about saunas and sweating and their great benefit to human health. Sweat has been found to induce the creation of dermicidin, a powerful antibiotic peptide that is essential in our fight against disease (2). Another research article showed that, “Many toxic elements appeared to be preferentially excreted through sweat”(3). Another found that sauna-induced sweating was a strong element in helping people overcome chronic pain. (4). And still another stated, “Symptoms such as fatigue, pain, sleep disturbance, and low-grade fever were dramatically improved after 15 to 25 sessions of thermal therapy,” and that “These results suggest that repeated thermal therapy might be a promising method for the treatment of chronic fatigue syndrome” (5). There are also many scientific articles into regular yoga and the miraculous-sounding ways that it can help our mental and physical health.

I wouldn’t read the extensive research into the benefits of saunas, sweating and regular yoga, and say that the hot-yoga- health- myth had been debunked. Debunk or demystify are not the words I would choose, anyways. I would choose words like curious, optimistic and even anxious to see hot yoga proven to be highly beneficial for our health- even beyond that of a regular yoga practice. There are a million questions that the research into sweating and regular yoga lead me to ask about hot yoga. The fact that there is no fully controlled double blind study yet conducted on the subject does not mean the myths surrounding hot yoga have been debunked. They simply haven’t been studied.

 

(1) ACE Study Examines Effects of Bikram Yoga on Core Body Temps. https://www.acefitness.org/acefit/expert-insight-article/47/5384/ace-study-examines-effects-of-bikram-yoga-on-core

(2) Song, C. et al., 2013. Crystal structure and functional mechanism of a human antimicrobial membrane channel. http://www.pnas.org/content/110/12/4586

(3) Genuis SJ, Birkholz DRodushkin IBeesoon S., 2011. Blood, urine, and sweat (BUS) study: monitoring and elimination of bioaccumulated toxic elements. http://www.pnas.org/content/110/12/4586

(4) Masuda A., Koga Y., Hattanmaru M.,· Minagoe S., Tei C., 2005. The effects of thermal therapy for patients with chronic pain. http://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/86319

(5) Masuda, A. et al., 2005. The effects of repeated thermal therapy for two patients with chronic fatigue syndrome. http://www.scopus.com/record/display.uri?eid=2-s2.0-21344441681&origin=inward&txGid=0