Posted by: cousindampier | 19 October 2016

The Obama Era, I Miss It So

By Senior Master Sgt. Thomas Meneguin, USAF [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Barack Obama’s Inauguration

 Eight years ago – almost to the day – I was at a Citizen Cope concert in Bethesda, Maryland. I was lucky to be there – my girlfriend at the time had grabbed tickets for my birthday – but I’d begun working for a progressive political consulting firm ahead of the 2008 elections and it was not the quietest of times.

Three weeks later, we’d had a role – very small, but a role – in getting Barack Obama elected as President. (More importantly, we’d helped downballot progressive races throughout the country, getting issues passed or candidates elected). And I discovered that election days were a little anti-climactic, because as the east coast results began to appear we had less and less to do. Eventually we retired to a bar in Adams-Morgan, drank Miller Lite, and watched America elect Obama.

Tonight is the final debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and in three weeks – the longest three weeks in the history of America aside from that time it took William Henry Harrison to die of pneumoniai – it will all be over, and the eight years of the Obama era will have passed far too quickly.


My peers in age and I can mark out our lives in three phases: the Clinton, Bush, and Obama eras. More to the point, those eras have corresponded with distinct life changes. My first memories are from the early 1990’s – I was seven when Clinton took office. By the time Bush was inaugurated I was 15 and beginning to learn to drive (I also have a distinct memory of staying up late the night of his election to figure out if I should colour Florida red or blue on my homework assignment. That wasn’t the worst of it – I got Nevada wrong).

The Bush era was a different kettle of fish. His first term was high school; his second was college. I was ‘coming of age,’ though I have no idea what that means and refuse to read ‘Catcher in the Rye’ to find out. There was 9/11 and Iraq and the thought I might join the Navy and arguments about Bush and Kerry. They were political arguments of the type and scope which only high school kids can have – overly moralistic and not very nuanced.

The summer of 2008 I graduated college. Obama didn’t secure the nomination until after I graduated, because my friend Katie was still in Oregon or South Dakota or some random state. Soon after, the 2008 Hillary campaign ended and Katie was back and working for a private consulting firm and she started to ask me if I wanted to come to work.

I said no. I was a new graduate, and who wasn’t going to hire me to research Iraq and Afghanistan?

She kept asking.

No. The Brookings call was on the way!

She asked again.

I said yes, with just a little bit of “please?” mixed in, and to her word, Katie got me out of there that night and took the heat.

The three weeks between the concert and election day were the most exhausting, exhilarating, crazy and rewarding weeks of my life. I wasn’t really in charge of any aspect of any race – the only time I recall making a decision on a campaign was when Katie had been up for something like 30 hours and was trying to get some sleep on a couch. But that feeling you get working to get someone elected, working to get some random small ballot measure passed, staring at results of phone banks and trying to determine the next day’s strategy – its a spark that spreads, very quickly, into a fire.

Politics and voting is often derided, and sometimes justly – look no further than Congress overriding a Presidential veto only to immediately try to figure out how to override its override. But Congress isn’t really the problem. In 2014, members of congress were re-elected at a 95% clip, though the institution as a whole had an approval rating of 11%. The lesson, obviously, being that my congressperson is perfect and its all you idiots out there who should figure it out.

No theory really covers why politics is so unpopular. Maybe the system is broken. Maybe it is elitist – in that the horizontal movement is between the elite and public office. Maybe the money is too much – check out this Planet Money investigation which revealed former Idaho representative Walt Minnick’s statement that he needed to raise $10-15,000 per day. PER DAY. During the working week, he had to raise enough money to subsist a middle-class family for a whole year.

Or maybe it is because each generation has their superstars, their careers which call out for a larger purpose. Growing up, the names thrown about – Gates and Buffett and Jobs and Oprah and Zuckerberg – they were all people who ran multi-million dollar businesses.  The business generation began in the 1980’s, with Reaganomics, and peaked in the early 2000’s. Before that, it was artists and musicians, birthed in the 60’s and peaking in the 70’s. Today, its probably Silicon Valley and entrepreneurs.  It hasn’t been politics for a generation.

This is why I will miss Barack Obama – he made politics cool again.


In just under four months, 44 will be gone and 45 will be inaugurated, and the Obama era will be over. It already should be over, except he keeps doing fun things like letting Stephen Colbert interview him and pulling a Kobe Salute at Correspondents Dinners.

I don’t necessarily like everything he’s done. Obamacare needs some fixing and the sheer number of drone strikes is disconcerting, much less the bystanders killed, and we still don’t seem to have a coherent strategy in the Middle East. There’s a lot I do like as well – he got health care passed, oversaw a massive economic re-growth and put Joe Biden in a position to speak publicly multiple times per week, which is just a fantastic concept.

(Aside: Skip the “Bernie could win” debates. Imagine a Biden-Trump debate. Think of what we’ve missed, America. Think of the comedy we’ve missed.)

It’s not that he was a cool guy – that rationale is a terrible way to judge both presidents and potential flatmates. It was the how. The entire time, Obama was a politician and never tried to hide that; but he was so damn good that we often forgot. Go watch Jerry Seinfeld’s interview with him in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. It’s funny, but the whole thing is an appeal for the ACA. He understood how to appeal to a growing generation of voters, and he was so charismatic that he made us laugh in the process.

However, the simplicity of being a politician doesn’t do him right. There were moments where he seemed approachable. Not ‘one of us,’ but someone we could aspire to be. He was amazed by the same things we were. He had intense sports fandom. He sang happy birthday to his daughter. He was – and is – a really great dad. Obama’s charisma stemmed from his sense of self. He was, by all accounts, humble enough to have that quiet confidence which we all aspire to have, the detachment which allows him to keep calm and come through in the clutch, ranging from debates to three pointers.

Aside from his graying hair, he never really seemed to let the job get to him, and he dealt with some incredibly complex and difficult issues.

He remains a brilliant speaker, and anybody who decries that needs a reality check. America remembers the words of Presidents. In my first grade class, the Gettysburg Address and the Constitution were taped to the wall. Not only do we remember words of Presidents, we remember morals – “I cannot tell a lie,” and “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” and “Slavery? What slavery? I don’t know what you speak of,ii” and “Don’t boo – vote.”

His speech on race during the 2008 campaign will be remembered and read. (He also looks so young as to be another person. Coincidentally, this is also a debate topic on Fox and Friends next week. Headline: BARACK OBAMA BODY DOUBLE?). His press conference after Sandy Hook was good. His speech at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston was brilliant, and that was before he sang Amazing Grace. And Selma somehow tops all of those.

America is very fundamentally different now. Society is more open and less constrictive. Health Care has been breached, and there is probably no going back – only modification. We are only partially embroiled in war, instead of totally embroiled. The economy is in such better shape as to also be unrecognizable (another Fox and Friends topic this week).

When the legalization of gay marriage was upheld, the White House was bathed in rainbow lights. He brought the science fair to the White House, declaring “if we are recognizing athletic achievement, we should also be recognizing academic achievement.” Apparently, the fair was one of his favourite events.

The man danced tango in Cuba, which gets lost in the shuffle of crazy things Obama did. For my entire life, and most of the lives of my parents, Cuba was the Elephant Graveyard – we don’t speak of it and we don’t go there. Then, suddenly, the President of the United States of America was there watching baseball and dancing tango, and that does not get nearly enough press.


In January 2009, a few friends of mine and the same girlfriend who bought the Citizen Cope tickets – and who had stuck with me even though I was, quite literally, barely home for six weeks – came over to sleep at my house. The next morning, we put on every piece of clothing we had and trekked through the absurd cold to Obama’s inauguration. Inaugurations are held in front of the Capital Building, but it was too crowded to slip in there, so we kept walking.

And walking.

And walking.

We settled in somewhere on the far side of the Washington Monument. This is more than a mile away from the steps of the Capital, and still more people packed in behind us. Nearly two million people attended Obama’s inauguration, and if he had an outgoing party there would surely be as many.

Perhaps Obama appeals to me. While my favouite Presidents are Republicans, I lean left. He was a young President who understood how to appeal using the internet; a brilliant speaker and a good comedian. Perhaps I have a bias because he is my generation’s President – my President.

But that doesn’t weigh down the fact that he will leave office as an incredibly popular President, and someone I – and millions of other Americans – look up to. Those months in 2008, I knew he was a politician but I was caught up in the lights and flash and cult of personality and I didn’t understand what that meant. Now, having seen Obama the President, I get it. He is a politician, and that term does not have to be dirty. He worked hard to sell the issues he cared about. He worked hard to find solutions where there were none, which is an underrated skill in a leader. He not only dealt with tragedy, he worked to find a larger theme of what it meant to be American – the sense of American exceptionalism, not found in American actions abroad, but found in our equality at home.

He wasn’t perfect, but no President is – and he was, and is, my President.

And I hope his legacy is not as the ‘cool President’ – not at all. Instead, I hope is legacy is the President who made politics cool again.

i Everyone dreaded a John Tyler Presidency.

ii Attributed to Millard Fillmore.

Posted by: cousindampier | 10 October 2016

A Day In Communist Budapest


I stood at the head of a hundred faces, the wave of sunshine making it difficult to see. Some marching music played behind me, but the weight of the wave drowned it out and muffled it. As the music receded, the deadened faces stared back at me, bronzed and determined.

I focused on the music, even as the sun stared me down. It was a lifeboat, a cord to ground me to this place. Without it, I may as well have been on the moon or Mars or in the apocalypse. That same sun brought a heavy haze, distorting any length of vision. The red brick wall blended in with the yellow sky, as if the sun was simply a drop of paint and a brush came along to sweep the yellow across the page.

The faces looked far into the horizon with a sense of purpose. The horizon they looked to was not the rising sun – the era the remembered was long into the darkness. A fallen hero here and an idol there, members and moments of Communist rule in Hungary, all captured and locked up in a flat space of ground surrounded by one story houses and small warehouses outside of Budapest.

In the early 1990’s Hungary found itself facing a question of history. The Soviet Republic had worked hard to re-create Hungarian history, and with its fall left history etched in bronze and marble. Those memorials had to go somewhere. Now they stood behind large walls on a deserted field outside of Budapest, as if the new Hungary had simply wanted them to disappear.


As I entered through a small brick passageway, to my left power lines stretched towards the end of the sky, towers connected by silver rope. On my right stood a different tower of sorts, an enormous Y-shaped concrete funnel-except some sort of structure was built in the funnel part, a gray dome and though I stared at it from many angles I could not determine what it was. I decided on water tower, but it easily may have been an antenna, air-traffic control tower, anything out of a James Bond movie and as I moved the gravel crunched underneath my feet and I’d hear the occasional chirp and bark and growl of an engine, but there was nobody else, only me and the faces and the sun.

I’d reached the end of the earth.

It is sometimes difficult to remember that before the Cold War ended, there was no end in sight. There was no capture of territory or sacking of capital which would bring the conflict to a close. In the mid-80’s some voices could be heard predicting the collapse of the USSR, but the rapidity with which the bottom fell out surprised nearly everyone. It was an endurance affair with no end until suddenly there was.

It is also somewhat difficult to remember that the Soviet Union only existed for a short period of time, given how much of the 20th Century revolves around the USSR. With the end of the civil war in 1922, the USSR came into being; by the end of 1991, it was over. As a superpower, the time is even shorter – the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb in 1949. A person born in 1941 likely remembers both the rise and collapse of Soviet superpower.

However brief, that period was intense.. The Soviet Union worked with rapidity and purpose to create history anew. “All post-communist societies are uprooted ones because Communism uprooted traditions, so nothing fits with anything else,” the philosopher Horia-Roman Patapievici told Robert Kaplan. The socialist governments of Eastern Europe attempted to overwrite the history of their nation-states, emphasizing different figures and movements. These manifested themselves in monuments, statues, and places of memory – all key in creating a new historical narrative. Memorials are cultural icons, created and displayed publicly to convey a sense of meaning and purpose, a place for all to gather and share in some emotion. They are, largely, generalist, conveying a sense of theme instead of the specifics of the event – details are often messy.

Put enough of them in one place, however, and a historical textbook begins to appear.



Getting there was a process.

After taking the subway out to a bus depot, we spent some time on a busy road headed south. I sat on a bus staring out the window on a warm November day. The driver was speeding away from the Buda side of the city, the Danube somewhere off to our left. Memento Park was the only stop in English on the route.

As the bus sped away with a goodbye of dust, I found myself in the middle of a lonely stretch of road. Some tall wooden walls guarded a building supply storage area, painted solid colours with the occasional two panel gap for an entryway. I could pick out some peaked roofs and what looked like a few blocks of houses in the near distance, and the sound of the highway was not far off.

An elderly man with a cane got out the front door as I hopped out the back. I watched him for a second because I did not know where to go – how could I have not looked up where to walk, dammit – but a tall brick wall stood out above the low-level structures, a brick wall with an open arch for an enormous statue.

I headed that way, passing the old man.

The statue came into form as I stood at a crosswalk waiting for traffic to part. That proud face, with the unmistakable goatee. One arm held back a jacket, revealing a tight-fitting vest while the other beckoned me to come and listen. Vladimir Lenin towered over me. I was so tiny underneath him I felt I was entering an ancient temple underneath the gaze of a god carved out of brick and stone, protecting the history inside. There was no sign or announcement that I’d arrived, just an open entryway leading to a white building, marching music drifting out.

A glass window appeared as I stepped through the entryway, the kind from a movie box office with the small hole at the bottom to exchange money. Images were taped to the glass and some small mementos laid neatly behind it. A lady stood there, unsmiling as I approached and pointed to the sign. 1500 florents to enter.

I handed over the money.

She gave me a ticket.

“Guidebook?” I asked.

She pointed to a little book next to her. “one thousand five hundred.”

“Ah. Kusunum.” Thank you was one of the few Hungarian words I knew. I smiled at her and she stared back at me with the same apathetic look as before. I walked around the corner and into the park and found myself on a wide path between the brick entryway and the white wooden complex I’d seen through the door.

I didn’t see anybody else in the park. A river of cars flowed by in the distance. I hadn’t bought the guidebook, and didn’t know where to start, so I went right, where a bronzed man proudly held a flag, a gun strapped tightly to his chest, memorializing the liberation of Hungary by the Red Army. The soldier was immense and looked proud and it was difficult to determine if the solider brought with him freedom or slavery. The memorial said liberation; he looked like a conquering hero.

Hungary is a nation which has always been strong enough to maintain a vibrant and unique culture, but not always strong enough to be independent. It was absorbed by the Hapsburg Empire in the 17th Century, after control of the land was wrestled from the Ottoman Turks. The Revolutions of 1848 began process which forced upon the Hapsburgs the Dual Monarchy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire which lasted until the end of the First World War.

The years between the wars were chaotic at first. Hungary elected Count Mihály Károlyi to lead the new state. A devotee of the west, he demobilized the military and accepted temporary borders, believing the final map to be drawn at a later date. Everyone else invaded. French, Serb, Czechoslovakian and Romanian troops all occupied Hungarian territory; as all inched further and further into Hungary, Károlyi lost support, eventually handing control to, he thought, the Social Democrats.

The force behind the Social Democrats was the Hungarian Communist Party, and their leader, Bela Kun, was installed as leader and the new Hungarian Soviet Republic was born in the Spring of 1919.

It was short lived.

Romania continued to push deeper into Hungary, eventually occupying roughly a third of the modern state. Kun asked for an armistice, the Romanians temporarily agreed. Despite intervention from the Entente Powers, Romania refused to move back to the pre-war border until Hungary demobilized, and Hungary refused to demobilize until Romania moved back.

The two nations came to blows again, and the might of Romania won out; advancing to Budapest and controlling nearly all of modern Hungary, Romania forced Kun from power (he fled to Austria and eventually the Soviet Union). The former Austro-Hungarian Admiral Miklós Horthy was installed as regent and ruled until 1944 – when once again Hungarians would lose control over their nation. First occupied by Nazi Germany, the Red Army lay seige to the city, and by 1945 would liberate the nation. Hungary would be a Soviet satellite state until the end of the USSR.

* *

Next to the soldier stood a monument to Soviet-Hungarian friendship, the first of many such memorials in the park. Every decade or so, the Soviet powers seemed to deem it necessary to remind Hungarians of the friendship between Moscow and Budapest and the whole process brought to mind the apocryphal story of the triumphant Roman General and the slave who would follow him through the streets, whispering in his ear, “You too are mortal.” The Soviets brought liberation and proclaimed freedom and all the while their monuments came with a whisper, tangible mementos reminding people of power and control.

Faces began to appear. Dmitriov, leader of communist Bulgaria and advocate of a trans-Balkan Slavic state. Kun, Landler, and Szamuely shared a memorial together, three of the leaders of the initial Hungarian Soviet Republic etched in stone and jutting out of a brick wall as if they were part of the wall, the inward face of the communist state, guarding against what lie outside. János Asztalo, member of the Communist party in 1956, killed while defending party headquarters. His nose is missing, with no mention if it was purposeful or just the result of age.

It is the forgotten history of Hungary, a park of statues which tried to Hungarians forget their own past and create one anew.

* *

I discovered later the first ring of the park focused on liberation movements. It spanned the whole run of Communist Hungary. The statue memorializing Hungarian “liberation.” Bela Kun and the initial steps towards a communist state after the First World War. Janos, and the revolution of 1956.

The Revolution of 1956 did not just alter Hungarian history. It fundamentally altered the way in which the Soviet Union administered its empire. What began as a peaceful protest turned violent after shots were fired outside the Parliament building, the first real threat to Soviet control of Eastern Europe since Nazi Germany. The Soviets were not prepared – the Stalinist regime in Hungary collapsed, and Hungry declared its intentions to leave the Warsaw Pact only to have Soviet troops invade, crush the uprising, and install a puppet regime, silencing dissent until the 1980’s.

The blockade of Berlin changed the Cold War in that it clearly marked a smoldering conflict. It was a move by the Soviets to force the West out of Berlin, and possibly out of Germany. The detonation of an atomic bomb increased the tension, and led to Mutually Assured Destruction. The Hungarian Revolution, seven years later, marked a different theme – the willingness of the Soviet Union to crush any uprising within its newly-formed empire. Like the Prague uprising of the next decade, the Soviets reacted to revolutions within satellite states as if they were revolutions within the homeland.

In the west, they may well have been. No matter the emotional pull of the November Uprising – Time awarded its ‘Man of the Year’ to the Hungarian Freedom Fighter in 1956 – the west did not attempt to push back. President Dwight Eisenhower, an advocate of pushing back Soviet advances, declined to intervene, fearing a third World War with nuclear weapons. After 1956, the Soviets had free reign in Eastern Europe. Containment won out over interference.

* *


I kept moving through the statues. The glorification of the Soviet Union ended as I moved into the second loop, focusing on workers movements. Monuments to Hungarian communists began to appear. The Red Army may have liberated the nation, but the memorials they installed were local, focused on the homegrown Hungarian movement. A mass of silver people appeared on the left, layers of men, the front row marching while the back rows seem to break rank and give a sense of charging forward. Over the top stands a man in a thick coat, arm straight out to one side with a cap in his hand, pointing the way for the mass of revolutionaries below.

Bela Kun appears again and again to stands watch, though for many years he did not.

The First World War changed everything within Europe. “It had been World War I that legitimized armed conflict in a way no other war had or could,” writes Robert Kaplan, “the emblematic and meaningless sum total of all the wars that Europe had fought in its thoroughly violent and therefore discredited past.” The war did not end all wars, but it brought an end to the sense of order within Europe. War no longer renegotiated the balance of power – it had become total.

The end brought with it the last gasp of air from Central Europe. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire saw Central Europe emerge, briefly, as a series of nation-states. Kun was part of this, the brief leader of Communist Hungary. By the early thirties, with depression spreading worldwide and the early murmurings of Nazi Germany, Central Europe would begin its slide into history.

Bela Kun bridged one era to another. Communist Hungary existed for a blink before he fled. When the Soviets returned, Kun was not with them, having been caught up in Stalin’s purges in 1938.

* *


I reached a monument of three bodies which, at first glance, had no faces. The individuals stood tall and broad-chested, hands saluting someone in the distance. This was a recurring theme – staring off into the horizon, looking towards the future or, at the least, towards some other, far-away meaning. After seeing so many with this theme, I started I felt small and like I was not part of the movement, which was probably the point.

As I moved closer, features appeared in the faces of the three soldiers. The monument was to the communist brigades which fought in the Spanish Civil War. They looked beaten and smoothed by weather, but it may have been a purposeful move. Other monuments also contained unrecognizable faces, I presumed to subvert individuality to the collective whole.

This last ring focused on the people’s movements themselves, not just the individuals leading them. A bronzed man held his jacket in his hand as if a flag, frozen in time as he rushed forward towards some life-defining event. He was a celebration of the first version of Communist Hungary by its alternative name – the Hungarian Republic of Councils.

When Kun and the Social Democrats took control of Hungary in 1919, the Communists had the only organized fighting force in the state. Károlyi’s demobilization left Hungary without means to fight. The Social Democrats – who merged with the Hungarian Communist Party – were not only the most popular political group in the state at the time, Kun also promised the help of the newly formed Red Army.

No help was forthcoming.

Given the circumstances of Kun’s death, the sheer number of images dedicated to him was impressive. His presence trailed me around the park, part of every ring of memory. The first ring contained a monument of three blocks of stone, each with an individual carved out. The two outside faces stared towards the middle; and the man there stared straight ahead, jacket neatly buttoned and hair swept back. Bela Kun seemed to have a strong jaw, and even in the stone his face seemed weathered. His hands rested at his sides and proved his most ominous feature, his left clenched into a fist and his right open, as if ready to extend friendship. Tibor Szamuely and Jenő Landler, two other individuals instrumental in the creation of that first communist state, simply looked to Kun for guidance.

Further down was a solid concrete block with a single star in the middle. The concrete was chipped away exposing steel rods which helped articulate individuals, soldiers – though again, never enough to define features. It was a celebration of the Volunteer Regiment of Buda, Hungarian soldiers who fought with the Red Army to free Hungary from the Germans.

I lingered in this section for longer than the rest. Here was the epochal history of modern Hungary, a focus on the historical forces which swept through the nation. The stone and bronze testified to the youthful rise and the angry fall. The reminders of Soviet-Hungarian friendship seemed to get harsher and larger, harder to miss. In a corner of this third ring a man falls forward with one hand in the air and the other over his heart. In ways it was the same man as earlier, the youthful man who led the way with his jacket in his hand. There, he was fighting for a communist state. Here, he was protecting it, fighting against the 1956 uprising, protecting the people’s republic.

This last ring was a testament to the forces which went into that state. In 1989, Hungary removed the fence along the border with Austria, which resulted in a flood of movement across the border into the west. Later in the year, the Communist party re-branded itself as the Hungarian Socialist Party and by 1990, Hungary was holding free elections.



As the 1980’s dragged on, there was a growing sense of Austrians being better off. While partially due to an economic downturn which lasted most of the decade (and inevitably helped push the country towards the end of communism), it was also true. By the 1980’s, the west was pulling economically ahead of Eastern Europe.

But it also once again brought a theme of division. Hungary – or perhaps the Hungarians – had always existed near the schism between Western and Eastern Europe. Imperial Roman territory stretched to the Danube, which splits the nation in half, and Rome’s primary settlement formed the basis of Budapest. From the collapse of that empire until the early 1700’s, Hungary remained a crossroad, conquered by Huns, Germanic tribes, Mongols, and Turks. Along the way, the nation realized a series of homegrown regents and became one of the most wealthy nations in Europe. For a few years the Hungarians found themselves with a King who was simultaneously the head of the Holy Roman Empire; nearly a century later, Budapest would be under threat from the Ottomon Turks, eventually conquered by them and only freed in 1718.

On the Hungarian Plain, two historical rivers met and swirled together.

The regency ended after the First World War, but the crown remained emblematic of Hungary. Patrick Leigh Fermor described it as the defining symbol of this congruence: “Wrought in battered gold, with its culminating cross askew, it was the actual diadem Pope Sylvester II sent to St. Stephen when he was crowned first King of Hungary in AD 1000. But the later addition of enamel plaques, gold chains, and pendant gems give it an unquestionably Byzantine look, fitter for a mosaic sovereign by the Bospherous or at Ravenna, one would think, than for a canopied monarch of the west. No wonder: the gold-and-enamelled circlet was a gift of a Byzantine emporer to a later sovereign, who promptly had it clasped round the Pope’s original gift to his ancestor, and the gleaming hybrid is an apt symbol of the early Hungarian kingdom, for blandishments from the East as well as the West had flickered over the great Hungarian Plain with the ambivalence of a mirage.”

As I stood in the park, the borders to the east were closed. Movement into Croatia or the rest of the Balkans was impossible except by air. Refugees from the Middle East triggered a conservative response within Hungarian government. The nation, meanwhile, continued to move towards the west. Though an ancient city, dating from Roman times, the people and culture were young, bars and coffeeshops marking the map of the city. Students were everywhere and English was common.

Memorials can be removed, but art and architecture and design cannot. Though Budapest may look western and be moving in that direction, the city held too many memories of the communist years. New memories had been added – walk along the river and one will find bronzed shoes, a remembrance of Jews ordered to take off their footwear before being shot along the riverbank.

The city was alive and vibrant, built upon layers of history difficult to untangle while facing another moment adding to that layer of history.


In an essay on Orwell and censorship, Christopher Hitchens writes that in Orwell’s own experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War, he found “that the Communists relied very heavily upon the horror and the terror of anonymous denunciation, secret informing, and police espionage.” While it is easy to remember the Soviet Union and communism as a police state – in addition to oppression, the statues surely reminded Hungarians of their own mortality if they were to speak out, especially post-1956 – in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, there were doubts as to the oppression of the Soviet Union. Communists had, after all, been the ideological force fighting Nazi Germany during the 1930’s, when the West was struggling.

The memorials stored in Memento Park were an attempt to re-write history. Here was the physical evidence of what Communist Hungary wanted to remember. Hindsight calls communism what it was – totalitarian – but at one point, it was a possible version of the future. Like all eras, communism had its end, yet Memento Park brings the reality of living in it one step closer. For the man with his jacket in the air, running towards history and the liberating solider gripping his gun may now be historical symbols in the open air of a far-away park; but at one time these were the icons Hungarians passed on their way to work.


Posted by: cousindampier | 19 April 2016

The Great Road Trip: Part IV


Curtis looks west and John Muir speaks: “That memorable day died in purple and gold…”

San Diego.  San Diego. San Diego.  The engine screamed out the sound of the road, every turn of the belt singing out our destination as the sky grew first dark and then black and all that the world became was the flow of the road, the red river moving west and the white flowing east.

Flagstaff was marked by some burritos, California by a bridge, Los Angeles by light on the horizon and taillights in front of us and a turn south. I opened the window, hoping to smell ocean instead of exhaust.   The air was warm, a blanket of California sky wrapping layers around us, making the cold of Colorado and the Rockies and the high desert where we’d begun the day disappear.

The Nissan hummed along the freeway until we moved around a step curve and suddenly the freeway dropped us right into the heart of San Diego and Curtis and I were on 10th Avenue, the speed of the highway gone and everything moving by slowly.  The night also seemed gone.  The lights of the city chased away the loneliness and sublime of nighttime in the desert where the only sign of life was the yellow lines disappearing as quickly as they’d arrived.   In the city night was marked by the luminescence of a thousand people moving in a thousand directions, all showcased by the lights of storefronts and bars and streetlamps.

We were in San Diego because we had to turn north somewhere and we didn’t want to yet.  North meant home and home meant the math of school debt, living upstairs from my parents and wondering if I’d really made the right decision in passing up school the previous fall.  We’d thought about going to Vegas and cutting up through the deserts of Utah; or heading to Reno and then San Francisco.  Both of us had our own reasons for picking San Diego, and at the same time we only chose it because it was as far west as we could go.

Curtis had a friend in the city, a Spokane transplant, staying at the Hotel Salomar.  We circled it like birds, eyeing parking spaces until we found a city garage with a spot up at the very top, and put the Nissan to sleep after thirteen hours and a few thousand miles.

And for the first time in our journey, Curtis and I split up.

His friends headed out to a nearby bar, and I was off to meet my own friend, Sandra from San Diego.  We’d become friends years ago in the DC airport, waiting for a flight to Denver which materialized late.  I was eating a bag of chips and had just turned around to throw them away; Sandra was right behind  me and I nearly knocked her out with my elbow.  A few years were gone since I’d seen her but in the heat of the San Diego night, she was unmistakable, standing on the street corner in a long black jacket, wry smile still on her face. It was as if the Hollies had written that song for her, a long cool woman in black jacket.

I found the jacket funny and told her so.  Only later did I understand that just because San Diego is southern California doesn’t mean it’s always warm.

Others connect you to names long forgotten, places long gone.  DC was a place I’d been, part of my story and though I’d moved on, seeing Sandra brought it back.  I’d met her the last time I was ever in the city, at a friend’s wedding, a bipolar weekend of stunning happiness and extraordinary difficulty, during a time I was drifting.  I was ecstatic to be fleeing DC for the final time, and since I have thought it fortunate I met her when I did.  Soon afterward I would leave for Asia and meet Jon and Saranna and Davinia, hold baby Minar, and begin to realize that embracing the chaos of life was much better than attempting to bring order to it.

We spent some time in a bar catching up.  I was delighted to see her.  We’d occasionally chatted, but always with gaps of time.   “What are you doing these days?”

I told her I had no idea.  School was still an option, but the expense made me hesitant.  Besides I didn’t know how going to an expensive school was going to help me be a writer and that’s what I wanted and…I trailed off.  “What about you?  Now that you’ve moved there, how do you like Los Angeles?”

It was different than she’d imagined.  She’d moved there from San Diego with the highest of hopes about a career in the music industry, and now she was thinking of moving back.  It was difficult and disillusioning.

“What are you going to do back in San Diego,” I asked her.

She shrugged.  I felt the same.  I hadn’t thought about my future since I stepped on the train.  Wasn’t the point of this drive to forget all that?

San Diego on a Friday night was drunk.  We bar hopped and I got to see some of it and eventually Sandra had to go, headed to Mexico the next day, family there and I wandered the streets with no real destination.  I was wandering like we’d been driving, no real idea in mind.  Sometimes I was lost in thought and others I was watching people puke in the street and others I was dodging six figure cars.  I heard something which sounded like gunshots and saw lights fly past and eventually the boxy ambulance followed and someone tried to rob someone and it didn’t go well and I kept walking in circles until it was two am and I hadn’t seen Curtis since eight.

I stumbled back to the hotel where the party was dying down, a pizza box on the table and the television blaring something .  I fell asleep with the sense that everything was going to be all right.  

*  *  *

Curtis and I slept in, and much like the day before I awoke to Curtis milling about, his engine already running except this time he was sitting in the window, coffee in hand, and only in his underwear.  

We didn’t have anything planned, so we headed to explore San Deigo’s beer scene.

Beer and Southern California have a long history.  The earliest brewery opened in 1896, and before Prohibition went into effect seven breweries were operating in the region.  Prohibition killed the brewing movement, and by the time small breweries grew again, the Big Three American Breweries (Coors, Miller, Anheuser-Busch)  already controlled the American market.  

The shift away from the big three began in the 1970’s, with the legalization of homebrewing.  Brewpubs followed in the 80’s, and in the 1990’s, the first new regional breweries emerged.  Stone was one of the first leaders of the movement, and remains the most known brand today.  The early version of Port Brewing emerged at the same time as Stone.  In recent years, Ballast Point and Green Flash emerged with multi-state distribution. 

To Curtis and myself, it was a small slice of heaven, and we started with a lunch beer at Stone.  

During the drive to Escondido we never seemed to leave buildings behind.  We passed through the greenest of hills with gray block buildings never far away, a low-level, a continuing civilization which intruded but never stood out, a city that never ended.

We nearly missed the inconspicuous turnoff to the brewery.  A left off the highway put us in a parking lot, and a path led to a garden, high stone walls covered by leafy branches; through the walls lay a glass-enclosed entryway and brewpub, a patio sitting in the sunlight and enormous maturation tanks sitting behind yet more glass.  We’d walked into a museum, a glass monument to the twenty years of Stone Brewing’s existence.  Lending truth to the name, there was actual stone everywhere – the bar, the toilets, surrounding the patio.  

In a way it was all grandiose.  We’d been on the road for so many miles that sitting in such a monument was uncomfortable.  Big cities can leave everyone feeling equal, but big buildings can leave you feeling poor, and though I loved Stone’s beer, in the brewhouse I felt out of place, somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be.  I was invading a world which was a station above my own.  After a beer we left, retracing our steps through the enchanted, shadowed paths to the modernity of the parking lot and headed south, back to San Diego and the city and the beach.  

The west still called.  A quick glance at a map shows Coronado to be an island.  Look closer, and a thin peninsula runs south, connecting it to the mainland and forming a barrier to the sea, creating the beautiful harbour that is San Diego.  

The Navy is here because of that harbour.  The naval influence on San Diego reaches back to Spain.  The harbour drew Europeans to the southwestern coast of America, and the first part of California settled was San Diego.  The United States acquired California after the Mexican-American War, and half a century later, in the late 1800’s San Diego was connected to the Trans-Continental Railroad and the military money started flowing.  San Diego was the gateway to Hawaii, the Pacific, and Asia; and as the American Navy grew to a two-ocean Navy, San Diego became one of the most important harbours on the west coast.

It remains so.  Walk around downtown on a weekend night and the gaslamp district is covered by Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines.  As we drove across the bridge to Coronado, a long, looping curve necessitated to reach the 200 foot height mandated by the Navy, the harbor opens up and shares its corners.  It is as if we were on a low-level aircraft, buzzing the bay; but we flew by, on to the Pacific.

Coronado is rich.  We drove by multiple story homes with perfect lawns, painted as if out of a catalog and eventually pulled to a stop in front of one of them, white with some orange trim, a block away from the beach.  We were somewhere surreal. A day ago we were diving out of the Nissan into snowbanks and flowing down roads into wide valleys and watching peaks fight with clouds for control of the skies.  

Kids ran through the waves, splashing and squealing with laughter before running back out.  In the distance the Hotel del Coronado stood, its red roofs calling out to the beachgoers as if a lighthouse.  The main building is over a century old, and the rooms run at $300 per night – a luxury, wooden beach resort, one of the tallest wooden structures in the United States.  People walked along the beach, feet in water and heads in sunshine, trekking back and forth across the sand.  

Curtis and I tossed a frisbee back and forth, a New Belgium one that the company graciously gave us.  Neither of us had proper swimwear.  I was wearing cargo shorts and Curtis the same.  As the waves lapped higher and higher, the shorts seemed to double in weight.  As we tossed the disc back and forth, we were together but alone with our thoughts.  From San Diego onwards, we were headed home.  California, San Francisco, Oregon, Spokane all waited for us.  We’d hit the moment in which the more we travelled, the closer we got to it being all over.  

Few things make me feel as small as the ocean.  The sun is overhead but heading west, and from the beach we can see nothing but water until the horizon takes control and the sky begins.  It was a strange feeling to be able to go no further.  We talked about getting a boat, setting sail and ending up in Wellington or Brisbane or Singapore.  Learning how to sail one summer and leaving the next, a grand adventure of the two of us versus the waves.  Mostly we just stood knee deep in saltwater and enjoyed the sunshine and the sense of the sublime. The water felt warm, much warmer than anything I’d experienced on the coasts up north, almost as if the ocean became more mature down here.  

We were comfortable now.  The first few days in Denver were spent getting used to each other, the car, and the sense of wandering.  Not having plans was initially stressful.  At home, there were always small errands to run, little accomplishments to mark my day.  Now we were finding something to do with each day and throwing ourselves into it.  The trip through Colorado and seeing Jon brought me back to a version of myself that wasn’t Spokane.  The freedom of driving through Arizona to the coast started to bring the sense of continuity – we could do this forever.  

I’d left Spokane hesitant to go, hesitant about what I’d miss – my friends hanging out, the hours at work, the small little responsibilities.  I’d arrived at the beach in Coronado no smarter nor wiser, just more serene and accepting.  

The frisbee hit the sunlight and then the water.  Curtis picked it up and threw it back to me.  Sometimes I caught it, other times it was too far and the water too heavy for me to move.  Two little girls ran from the waves as their mother watched and we did our best not to veer the disc towards them.  With a swish the disc would fly back to Curtis and then another swish towards me.  With every swish the sun sank in the sky and with every errant throw ending in a splash it dropped until it was just over the water and the wind picked up and it blew everybody back from the beach.  The warm sun became cold shade, and the water became more angry and hostile and Curtis and I retreated from the beach and headed back to the only home we needed, the Nissan.  



The engine throbbed again but nothing called to us.

The wind at Laguna Beach was warm and the water turquoise.   Ocean clouds dominated the sky, the kind that run forever into the horizon, just as epic and humbling as the water.  Driving from San Diego to Escondido, civilization never stopped but we never stopped to explore civilization.  Now, as we skipped from beach to town, we got out to get some coffee, walk along the beach, feel the warm wind on our faces.  Our jackets were thrown into the back of the car and we hadn’t needed them for days.

As we drove the reality of California grew outside our windows.  The coastline ran for so long that the Pacific became a different beast as we moved north.  San Diego and Coronado sparked visions of the tropics, the islands of the South Pacific; just over the horizon were brightly colored birds and Hawai’i and Australia.  Back home in the North, especially up along the Washington and Oregon beaches, the Pacific starts to take on a harsh demeanor, as if to remind us that this is the same ocean that runs to Alaska and has massive storms.  

We were cruising along Route 1, our music pouring out the open windows.  Outside was convertible weather, throw the top down and sunglasses on but at this point neither of us wanted to be anywhere but the Nissan, the trusty Nissan.

We headed north.  Route 1 was shut down somewhere around Santa Monica, so we cut back up through I-5 and the middle of the state.  Leaving southern California we got to see the beauty of it all, how the roads on beaches led to roads cutting through green hills.  The Nissan was driving through mountains, winding roads around mossy tree hills and then in one long stretch we left the hills of southern California and emerged into the flatlands of Central California, all the way to San Francisco.

The days began to matter.  We had a night in San Francisco and a night in Bend if we wanted it.  We become a little quieter as we headed north and the setting sun reminded me of our own time winding down and the endless dusk of California seemed to wrap us in a dark blanket.



Tall and lanky with jet black hair, Chris awaits.  My roommate at university, he now owns an apartment north of San Francisco in Marin County and works for a bank, one of the too-big-to-fail banks, researching money laundering.  The job keeps him both energized and cynical, predicting the downfall of capitalism while simultaneously brightening up when talking about drug cartels.  

We’d gone different directions since university, both part of the generation that can’t make up its mind.  I used to joke that the internet ruined us because the internet blew everything up.  Suddenly we had this platform in which to do anything, research any option, apply for any opportunity but we had no idea how to use it yet, the amount of information and options overwhelmed us and it took us too long to figure it out. 

We graduated and Chris moved back to San Francisco and I moved to New Zealand and it was the first time I’d seen him since.

He greeted us at the door.  “I’m glad you discovered how to be on time.”

We were two hours behind.  “I know.  I’m doing pretty well these days.”

Curtis falls asleep in the extra bed as Chris and I stayed up and shared a beer.  I hadn’t lost touch with him, but I hadn’t kept up in the best way.  I didn’t know a lot of the facts I should,, basic stuff about how long he’d been dating or what he did on weekends.  

As we talked, I felt bad, guilty, as if I wasn’t a good friend or person.  I’d felt the same during the first few moments in Silverton, with Jon and during the train ride over to meet Curtis – I’d really not kept up with any of them in the best way.  

Chris mulled this over with me until were only going to get five hours of sleep.  He has a real-person job, and bid me good night.  He was out early the next day, back to work and the norm of his life.   

For Curtis and I, once again the norm was finding an adventure.  I woke up with the prior night’s conversation bouncing in my head and no time to think about it because the Golden Gate was there and we had to drive across it, the sun still hanging in the eastern sky as if framing us for all the western world to see. I stared out the window, past the bay and onto the ocean, the green hills forming a doorway to the west.  Through that doorway was tough ocean, and all I could think about was pirates and sailing ships and what the first sails must have looked like coming in through that channel.  

The streets were like the movies, straight and sharply-cornered and always on a hill.  We found a breakfast place to eat and got some strong coffee before heading to the beach.  Already we were halfway between the stormy north and the calming south, the water cold and blowing in mist off the ocean but the beach is wide and sandy and long.  On warmer days, it seems the beach has enough room for the whole city.    

February is not one of those warm days, and we had the beach to ourselves.  

We walked.  Nowhere called to us, and so we traversed the beach and stood next to the water, picking up some stones and throwing them in.  It was gray, as if the water and the horizon were mixed together in some watercolour painting.   For a few minutes we simply stood and stared out at the ocean.

“Want to take a walk up the hill,” I turned to Curtis

“Let’s do it, Abester.”

We left the Nissan behind and started walking back to the seawall at the end of the beach, and then left up the road.

Later I found we were hiking up Point Lobos Road, the house in the distance being Cliff House with Sutro Heights Park and Lands End beyond.  At the time, it was just a house in the gray distance.  We passed it and climbed down to the paths on the hill behind it, walking parallel with the shore as we stared down at it.  The beach looked sad from up there, in the way that it seemed as if something was lost and was never to be found.

We headed into the woods, vaguely thinking of finding Lands End. Mostly, it was for the hike.  In a half day we’d seen San Francisco the monument; San Francisco the city; San Francisco the beach and now we got San Francisco the urban forest.  

The trees covered us from the gray clouds above, and we dodged in and out of green-walled paths, sometimes wandering alongside a golf course.  The ocean was never far away, always roaring at us, simultaneously telling us to come back and warning us to stay away at the same time.  Some others walked different paths as we passed them – a lady with a dog, a couple holding hands –  and we joked about doing the same.  

Curtis found a small path leading down to the shore, and we followed it, down some wooden stairs dark with mud and around a hairpin curve where we saw some trash and a campsite.  It straightened out and went on a small rise narrowly through some dirt except the dirt had suddenly turned to beach sand, when did that happen? and suddenly we were there, somewhere around Lands End and the bridge appeared before us.

We were on a cliff.  Not a massive one – it could also be a small hill with a sheer drop at the top, but either way it was under some trees and dry and we stared east across the bay to the bridge, sitting there massive and stoic, arching across the water like it was there centuries before humans ever arrived. 

And for the first time in our journey, Curtis and I stopped.  

We sat down and our eyes wandered across the scene. We were in San Francisco the museum, the living tundra and all its moving pieces contributing to the painting in front of us.  The way the sun played with the clouds at the tail end of a storm.  The freighter moving up channel and into the bay, horn blaring.  The gulls in the air and the wind moving through the trees.  We didn’t say much, just the random alerts to some interesting scene or movement.  The sun moved higher in the sky and Curtis would get up and explore our little cliff peninsula, and I sat to write, turning the collar of my jacket up as I did.  

I sat and wrote about the trip.  Travel.  Freedom.  I was holding the pen too close to its base and my fingers grew black as I thought back to my conversation with Chris.  I look at travel as not reality, I wrote, but that is just because I get sucked into all the small things, the unimportant things, and I lose track of what is urgent and important.  

There isn’t the wake-up alarm for work, the day after day repetition. Judging a place based on a few hours time is difficult and foolish, yet I do it all the time.  Everybody does it all the time.  Travel is not reality and yet it is, for it brings out the senses and adrenaline as well as the inner peace and calm; for it is through travel or any individual experience like it that one realizes life’s responsibility, the all encompassing responsibility, to be happy and to experience being alive.

As I sat and wrote, I came to understand that I wasn’t a bad friend for missing out on Chris.  I needed to figure myself out, and get rid of some of the responsibilities I was carrying around which only provided added weight, never any accomplishment.   I could not avoid the responsibilities of life, but I felt I could try to choose them as best I could while always remembering that they included that euphoria at the top of some ridge in San Francisco, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, waves crashing in and a foghorn in the distance.   They included the beautiful sense of being lost in San Diego, the surreal lack of sleep while driving through Wyoming in the middle of the night, the harsh and jagged beauty of the high desert sands covered in snow.

I put the pen down.  Time had passed, a lot of it, and Curtis was no longer beside me.  He was standing back under the tree.  

“We can’t be in San Francisco and not go to Chinatown.”

He smiled.  Time unfroze, and for the first time since leaving I looked forward to the drive north.

Curtis and me

Posted by: cousindampier | 20 November 2015

McCaw’s Final Match


Rugby sunk its teeth into me because of Richie McCaw.

In 2011, New Zealand was electric with rugby. Matches of the Rugby World Cup were being hosted throughout the country, and the national team – the All Blacks – were peaking as one of the best teams in the world. They were very likely the best, but while the first decade of the 2000’s left fans optimistic, they were also bracing for a bad match at the wrong time. 2007 was the low point, as the AB’s didn’t make the final four of the RWC for the first time since its inception; by 2010 that changed and they won 15 international matches in a row. They entered the 2011 RWC as one of the favourites.

Even for an American kid who understood little, the themes were apparent. The home team was playing in front of home fans; the pressure was immense. New Zealand is widely recognized as one of the best rugby teams of all time, but they had only won a single World Cup, the inaugural 1987 competition. They were in their prime – veterans who had played with each other through a number of tournaments. They were good – very good – but carried the weight of knowing they were good in a sport in which the bounce of a ball can be devastating.

A loss in front of the home crowd would be shocking, and questions about the direction of the program, justified or not, would arise again.

In America, only soccer and hockey can currently capture the electricity of multinational competition – Soccer has its own world cup, and despite the growing process (and pains) of the America squad, the Football World Cup is one of the single most exciting and dramatic sporting events to watch. Hockey has the Winter Olympics, and with the number of Canadians and Russians in the NHL, it makes the games tense, an American-Canadian match bringing out bad blood and vicious fandom.

American football doesn’t have the same type of drama; the state of Illinois may live or die by the Bears but the rest of the country is apathetic at best. Baseball has its own World Cup, but it does not draw the numbers nor popularity in America that it does in Latin America and Asia. Basketball is growing and now very international, but the American team is too dominant to make international competition that dramatic.

I barely knew what rugby was up until a few weeks before the tournament began, but I was working on a ski resort and there was a bar at the bottom and I could watch rugby and drink beer, surrounded by fans who were smart and passionate and who could answer the questions I had, questions like “Do they were cups underneath the shorts? Those are some short shorts.”

I was in New Zealand, surrounded by Kiwis. Gravitating towards the All Blacks was inevitable, and Richie McCaw was the face of the team. He was on the ads, the interviews; he was shown on tv whenever the All Blacks were playing. He was number seven – good luck and easy to follow, and he was distinct. Between the chest the size of a barn and the somewhat spikey hair, you knew who he was, immediately.

So they won, and I watched it from Nelson in a little bar about 10 minutes walk from the hostel I stayed at and everyone was talking to everyone else, a weight lifted from everybody’s shoulders for though New Zealand, in the end, was the dominant team there was that fear every fan had, almost permeable, that they would blow it. It was smiles and beer and cheers, and the fact that I was there to see it made me part of the club, even if I barely understood why they dived into the endzone – or whatever it was called – after a try.

So I moved back to the States and suddenly Rugby 7’s was on NBC, a faster and quicker and more random game and my dad found it immensely entertaining. I started following Super Rugby – the 15 team league based around New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa – and naturally I gravitated towards the Christchurch Crusaders, largely because of McCaw (the Hurricanes of Wellington and the Otago Highlanders remain beloved teams as well). I stared at my phone on game days, watched as much as I could and even tried to start a rugby blog.

I was hooked.

And then 2015 rolls around and it has been four years since I was in New Zealand and the RWC is happening again and the All Blacks are not old, but they are veteran; McCaw and teammate Dan Carter are probably playing in their last RWC. Suddenly the games are easy to access – I can buy a pass from NBC and watch all the games online and I get to see many of them, Japan’s upset of South Africa and the Wallabies of Australia holding on with 13 men against Wales. The final comes down to New Zealand vs. Australia, little brother vs. big. I awoke early to watch it, and even though New Zealand had an immense halftime lead, it wasn’t safe. Australia roared back.

Richie McCaw played in 148 international matches. I have not seen all of them, but in this final match he seems to be everywhere. Every tackle New Zealand needed to get, he was there. Players needed to protect the ball so it could be cleared, he was there. Setting up a beautiful pass, he was there.

Perhaps I’d finally started to understand the game, to see it better and notice the nuances more, like watching the offensive line in American football or the weakside of the court in basketball. Or maybe McCaw had the game of his life, knowing it was his last despite telling every reporter that it was a decision to be made after the tournament.

On Thursday, he retired. And as much as a 30-year old can thank a sports figure, I thank him. For being an inspiration to work hard and love what you do, but also for being the face of a team, and a nation, which hooked me on my favourite sport, the sport I get the most passionate about and the sport I will stay up until the early hours of the morning watching. It is the sport I get texts about – “I saw that team of yours on tv” – and the sport I crave to learn to play, follow, and someday, somewhere, not only to sit in a bar once more, but to sit in the stands as New Zealand plays in yet another World Cup. And so while Mr McCaw may be retired, among his many, many accolades, a tiny needle in the haystack of things he accomplished during his career, is that he got one more fan into the sport he loved.

Posted by: cousindampier | 25 October 2015


The rumoured third fight scene gets me every time.

Posted by: cousindampier | 22 October 2015

The Great Road Trip: A Route 66 Story

We drove all day.

Four Corners was muddy. Snow and rain pelted down as we turned from highway to smaller highway to dirt road and in front of us appeared what seemed to be an arena surrounded by dirty, short wooden buildings. The Nissan’s wheels churned through mud as we came to a stop.

The Four Corners are the dividing line between Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico, the only spot in the country where four states meet. Four semi-squares embedded in the ground with sharp 90 degree angles marks the location, and on a cold February day, it seems even more lonely, as if we’d travelled through nowhere to get to its middle. We were freezing in the desert and nobody was about except for a bus full of students who seemed to be everywhere at once. We walked around, jackets bundled up as far as they could go. Neither of us had anticipated the sleet and the cold, and we wore every layer we had.

The center of the monument finally cleared out and we got a couple of pictures before stepping back through the mud to the Nissan, the trusty Nissan and we headed away from the monument, west to Flagstaff and Los Angeles.

The weather remained poor as we drove west. Around a few bends, the snow came down hard enough to make visibility low and it added a strange sense to driving through the desert. On some stretches of road, we’d be by ourselves, just Curtis and me and his Nissan and the white-brown sand and the gray sky. Sometimes the sky would open just enough to allow us to see miles around, and it was like that night back in Silverton – just us against the earth. We had a destination – San Diego – but the excitement of driving to San Diego was suddenly mixed with the reality of driving to San Diego, the twelve hours we had to go.

At some point, I drifted off for thirty minutes or an hour. When I came to my senses, we were out of the desert snowfields and driving through what seemed more appropriate desert scenery. The skies were still gray, but the snow was gone and the earth took on its appropriate red and brown colours.

We were also seeing signs for Route 66.

Much like the skiiers, if one were to poll drivers about the dream roads to drive, the answer would be ‘all of them;’ yet Route 66 remains The Road, or more frequently, The Mother Road. Myth runs rampant. The singer Bobby Troup’s wife leaned over and whispered into his ear, “Get your kicks on Route 66” and a song was born. Ghosts exist. Kerouac allegedly heard the song and decided to go west, and though he only mentions Route 66 briefly, the road was the icon of the traveling beat generation. Forrest Gump ran parts of it. As America became a driving nation, and as road trips entered popular consciousness, Route 66 entered legend as the road from Chicago and the east to Los Angeles and the Pacific.

As the Interstate system came into being, Route 66 was forced out; sections of I-55, I-40, and I-44 making up the path from Chicago to the Californian Coast. Some of the road was co-opted into the new interstates and much of it was bypassed but it remains in lore with Troup’s refrain,

‘It winds from Chicago to L.A.
More than two thousand miles all the way/
get your kicks on Route 66’

And finally, somewhere before Flagstaff, we found a stretch of old Route 66, a spur moving away from the Interstate. It is a state highway now, one of those two lane roads where you are just as likely to see a tractor as a car. We pulled over and Curtis let me behind the wheel, an old pair of aviators we found in his car on my face, one of the nosepieces missing so it pinches my skin. I throw on a song – Springsteen, or maybe Everclear’s ‘Santa Monica’ since we are headed to Los Angeles, but the stretch of 66 we are on is straight and runs into the horizon, down a small grade and then it runs straight with a slight uphill, a path that leads somewhere but there are no other cars, no other people, so wherever it leads isn’t somewhere anyone wants to be.

File_000 (3)

The Mother Road

We drive, not in silence – the radio is on and I am probably singing to myself – but we’re both with our own thoughts. The road trip, that thing which Route 66 is a symbol of, is different now. We’re not out of touch and on our own unless we want to be. We can stop and take a snapshot of any place or sign or monument we want. We are instantly connected, and yet there is something in the movement, the constant movement which forces upon us the realization that nothing is happening, that being instantly connected is still a thing, but we don’t need to be because no matter how many times we check our phones, it is still just Curt and I driving along a vacant stretch of highway in the middle of Arizona and the things on our phones are the same as they were an hour ago. We are missing nothing; life back home is just the same as it once was and whatever monotony we feel in driving is overwhelmed by the sense of purpose in going somewhere.

Wherever my thoughts may be, they get snapped back to the present by red and blue flashing lights. A set of three police cars is ahead of us and the highway is roped off and I slow down to pass them. We move past a motel and a restaurant and see a sign leading back to the interstate and only then realize we have not seen a single 66 sign. There are no more of them, or just very few, because they are so iconic that people pull over and tear them down as mementos and I am sad about that because more than anything I can hold in my hand, I just want a picture of me and Route 66.

We are both looking at the road, trying to find a painted image of the highway sign when Curtis sees it in the rearview mirror. I slam on the breaks and turn around and come to a stop underneath a nest of signs, three of them stacked on top of each other, and the topmost sign was the most pleasant scene of painted metal I may have ever seen: Route 66, the old highway sign, ten or twelve feet off the ground, above the green signs proclaiming distance to wherever, impossible to steal unless you have a ladder. And we stopped and got out and took a picture and then, only then, did Arizona end and Los Angeles begin.

File_000 (2)

Posted by: cousindampier | 19 October 2015

The Great Road Trip, Part II


New Belgium welcoming Curtis and I

Jon Jay and I were drinking cognac and tea in his apartment in Almaty, probably in the dead of winter, and – as Jon is want to do – he was talking about mountains.

“If you survive the year without falling from lung cancer, going from here back to sea level will feel like the most amazing run you’ve ever had.”

I remembered all of this as I struggled through the high altitude which is Denver. Fuck, I thought as I ran through the massive park which holds the Denver Zoo, we didn’t talk about going back into the mountains.

The ground was half covered in snow and the half paved or green was filled by geese or feathers or geese droppings. I was tired, my legs were aching from the car, my lungs were burning, but those mountains were tremendous. They were not simply jutting up against the sky to make a beautiful scene because they were everywhere, surrounding me and the city. They were the normal and this flat plateau I was on was the other, and it made Denver feel somewhat utopic; like its mythical Shangri-La counterpart, running through the city that morning I had no way out but for a single mountain pass.

They would become a theme, a permanent background character during our time in Colorado and it is hard to separate my time there from them.  We spent the better part of a day in Denver, barely scratching the surface of the city, and yet what I remember is always seeing white peaks above buildings as we walked from brewery to brewery and by the time our first day there ended – exhausted, having walked a half dozen miles – even then, Denver felt like a gateway to a much larger world.

Stumbling across Kerouac in Denver

* *

After a day in Denver, where we stuffed ourselves with beer and Chipotle, Curtis and I made the trip to Fort Collins to visit New Belgium Brewery.  This was the only tour we planned, but the trip slowly began to be marked by breweries.  There’s an internet-famous map depicting the alcohol belts of Europe, and at this point, in the Western United States, we are all Germans, and I’d never appreciated it before.  In Almaty we had Балтика (Baltica) and Efes, a lager from Turkey. Baltica ran a number system – Baltica Seven was the lager, as far as I can recall, and there was a hefeweizen in there as well. They were good mostly because they were available; when Jon came back to Almaty after Christmas and brought a Dale’s Pale Ale, it – much like Denver – made me feel like I’d been living in a closet.

The New Belgium representatives in Spokane set us up well. The only time I’d ever pulled back the curtain behind beer was on a Guinness tour in Dublin, and then the experience was more about Dublin than about beer. My bosses at the Goat were good at explaining it – some might even say they nerd out about it – but as far as I knew there were big vats and fermentation and then it appeared in a can.

Making beer – large quantities of beer – is a complicated process which mixes the newest technology with some of the oldest methods. Creating beer is somewhat like creating a new car – no matter what you do to a car, the internal combustion engine is still what powers it, and that engine plus four wheels is the same basic idea as the Model T. Beer still requires the same basic ingredients and the same basic process as it did a few hundred years ago. However, wandering through the back rooms of New Belgium, everyone kept an eye on a computer, watching pressure and temperature and a list of other items. New Belgium is also out in front with sour beers – beers which need to be aged for years before they are ready to consume.

And they got us proper drunk beforehand. We walked across mosaic floors and around large vats of beer, checking out the little room where they experimented with flavours and styles, and stood above the cannery while the giant machine below rested. As we walked out into the parking lot with frisbees and hats and a few bottles of beer, coming down from the high of being treated like very important people, the exhaustion of the past two days set in. The drive from two days before weighed on us still. We made a fast stop by Odells – another great brewery – both Curtis and I could barely finish a beer, and we made it back to the hotel and all I can remember is being as tired as I’ve ever felt.


We awoke at 430 the next morning. I felt ill – tired and sick in the stomach. Curtis was alive and awake, always positive, the living manifestation of “its a good day to have a good day.” The sky was dark outside – the sun was climbing to reach the Denver plateau, but was stuck some hours away – and the snow was new and still falling. Fresh snow early in the morning makes everything seem new and wild, even a hotel complex.

Once again we found ourselves on the road to Denver as the sun crept overhead and the sky turned purple and the darkness fought to the final moment to stay around. The roads were plowed but somehow still terrible and traffic slowed us down as we made our way south until we moved off the Interstate and onto state highways, south and west to Silverton.

Outside of Denver, headed to the west, guided by Google, the New Great Road Trip map of choice. Colorado is flowing by, becoming an unearthly place, the type of landscape seen in movies but which is always some far-away land with hobbits and giants and dragons. We round a bend with a small hill to the left and mountains and mist appear, peaks reaching out of one sky and into the next. Rolling white hills border flat white fields and further into the distance white mountains surrounded by white fog. Occasionally, brown grass appears out of the white, little inkblots on the landscape which never seem to connect. The trees are green and muted, almost more gray with the sunlight and snow.

And in between the curves in the road and the mountains in the sky we hit these stretches of straight road, the Kerouac special, just the road and the powerlines fighting to stretch the furthest into infinity as we drove alongside, music blaring, windows occasionally cracked.

The way to Silverton was like this, windy and straight. It didn’t snow, not too much, and I told Curtis stories of Jon and Almaty and we talked about where to head next because anything was open, Alberquerque, Phoenix, San Diego.

By the time we reached Silverton, we’d decided on San Deigo. See Jon, have a bite to eat, and head west towards the ocean.


I’d first heard of Jon Jay a few years back, before Almaty, before Karakol – before Asia. Admiration seemed to follow him as much as adventure – Jon Jay, the man from Colorado; stuck in Bishkek, lost in Dushanbe. Zarina was the one to push me forwards towards Almaty; a few emails later I was emailing Jon; a few months later I was on the other side of the globe.

The last bit of road into Silverton was so small and windy that I thought we’d passed the city.  We’d come up through a small town about thirty minutes before and the further into the mountains we got, the more I thought we’d just driven straight through it because who lives all the way out here – but in the distance a few houses appeared and then the enrty to the town, a small roundabout; and just as quickly we were through it.

Jon was taking care of a three bedroom house just on the outskirts of the small town. He was out shoveling snow as we drove up. It was sunny out but we were still high in the mountains and he was bundled up, breath wafting up in puffs. I hadn’t seen him since we parted ways on Satpayeva Street in Almaty, but he was dressed almost exactly the same – ski hat pulled high on his forehead, long shirt and a vest over the top. I jumped out of the car and gave him a hug, wanted to use the Lando Calrissian line from Star Wars – “how ya doing, you old pirate! So good to see you!” but I likely said something much less coherent.

Davinia was there too,the same pair of glasses framing her eyes, hair a bit straighter than I remembered. Jon had to head back to work, and after a few minutes we piled into the cars, heading higher into the Colorado Rockies, up more roads twisting on the sides of mountains and through more snow falling lightly on our windows.

I’d only ever been to a few ski resorts. Working in Ruapehu was my first real experience, and the lodge was massive. Mt. Spokane was pretty big, as was Schweitzer and 49. The lodge Jon worked in was maybe 30 feet by 30, rubber mats on the floor. Most of the heating came from the crowd of people inside the room and the toilet was, quite literally, a hole in the snow. But it was warm and the beer was cold and Curtis and Dav and I sat around a table chatting as Jon worked the bar, and as groups of mostly middle-aged men flooded in, chatting them up. As far as I could tell, it was exclusively a heli-ski operation which cost a fair amount to take part in.

To each of the guys there, it was probably worth every penny. A year before, Jon and I had been in Kyrgyzstan, Karakol, and Jon met up with the guys who run 40 Tribes and knowing nothing about skiing I’d asked them if there was a certain place or mountain or run they dreamed of skiing. Both of the 40 Tribes guides and Jon had answered the same – there was no one specific run, they wanted to ski all of them.

Curtis and I were still thinking of heading out, hitting the Four Corners and pulling an all-nighter to make it to LA.

Beer kept appearing in front of us.

Curtis and I stayed in Silverton for the night.

We drove back to Jon’s and had some chili he’d left on the crockpot all day long, and then headed out to a bar called Montoyas. It was a mountain bar and had a vague sense of the 20’s, a little art deco. We walked into an empty bar, yet it felt like the most warm and hospitable place I’d ever known. Walking through the snow in the dark makes you feel alone, especially if the snow is falling. With nobody else about, you feel truly alone, like the last group of people left alive wandering through elemental earth in search of something which may or may not exist.

There is food there, a large table of snack food. A ski party has just departed, one of the big ones where they rent out the place after a day in the mountains. I attack it readily, for even though we’ve been driving along large interstates in America, where its some sort of federal law to have a Subway every fifteen minutes, I am hungry. It is something about the constant movement and not knowing the future nor where we will end up next and it makes me eat like I might not see food soon.

Davinia talks about her PhD, which needs to be finished by September. It’s about oil and gas and Kazakhstan, I think – what I’d primarily learned about it is that finishing a PhD looked like a sweet gig from the outside, because of all the travel and the funding to simply write. But inside her head were a hundred questions and directions and things stressing her out and for as monumental of a task as it would be to finish one day, it was slowly driving her insane.  Even with the pressure of finishing, she was sharper than anybody in the room, both by ability to break down whatever world event was hapeing and by ability to call out bullshit when she saw it.   The British accent helps with that – sarcasm is always more biting when British – but there was still that drumbeat which I’m sure never left her head, finish by September, finish by September.  

We walk home some hours later, buzzed, feeling warm in the snow. Jon is housesitting for the season, and aside from shoveling snow the place has two extra bedrooms and a decent kitchen and we sat up drinking more beer and Jon and Davinia and I skyped Saranna, a short Almaty reunion.

We wake up early. Too early, it is 6:12 in the morning. I am cold and have a headache from the night before. Curtis is at the door, ready to take on the day, shirtless and this just makes me feel worse about myself so I get out of bed and pretend that I’m awake and alive.

Jon is making coffee and pours it into big cups and we sit around the table, Curtis, him, and I, all of us wrapped up with thick socks on. Jon is half suited up, ready for the mountain, and he and I catch up on the last few things as Curt does some pull ups, his internal motor already turning and waiting to be unleashed. It is a beautiful Colorado morning, the fist we’ve been able to appreciate. The windows are slowly moving from black to purple to blue, and the cold is welcoming in that strange way of a warming house. Eventually it is time for Jon to go, he has to get everything ready for the first set of skiiers and I peek in on Dav, still asleep in bed and I wish her goodbye until later in the summer, and then I hug Jon and we get back into Curt’s still-dirty Nissan and we head back up and through the mountain pass to reality.

The mountains are immense. Without them, the day would be gray and cold-looking, but they conspire to bring sunlight through the clouds. We head back to Durango, two passes away, up, up, still up, and suddenly the sun is peering on a peak, the mountain proudly showing off its jagged edges and we stop and dive out of the car and into a snowbank, take a photo and then run back to the car, cold, hands burning, jeans frozen only to do it again a few minutes later at the top of one of the mountain passes. We sit in the snow and stare at the peaks playing with the sun as Taylor Swift blares over the radio behind us. The New Road Trip, scenery and music combined.

Down and out on roads overlooking valleys, broad swaths of valley like some ancient riverbed where beasts lie dormant, and then up again, trees everywhere, dominating mountainsides and as we stare up at the green and white mountainsides we miss the beginnings of the desert until we are in it, snowfields mixed with sand. Red rock and red soil covered by a fine white and the snow comes pelting down, all the way to the Four Corners, Arizona, and Route 66.

File_000 (1)

“So we go there where nothing is waiting; we find everything waiting there” -Neruda

Posted by: cousindampier | 5 June 2015

The Great Road Trip, Part I

Somewhere in Wyoming

Somewhere in Wyoming

From a distance, Whitefish, Montana looked like a town out of Austria or maybe Switzerland, a mountain town built on the curve of a lake, three or four rows of small peaked houses just as white as the snowfields in the background. The Empire Builder was still far away, moving quickly along a lake, the first time I could remember the train actually feeling like a train, but it was also the first moment I’d been awake since I left Spokane.

The sun was rising but the clouds were risen – illuminated with lines of pure white light in the sky, white snow on the ground, white ice on the lake. The inside of the train was dark and this only amplified the brightness outside and suddenly we were passing through a canyon, or between two hills but it looked as if the earth was dragged out and these were man-made and the train is forced through as if driven by a hammer, the speed picking up to get through it as quickly as possible and then the angelic scene outside is gone and I am in Whitefish.

The colour changes to brown. The railyard is like railyards everywhere, part storage, part dump, a place to be only if one is arriving or departing or picking up. We’re stopped for a few minutes so I step off the train into a pool of cold air, crisp but heavy. I step off mostly expecting a panoramic vista of mountains and snow, but all I see are some trucks and cars and the station itself and a long concrete platform.

It is around 7 in the morning, and I’ve been on the train since 1:30. I’m headed to Williston, North Dakota.


When I arrived to catch the train in Spokane, the station was dead, almost post-apocalyptic. I’d arrived about ten minutes before the train was supposed to leave, walking through the automatic doors without a care in the world, walking into a lobby of sleeping people and luggage. I only felt a rush when a station attendant found out where I was headed and quickly informed me I was likely to miss the train – it was sitting on the tracks as we spoke.

The train sat on the platform, idling, like a sleeping animal, quiet and unmoving but snoring, ready to awake. If the station seemed post-apocalyptic, the platform made me feel like I was the last human alive on the whole planet. I started walking down the empty platform, trying doors and finding them locked, generally feeling that if the rest of the world were to suddenly cease to exist, I might never know.

An attendant got off near the front and walked down the platform towards me, the only other person in existence at that moment. Politely telling me that I was lucky – they were waiting for a few minutes – she handed me a card with the Williston tag written on in sharpie and told me to grab a seat where I could find one. Climbing the stairs, I found one of the last set of double seats open, stashed everything up above, leaned back, and went to sleep.


After a quick breath of air in Whitefish, I went back to sleep, waking somewhere in Eastern Montana. A few hundred miles later I awoke again, arising as the sun was starting to settle for a new day. The car I sat in was only half full, mostly men, each one claiming two seats to himself as he stretched out and tried to sleep. A couple watched movies on laptops or phones, and everyone looked like they were headed no further than the oil fields.

The Amtrak line from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest is known as the Empire Builder. It runs 46 hours from Seattle to Chicago, one train passing in each direction per day. As I sat in the observation car and watched the sun begin to blend in with the green and yellow fields to the west, I liked to imagine the name had something to do with Manifest Destiny, something like connecting Montana the Northwest to the rest of the United States. I later discovered it was named after a railroad tycoon who helped form the Great Northern Railway.

The land was property as far as I could see, a landscape of rolling hills broken up by property lines and fences and sets of trees. I sat in the observation car and watched the sun move and listened to the women behind me. All were beyond middle-aged, and at least two of them were sisters, discussing their mother. They had the same gray wavy hair, and their faces sloped down into similar points, chins and noses. The talk of mother gave way to knitting patters and other things read in a magazine, and then the first reservations for dinner were called, meaning it was 5:30, and one of the women left to go to her cabin.

I sat sipping coffee and watching the sun play with the clouds for a long period of time. Property had disappeared, and the window revealed hills, those farm hills which roll and rise but never at too steep of an angle, covered with yellow grass and brown mud, all of it a museum behind a moving window. The sun sunk lower and lower and eventually the sunset became one where the clouds are the last mirror, keeping the day around for as long as possible before the old age of night sets in, but I leave before it is fully gone. Everyone likes to watch the sun set, but nobody likes to watch it disappear.

Sunset over Montana.

Sunset over Montana.


There is no intercom announcement as we pull into Williston, just a blue-shirted conductor in a fleece walking through the train announcing that we have ten minutes to go. The hidden shadows on the seats begin to move and suddenly guys with big shoulders and bearded faces stand up and put things in packs. They’ve all taken this trip a few times – one guy brought pillows and a blanket to sleep his way through and as the conductor walks through, they all perk up, phasing from rest to activity in a few seconds, putting things away and jackets on and beginning to line up at the stairs to get off the train.

We all want to get off the train. Fifteen hours of movement has brought us nearly halfway across the country but it is still fifteen hours in one place, walking from seats to the observation car, muscles sore from inactivity. The idea of getting off the train and doing anything is a pleasant thought, and I think this for a minute as I set foot on the concrete ground. The train station in Williston is dark, dimly lit by the lights of the town, a mass of people moving around. There are more people getting on and off than at any station so far, and just moving through them is a stop and go mess and I find myself wistfully thinking about how much easier walking through the narrow corridors of the train were until I see Curtis, waiting for me at the end of the platform.

Curtis is a few inches shorter than myself, around six feet tall. He’s got shoulders and a chest which make him look invincible, and when he smiles, his eyes narrow like something mischievous is about to happen. His black hair is nearly always just a little shaggy, hanging over those eyes and he gives me a hug as we walk to his car, asking about the ride over, and we start to drive through Williston.

“There.” He points to his left as we leave the train behind.

“What is it?”

“Those are the two strip clubs.”

Leaving the Amtrak station, they are the first two places you see crossing into Williston. More importantly, they are the last two places you see before you leave.

We head through the main drag of the town, Curtis pointing stuff out as we go, telling me about his hitch and the changes to come. The price of gas has dropped off a cliff in the last six months, and some of the rigs are winding down, disassembling and locking up shop until the price rises again. Guys are losing jobs left and right, transferring to other rigs or heading home. Curtis isn’t one of them, but even he is faced with cuts – no more meals provided in the man-camps where he stays, and he has to bring his own bedding. Williston at night is a few blocks long and low, two or three story buildings sticking out like skyscrapers. It is light, brilliantly lit for a moment and then we’ve passed through, suddenly by a massive parking lot and a big box store and Curtis is saying “well, if we want to stay we need to get a hotel” and I’m answering back “to hell with it, let’s drive” and we start out of Williston, back west towards Montana and as Curtis is driving he turns to me:

“Hey, want to see my rig?”

We start cutting down county roads, back roads, Curtis pointing out the miniature signs with his rig number on them, B22, Bravo-Deuce-Deuce. It seems as if we’ve left earth, left all people behind and we are stuck in a black ocean with the only lights those from his little Nissan, except in the distance there are radio towers which are brilliantly lit with white light, all the way up but they aren’t radio towers, they are oil rigs, the derricks little lights of civilization in the vast nothingness that makes up western North Dakota.

All the rigs seem forever away and we never seem to get close to any of them because of all the turns we take. We start circling around one, spiraling closer, that lit tower hovering to the right, and then we’re there, driving in the lot next to it around to the back side as Curtis points out the different features of the rig – where the mud gets displaced, where he works. It looks like a chained mythical beast, muscles straining as it pulls a drill up and then pummeling it into the ground again and if let loose it would destroy everything around it and begin to roam the earth.

The derrick is bright, lit all the way up, and everything around it is darkened, some lights here and there but that derrick dominates everything at night. Lit up with the night sky as background, it would seem to point the way to the sky, but sitting in the car, staring at it, it is the hilt on a sword, pointing the way down into the black gold which rests underneath.

We stare at it for a while, Curtis with pride and myself with awe. We see only one man, grabbing stuff from his car, and otherwise it seems as if the drill runs itself, and then Curtis bids it farewell until the next hitch, and we’re off, Curtis knows the way, back to Montana, back to Miles City and I-25 south and Denver.

Bravo-Deuce-Deuce, as taken by Curtis

Bravo-Deuce-Deuce, as taken by Curtis


I wake up somewhere in Wyoming. It’s 2:30 am. I’d managed to stay awake until we made it to Miles City and then south to Wyoming. I wanted to stay awake, keep conversation going so Curtis wasn’t faced with five hours of night driving alone, but I’d caught a head cold the day before I left and all that sleep on the train ride had not cured it yet. The last thing I remembered was pulling over at the Wyoming border, three semi-trucks pulled off to the side of the road around a green sign that said nothing fancy, just ‘Entering Wyoming’ where we stopped and stepped into the cold night to take a picture with the sign. We hoped it was the first of many pictures featuring welcome signs.

We’d agreed on splitting shifts, about four hours driving each, and as we pull off and fill up and use the restroom I take over, 130 miles from Cheyanne, 250 from Denver. The road was empty, maybe straight, maybe narrow, too dark to tell and with Karouac blaring through my brain and Curtis sleeping in the seat next to me, we made south through the beautiful nothing that is Wyoming at night.

* *
Dawn broke around us as we crossed into Colorado. As it did, our dream of getting pictures of the welcome signs drifted from dusk to night – the Colorado sign was well placed directly in front of an entry ramp to the highway, with little shoulder to stop on. We flew past and into the daylight.

Day begins as a halo which creeps higher and higher into the sky. We are embarked on the New Great Road Trip, the kind where we look up the closest coffeeshop and discover it opens at 5am all while zooming along at 70 miles per hour; where you pull over in a stripmall and open a door to a Starbucks with warm heat, soft music and $2 coffee and where you book a hotel room from your phone as you do so. On one had, all we have is the stuff in the car – the road is life – but while we are driving through Wyoming at 2 am and arriving in Denver along with the dawn, we also have the ability to post whatever kind of image online we want. We are disconnected because we choose to be, except for the ways in which we tell people where we’re at.

We pull off Colfax Avenue in Dever, into a long, thin parking lot. Shutting down the car which as driven four states and thirteen hours, we walk into a reception area and lounge which is big enough to seat a couple dozen people. The guy behind the desk probably just wants us out of his lobby and lets us check in early for no charge, and we somehow manage to shower before closing the curtains tight and sleeping until the afternoon.

Posted by: cousindampier | 3 November 2014

The Fall Bucket List

The summer of 2014 was busy.

But before we even get into the nonsense that is the second half of 2014, let’s watch the first 30 seconds of this:

Some questions:

-Why is there a pineapple on the Mixer?

-Can we discuss how funny the coconut slowly dripping milk is?  Because its pretty funny.  Especially since the coconut is resting on a metallic hand.

-I had to reload this video a bunch (research) and the ad before it was from Century Link, with a man in a suit selling me on how fast my internet connection would be using a cheetah as an example.  At first, this seemed like the worst possible ad to have before a Nikki Minaj video.  As I thought about it more and more, it seemed appropriate.

The rest of the video is sort of not worth watching.  Mostly.  Anyways, onto the list:

The Big Goals
Get published as a journalist – Might not happen, but progress will be made. I’ve moved on from a bland goal of “Write 1,000 words a day!” to “Write 1,000 words a day on this topic!” Organization helps, structure helps – but coming through and producing on a daily basis is really all which matters.
Complete a 50 mile race – One of the items to chart on here is 12 marathons in 12 months. The epic story of October’s marathon is pretty short: I trained for it, I got the hoodie, I came down with a cold two days before, and the worst day of the cold was race day.

Thrilling, I know.

Get a skydive certification – Starts in spring, the course lasts a month or so (it appears).
Go to Kings College for Graduate School – September 2015, and I’m in!
Tri-lingual – I won’t end up speaking three languages by next summer. But with months of work on Spanish and Russian, yada, yada, ya. Even I’m falling asleep discussing this one.

The Seven Continents and Seven Seas, Plus One
North America (Not the USA) – If I don’t make it to Canada in the next ten months, this whole list gets scrapped. Seriously, It’s like a ten minute walk from my front door.

Education-based Goals
Get a Master’s Degree – The process will begin.
Learn not to die in the rail park on a snowboard – a season’s pass ought to help. Having said that, I should probably buy a helmet.*
Learn to make three really good meals without recipes – The best part of this list might be its vagueness with goals such as these. What are three really good meals? Who knows! Maybe I get to make killer Mac and Cheese and couple it with guacamole and call it classic.

But seriously, probably time to learn to cook.

Learn three kinds of tie knots – A few weeks ago, I was walking into a grocery store to buy a snack before work. Out front was a kid standing in front of a table, wrapped in a fall jacket. Against all better judgement, I didn’t divert to the far away entrance, and instead kept walking and as I approached earshot, the kid starts to ask if I want to buy some food to support the Boy Scouts.

I kind of brush the kid off, saying “no but good luck” only to take one step inside the store and realize that I’m probably a jerk, this kid is just trying to raise money, and he’s probably had a hundred people say no to him so far.

So I go back outside and spend $10 on a goddamn bag of caramel corn.

Anyway, the point of this is that I’m going to learn to tie some knots so I can sell bags of caramel corn for $10.

Coolest Activities
Climb a 4,000 meter peak – Rainier, I’m looking your way. I need some practice to get on top of Rainier** and I don’t know if the spring will allow for that – well, that and I need a climbing partner to do this. I think. The point of this all is that will need an extended vacation at some point.
Bungee Jumping – I don’t know if I can do this in Seattle, but a quick google search does reveal stuff in Vancouver. Canada! It is time I return to the land of my ancestors.
Drink Absurdly Expensive Scotch (older than myself) – Yeah, so, uh…anybody got some lying around?

Greatest Cities
Vancouver, Canada – I can get something like four things crossed off if I go here.
San Francisco, CA – Because I feel like making earthquake jokes for the better part of a weekend. And I haven’t had the pleasure of driving Chris crazy for a while.

The Others
Start my own podcast – The idea is already mapped out. The dialogue to the first episode is already written out. It just need be recorded and built upon.  Well, that and a partner.
Make money independently of being hired by a company – It just has to be one article. Somewhere.
Do 1,000 pushups within an hour – I’m bad at pushups. This will not be fun.

The Others
52 Books – So far:
Paulo Coehlo – Adultery
Sebastian Junger – Fire
Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Clandestine in Chile
Learn to Rock Climb – I even learned how to belay, which is where you keep the other person from dying. A useful skill!
Do a Trail Marathon – Races are dumb, and that is why I enjoy them.

South America – Chile and Colombia are priorities. Probably not now, but soon.
Statue of Liberty – New York is not totally out of the question. Just likely.
Grand Canyon – Is it conceivable I fly to Las Vegas, rent a car for a day, and drive there? Yes. Is it a good idea? You may never hear from me again.
Montreal, Canada
Santiago, Chile and Bogota, Colombia – just in case that trip happens.


Posted by: cousindampier | 30 October 2014

Clandestine in Chile

A review of Clandestine in Chile by Gabriel García Márquez (the story of Miguel Littín)

As a child, some things seize a person and never let go. It can be an enjoyment of riding horses, or a lifelong love of a sport, but it grabs you at a young age and becomes a guide.

Perhaps rather obviously, mine was travel. As a child, I was imagining other places thanks to maps and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and to dive further down that rabbit hole, certain places attracted me more than others for no apparent reason.

This is, obviously, about Chile; the Chile I imagined and the Chile I’ve come to know, and the Chile I may find when I visit, for South America, and Chile in particular, drew my fascination at that young age. Perhaps because it was shaped so differently – a long, thin country bordering the Pacific with enormous mountains and a catastrophic desert – or perhaps it was because to my six-year old self, Chile was a food (Hungary is another country I’d quite like to visit).

It was a place I wanted to go, but it was a place I knew almost nothing about. Allende and Pinochet were names and vague stories, but simply that. I doubt I knew Salvador and Augusto until my late teens.

In his memoir, Christopher Hitchens shares an anecdote about the other September 11 – The Chilean day. Speaking at Whitman College in Walla Walla on September 10, 2001, he optimistically declared that the next day was to be a landmark day for human rights, as the family of a murdered Chilean general was to bring suit against Henry Kissinger in Washington D.C. Things transpired differently, and 9/11 is viewed as a landmark day for human rights in a very different way, but knowing about Pinochet and that day in 1973 gives 9/11 an additional level of tragedy.

Marquez’s tale of Miguel Littín’s return to Chile is, of course, supposed to bring those emotions to bear. It is a tale of Chile – repressed, pushed down, kept in check. It contains its elements of sadness, not as much for the way things used to be, but rather of the hope which was lost when Allende was overthrown and died. Overnight, the reality in Chile did not just shift; it completely changed. In 1973, Littín was Chile’s most famous filmmaker, having directed quite possible the most popular Chilean film in history. Barely escaping execution during the coup, he was exiled to Mexico, and in the 1980’s moved to Spain.

Spawned during this time was the idea of returning to Chile in disguise and filming a documentary about life under Pinochet. Dramatically changing his appearance and accent, Littín became a Uruguayan businessman interested in filming a commercial in Chile; and to this end, stationed three film crews throughout the country, each ignorant of the other’s presence, each there to interview resistance leaders and film Littín’s journey.

The most powerful part of Littín’s journey is discussing the cult of Allende and the memory of Pablo Neruda. Amongst the people Littín talks with, Allende is still revered, still referred to as the president; and as his grave and Neruda’s residence both sit in Valparaiso, that city is the center of the romantic death of Chile’s future.

Littín’s journey is also a tale of remembrance, and the impossibility of going back. He finds the leaders of the resistance were grade-school children when he left, and while he still views Chile for what it was, they view Chile for what it is and could be. This difference brings another heartbreak to reality, the heartbreak of the impossibility for Littín to ever return, for even if Pinochet falls the Chile of the future will never be the Chile he remembers.

Pinochet’s coup, and the military dictatorship which followed, governed Chile from 1973 until 1990. American involvement stemmed from the black and white nature of the Cold War: Allende was a marxist, and therefore was on the Soviet side. Thousands of people went missing and hundreds of thousands were banished into exile; and before Pinochet relinquished power an Amnesty law was passed to protect members of the military junta from prosecution. He was arrested in London in 1998 on the grounds of universal jurisdiction (under which crimes committed are considered crimes against all, and not simply within one state). He returned to Chile in 2000 to find the amnesty system broken, and was brought to trial in 2004 for kidnapping and torture, only to die in 2006.
It is difficult to find words to say about the Allende tragedy. The Cold War brought out the extremes in both America and Russia; some of the best scientific advances and some of the worst human rights abuses occurred during those 50 years, and Littín’s journey brings home a sense of embarrassment. Knowing Chile’s history since the 1990’s, one might say the Chilean people have made a remarkable recovery – but it still necessitates a recovery.

It is an obvious first question to ask any Chilean, but it has proved to be a difficult one to get an answer for. Asking someone how they feel about the most traumatic moment in their nation’s history has no easy answers, especially for those whose memories are largely post-Pinochet, but whose parents still remember. I know how I feel about the latter 9/11; I don’t know how I feel about Vietnam, or the American Civil War, outside of answers in a historical context. I’ve visited the Vietnam Wall several times, and while the grief is not literally tangible, voices get quieter, children stop running, and people move a step slower. What I understand is, simply, that I don’t, and perhaps never will.

And yet it adds to an interest in Chile, an interest which existed back to the days I wanted to sail the Pacific and search for treasure, but one coached in a context I did not understand then. I have a number of friends in Chile – friends I’m excited to see, who will show me the country and tease me for my poor Spanish – and it is a nation of extremes and outdoors adventure I dream of visiting, and with it comes a history I can see but never really touch, except through a Littín and Marquez, Bolano and Neruda, and, if lucky, through the stories of people who lived it.

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