CDS Column: Freedom, Iceland and Campervans

14188326_1604753102884102_6073273407149284030_oIn Iceland it’s easy to rent a camper van.

They are everywhere, little Citroens, Peugeots and Ford Transit Connects rigged with curtains, beds, sinks and stoves. They zip up and down the two-lane highways like miniature delivery trucks pulling over wherever to offer overnight accommodation.

There are bigger Mercedes Sprinter vans and full campers, too, and even rigs that look like a cross between an RV and military transport, go-anywhere-campers equipped with huge tires and undercarriages that ride feet above the road, but it’s the little camper vans that buzz around the desolate isle like bees, their occupants in search of adventure.

And there are adventures to be had in Iceland — glaciers, mountains, geysers and waterfalls, hiking trails and hot springs, whale watches and black sand beaches. The country is crawling with visitors, mostly Europeans but Americans and Canadians, also, there to see volcanoes and ice caps, to ride horses and explore ice caves.

And when the day is over, they pile into their delivery vans, find an empty parking lot and go to sleep.

This isn’t like New Hampshire, where landscape and pine forests might conceal the little red cars with names like “Happy Camper” and “KuKu Camper” pasted on the side. Iceland is a barren place; lava flows coated in emerald moss stretch for miles. It would be easy to veer off the blacktop and just drive almost anywhere, no obstructions for miles. Far-off mountains, plateaus and camper vans dot the landscape, all in clear view. Scenic viewpoints and dirt pull-offs everywhere become impromptu campgrounds each night, three or four cars to a lot.

14124927_1603110626381683_7502455490426160407_oBut no one minds, and no one complains. The police — there are few in Iceland — aren’t about to break up the party. No one is asked to move along. It’s just not a problem, something part of the culture.

And it’s not just the cars: In Iceland you can go almost anywhere. There are trails crisscrossing private land, and tourist sites sit adjacent to homes. Iceland is just open. Anyone can go anywhere. Roads might be posted for vehicles, but walkers can go pretty much anywhere.

The rules are codified in the Icelandic Nature Conservation Act, which stipulates “everyone has the right to travel around the country and enjoy its nature,” according to the website of the Environment Agency of Iceland, “as long as the traveller is tidy and careful not to damage or otherwise spoil natural resources.”

It is “permissible to cross uncultivated private property without seeking any special permission” in Iceland. “Landowners may not hinder passage of walkers alongside rivers, lakes and ocean, or on tracks and paths.”

The result? A country where everyone is free to wander, welcome to roam. Backpackers pitch tents in any open field, walkers wander along exposed clifftops, and car-campers park for the night anywhere they please.

Another result is less concrete by no less real: a feeling of openness, of freedom, of unrestrictedness, a right to be where you are. It is a feeling unfamiliar in America. But in Iceland no one is ever going to ask you to move. They aren’t going to ask you to explain yourself, to demand you produce your ID. The default assumption is you have the right to be where you are, to stand where you are standing and walk where you are walking. Private property is not so private to exclude you access to it.

It is a different version of freedom, one that runs deep on the island of fire and ice. It even extends to the national parks: There are no entrance fees, no gates or rangers. The mountains, waterfalls, natural hot springs and glaciers are all open; there are no ticket sales. Iceland may be expensive — it is an island, after all, and imported goods cost accordingly — but to gain access to the land is free.

Contrast that with our version of freedom, the version so vehemently celebrated in the Live Free or Die state. Here the word means not universal access to the land but the right not to be bothered. “My home is my castle.” “Don’t tread on me.” Freedom is a celebration of a place where I do not have to fear interruption.

Here in New Hampshire — and in America — freedom is a form of protection, a cloak, a warm blanket to wrap ourselves in. It shields us from the darkness and the night, all the terrifying and unwanted things crowding outside our doors.

But freedom doesn’t have to mean that. Iceland lives a different version. Freedom there is not the protection of a closed door but the chance to throw open the windows. It is a chance to abandon home completely and explore the world, to wander and get lost without fear of persecution, to head for the horizon without risk of reprisal. It is the right to exist exactly where you are, to not apologize for standing in place no matter where that place is.

Maybe everyone grows accustomed to the version of freedom they are born into, the version they grow up with. But those camper vans dotting the highway, those hikers pitching tent in empty fields, they represent a different version of the word, some meaning long since forgotten at home. Somewhere between the White Mountain parking passes, the Do Not Enter signs and Echo Lake entrance fees, we got lost. Suddenly, our land wasn’t ours anymore. It was yours, and only yours, to keep free.

But that’s not everywhere. In Iceland, little red cars with beds in the back swarm the land, buzzing their way freely wherever they like. The wind carries them past the lava and snow, over rivers and next to oceans. It’s all free, and it’s theirs. Because “everyone has the right to travel around the country and enjoy its nature.”


This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

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CDS Column: Home on the Road

CDS Column: Home on the Road

14066350_1588101947882551_955321454025779419_oWe are all part of a tribe. Family, community, state, country, it all comes out from time to time.

The Olympics, pitched as an instance of the world coming together, is one example. Countries meet on a global playing field, a time-honored tradition in camaraderie. But what is it really? Competition. Nationalism. The chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” that fill the stadium are a tribal call, a celebration of divisions, not just unity. It is about us and them, and us. Most of all us.

When Ryan Lochte acts like an imbecile it is not an individual insult but a tribal shame: “the ugly American abroad,” an old tribal stereotype. “He gives our entire delegation a bad name.” How true, a slandering of our tribe.

The Olympics are over. The overt national call has come to a close. But our tribalism has not. It never comes to an end, it is baked into the American fabric.

Some versions are ugly, acute reminders of the stereotype Lochte stands accused of reinforcing: the Ugly American. Those live in the political chants of Americans insistent on restricting entrance or accommodation based on religion. “No more Muslims” has somehow become its own tribal call. Same with “no more immigrants.” This in a country founded by immigrants, built on the principles of religious freedom.

The Ugly American indeed. But tribalism is emotional more than it is logical, it doesn’t always make sense.

Not every vision of tribalism is so bleak, however.

This summer I drove across the United States. First one way, from New Hampshire south to North Carolina, then across to Kentucky, Colorado, Utah, California, then the other, from Washington state back to Colorado and across the long green center to the Mid-Atlantic and the North. Back to New Hampshire, from the Sierras to the Whites, from one unending blue to the other.

In the eastern plains of Colorado I pulled off at a rest stop. It was a warm morning, yellow grass swaying in the breeze. I got out to stretch my legs, hit the bathroom and filled my water bottle. I was roughly 30 hours from home, a long stretch of road before me.

Across the way two men stood outside a green Honda Civic. They were scruffy, their clothes dirty. Modern hippies, maybe homeless, likely both. One had dreadlocks. The other held a leash that ran to a small black dog. Someone had written “Live Free or Die” in white paint along the Civic’s trunk. The dreaded man looked at me, nodded his head, smiled, and then pointed to his license plate with both hands like a maitre d’ showing me to my table: New Hampshire. The Granite State. “We are of the same tribe,” his smile said. I smiled back and waved, then steered toward the highway. Indeed.

A thousand miles later it happened again, this time crossing Ohio: A young man in a low-set Acura slid along the highway. He was driving fast, faster than I would have, weaving his way among the traffic. I saw him approaching in my rearview. I held my course to let him pass.

But when his window was adjacent to mine he slowed. When he paused, I looked. He stared back at me, probably in his early 20s, dark hair, a quintessential college kid. He smiled, raised his fist, quickly pumped it twice and then sped up, crossing back into my lane just in front of me. His plate: New Hampshire, the first I’d seen since Colorado.

What happened next is he slowed.

Not fully, but enough that his message was clear. “Follow me,” he seemed to be saying. “You speed up a little, I’ll slow down a little, and we can band together to cross this Buckeye State highway. As Granite Staters.”

As a tribe.

And here’s the thing: I did. I don’t know why. Maybe it was the months among American foreigners, of being surrounded by cars from California and Colorado plates, Kentucky-ites and Utahns.

The poignant reminder painted in green script and shadowed by a fallen Old Man was enough to push my foot on the accelerator. Maybe it was seeing someone call to me in brotherhood despite having no idea of my name. But cruising along I-70 with no reason to speed up beyond the wave of a non-friend I decided to exceed the posted limit a little more.

I lost him somewhere around Columbus where I-77 turns north. He pulled away amid the congestion, and like a cyclist too weak for the peleton I drifted backward. I didn’t find him again. And I was staying on I-70, driving east to see a friend in Philadelphia, my license plates having left out the full story of my destination. But I still smile as I think of him, a lone warrior whose befriending me stood on nothing but my tags. A true tribal spirit.

Maybe it’s only among foreign shores that such tribalism is born. In the West, highway speed limits read 75 mph. With cruise control pegged at 85 I’d find myself weaving past cars, flying faster than the flow of traffic. Weeks later on my return home through New York the posted limit read 50. I again pegged cruise control at 85, but this time I was the sluggard, a slow motion impediment crawling along the pavement. Empire State plates shot past like I was riding a farm tractor.

And for some reason it felt like home.


This column appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

CDS Column: Reflections Abroad

CDS Column: Reflections Abroad

Belize-1050964“Where are you from?” He was wearing a collared shirt, long pants with suspenders and a wide-brimmed woven hat. I sat next to him, sweating through shorts and a tee shirt in the Belizean heat.

“The U.S.,” I said. “New Hampshire.”

“Where is that? Higher than Pennsylvania?”

“Yes, above Pennsylvania. Near Boston.”

“Does it touch Canada?”

“Yes.”

“Huh,” he said. “Is it cold there?”

He spoke with precision, like he was reading off a script. He addressed me directly, never breaking eye contact. His name was Elias. He was a Mennonite, a Christian sect similar to the Amish common to Belize. We were riding south out of Belmopan, the capital city, in a retired school bus with brown vinyl bench seats and windows that only slid halfway down. I was headed to the Caribbean coast. He was going home.

“It is cold,” I said. “It even snows. But not right now, only in winter.”

“I’ve never seen snow,” he said. “I couldn’t handle it.”

He smiled. He was 24, a farmer and one of 10 children. He lived with his family in central Belize, but he’d visited the United States a handful of times and had dual citizenship. His father left their church in Pennsylvania decades ago in a return to his core beliefs. His American community was using tractors and driving cars, Elias said, slipping towards modernity, so his father and a selection of others moved south, way south. They now farm tomatoes and peppers and corn, he said, in a community of 15 families.

“Did you go to Belizean school?” I asked.

“We have our own schools,” Mennonite academies separate from the national system, he said. “But we only study until eighth grade.” After that, Mennonite children become farmers.

“Do you ever feel like you are missing out? Ever think maybe technology and education and everything might be better?”

His answer was unhurried. “No,” he said. “I’d like to know more geography, to understand the layout of things better, but that’s about it. I don’t follow the world, really. And the pieces I hear about don’t make me want to take greater notice.”

“Explain that,” I said.

“You have an election coming up, right?” he said.

“Yes,” I said, suddenly sullen.

“I don’t know much about it,” he said, “but it seems a mess. I don’t think I want a bigger part of that world.”

The bus lurched. I sat quiet. He had a point.

That’s why I love travel: It’s a mirror, a necessary step back for reflection. Only from a distance can you get a full view of yourself.

As a country, it’s no different — without adequate space it can be impossible to formulate an accurate view of your policy, your politics. Only in leaving can you see more clearly.
Another glimpse came from Karina, a Belizean mother of three. Every morning she sat outside the school. Inside, American high school students ran a summer camp for Belizean middle and elementary kids. Karina’s daughter was in the youngest class, made up of kindergarten and first graders. She would bawl inconsolably if Karina wasn’t nearby, so each day Karina sat at the picnic table outside the classroom.

Karina was black. She had grown up in central Belize not far from the school, and for the last two years she’d attended college in America.

“What was it like,” I asked her, “going to the U.S.?”

“It was wonderful,” she said, “but hard.” She wasn’t ready for the racism, she said. As a Belizean she hadn’t developed the thick skin required of a black woman in America. Her culture is multiracial, but it lacks the divisions she encountered in the U.S. Encountering the stinging blows of prejudice as a young adult shocked her. She was unprepared for it. She would cry a lot, she said, and was hurt easily.

“I didn’t expect that,” she said. “I was happy to go to an American university, but it’s really nice to be back.”

These moments give pause. They are brief glimpses into the mirror of ourselves, of the country we have built: A Mennonite man with a middle school education who sees our politics clearly enough to know he wants no part in them. A young mother whose experience with American racism left her in tears. These versions of America grow fuzzy to those of us who live them every day. They seem impossibly entrenched and complex up close. But from abroad they look different. With the benefit of distance they seem both larger, more intertwined in the American fabric, and also smaller, more isolatable, more feasible to face head on.

At home, issues of race and politics seem too overwhelming to be changeable, too thickly American. But from 1,000-mile shores they become remote enough to appear moveable. They seem again to be in our hands, something within American control, within the control of the citizens who make up this country. They are ours to manipulate and eradicate if we chose. Racism is not part and parcel to this nation. The politics of money, fear and limited choice is not an inexorable American parasite that cannot be purged without risking the host. These are momentary glimpses of our country at this moment, they are not what define it.

But to change them, first we have to look in the mirror. First we have to decide if we like what we see.


 

This piece appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

Ended Hiatus

Ended Hiatus

13730801_1553661621326584_6611188446585815400_oOK. So I’ve been working in Belize for the last month, which has meant I’ve not been keeping up with my posting duties. Internet access was temperamental, time was limited, etc., etc. But I fly back to the U.S. in a few days (currently hanging out on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world), back to my car (parked just north of Seattle), and figure out whatever is next.

And honestly I don’t have any real idea what is next for me. I had thoughts of staying out west, but over the last month a number of things have been calling me back to New England. Not enough that I know I’m heading directly there, but I’m looking harder at a handful of opportunities near what has long been my home.

It feels good to have that pull. Belize has been amazing—working with American high school kids running a summer camp for Belizean middle and elementary students focused on improving their literacy skills. It was a time out, time off from the road, from climbing and adventure, time for human contact and connection and cultural exchange.

Belize-3503And it was an ecological exploration. Belize is home to the second longest barrier reef in the world, multiple ecosystem zones, caves, jungle, mountains and savannah. Iguanas crouch in the trees, tarantulas roam the forest floor, toucans haunt the air. I saw a manatee, two Harpy Eagles, a jaguar, held a boa constrictor, swam with sea turtles, pondered over leafcutter ants and got bitten by thousands of bugs. It was an awesome amazing trip, one I’ll be writing about more. But before that happens I wanted to share a video. My dance with sea turtles reminded me of it. At 2:25 is the job I think is probably most interesting in the world: sea turtle wrestler. Heck yeah! Lifetime aspirations! 🌊🐋

Flipping Sharks

Flipping Sharks

IMG_8391The Washington state ferry from the San Juan Islands to the mainland was the end of the trip. It’d been a day of chasing whales—an orca museum combined with Lime Kiln State Park, the best spot in the world to see whales from land. We did not, however, see any whales. Tim, Lev (Tim’s two-year-old son) and I had made a day of it, but now we were on our way back to Mount Vernon, Wash., and Tim’s farm.

Then an announcement came over the loudspeaker: “There will be a presentation on whales at the rear of the boat. Anyone interested is welcome to attend.”

Whales. I’d be there.

The naturalist presented to several rows of kids and families, but the kids quickly lost interest. I stayed, peppering her with questions about orcas. And she told me something peculiar. I was asking if changing ocean temperatures were causing more interactions between local orcas and great white sharks, and if so what was the outcome. “It’s pretty remarkable,” she told me, “they are meeting, and they fight. And when they fight the orcas win.”

“The orcas are pack hunters,” she said. “The sharks are loners. The orcas have learned that if they can flip the sharks upside down they essentially can put them to sleep. Killer whales are smart enough to take advantage of that fact. They’re pairing up and using the technique to put the sharks to sleep. Then they drown them.”

Whale versus shark, the whale wins. Awesome. And what’s this about putting sharks to sleep?

Less than a week later I found myself in Belize, snorkeling “Shark Alley” on the second longest barrier reef in the world. The sharks there are nurse sharks, a tame cousin to the white shark. Our guide Carlos took the opportunity to demonstrate exactly what the naturalist 2,600 miles a way had explained—he swam directly over a 6-foot nurse shark, put one hand on its back, another on its belly, then rolled. Instantly the shark went limp. He carried it in his arms and swam it over to us, let us pet it and touch its skin.

I wanted to try. I could see them swimming just six feet below, brown arcing bodies in the reeds. I dove down several times before I could work up the nerve to touch them. But then I went after one, put my hand about where its shoulder blades would have ben if the man-sized shark were human. Its skin was course as sandpaper. I swam with it, tracing its path, one hand on its back, then kicked myself down close and slid the other hand under its belly. We were tight together then, the shark and I. I rolled.

The shark rolled with me, and as it flipped and its belly rose toward the surface it went limp. I held it close, kicked my way upward, cradling the ancient beast in my arms. It felt about like holding a worn out Rottweiler in my arms—things were fine, but how long would they stay that way? After a few kicks I rolled the shark back over. It flicked its tail and instantly resumed swimming. I released my arms. It carved away.

I did this three times. One of the group members caught it with a camera.

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It was amazing to be so close. I have since learned that what our guide was doing is frowned up, and that I shouldn’t have followed his example. I probably could have guessed that had I thought about it, but I didn’t. I looked to him for direction, and when I saw an opportunity to do something that scared me, something that seemed both amazing and stupid at the same time, I swam at it full steam. Literally. And so I got to carry a shark in my arms. Life is an experience and that was a unique one, even if it was foolish, illicit and perhaps damaging. Now I know. So don’t flip sharks. But it works. Orcas do it, and I have too.

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Shattered Glass Beach

Shattered Glass Beach

IMG_8192.JPGThe idea sounded cool when I read about it a month ago: a beach made of sea glass, stones replaced with ground shards of white, green and brown. Rare specks of blue and rose radiating in the sun, waves lapping the shore, giving the glass below the waterline an even more powerful sense of iridescence. Glass Beach, Fort Bragg, California. I wanted to see it.

I left Oakland on Saturday, the end of a month sleeping in beds (none of them mine and in four different states, but still). I had two weeks to get up the Pacific Coast to Seattle, where I’ll fly south at the end of the month to Belize. The Plan: surf, climb, paint, read, write and flyfish my way through Northern California, Oregon and Washington before my flight. See beautiful things, beautiful places. Maybe fall in love with one of them and decide to live there forever. You know, the usual roadtrip stuff.

I crossed the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate, aimed for Point Reyes National Seashore, where two lanes snake across highlands, surrounded by ocean on all sides. It juts into the Pacific, America’s left-coast thumb. Stiff breezes rake over grasslands and grazing cows, an unceasing roar from the north. Sand beaches stretch for miles, some lined by dunes, others by cliffs. Elephant seals bask in the sun. Seabirds glide on endless thermals overhead.

13497627_1521654587860621_4683670894975756410_oI drove to North Beach and watched waves pound the shore. It was a desolate place. I wanted to stay, to take in the starkness. The sun had warmth, but not enough to fight the wind. I pulled on my jacket, wandered down to the lighthouse at the point, then over the peninsula to a protected harbor. All of it wild, lonely and exposed.

I spent the night in a boat launch parking lot. Coyotes yipped in the dark; the wind carried their calls. I read by headlamp until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I went to sleep still wearing my jacket.

The next morning I work up and drove the beach. The wind had died, the ocean was calmer, more orderly, but breaking against the sand. It would not be a surfing day.

Or so I thought. I got back to my car and saw a slip of white under the wiper. “Live Free or Die. 🙂 🙂 :-)” it said. It was a note scrawled in pen on the back of a paper receipt. “I moved here 21 years ago from North Hampton. No more ice cream headache! Come over to Drake’s Estero, wind will be offshore. Enjoy! Tony Szabo”

Surfing beta. The board strapped to the roof had given Tony the message I might need some direction about conditions. He was right. The estuary—I’d seen signs for it.  I climbed back into the Element and headed that way.

I came to Drake’s Beach and watched lazy rolling waves cut towards shore. The swell came north, the wind pushed its way south; a perfect combination. Small, but enough. I grabbed my board and wetsuit and headed for the water.

I’m not much of a surfer, the Pacific is a different animal than the North Atlantic, but it was fun, friendly but cold. After an hour I climbed out shivering, my hands numb. I fumbled my way out of my wetsuit, changed and headed north again.

Dinner, a podcast and a map later I knew I had 100 miles to go Glass Beach. I would be there by the morning.

IMG_8191.JPGThe morning was cloudy when I pulled into Fort Bragg, the ocean calm. I turned left of Highway 1 and parked, following signs to Glass Beach. “Please leave all cultural artifacts,” a note said. I descended cabled stairs to the shore.

And there it was—a beach of mostly seaglass. People were everywhere picking their favorite pieces, dropping them in bags, digging through the glass, mostly white, green and brown, the blues and reds long ago picked out.

This beach is a former dump. Until 1959 residents tossed all manner of trash off the cliff, and over the decades the ocean transformed much of it. Now it’s a park.

But a park with a past. Dig through the glass for a bit and your hands turn dark, grimy. The ocean did what it could to wash this beach clean, but even a half century of rinsing cannot rub the trash truly clean. Instead of a glow, the beach is a dull hue, still has the feel of a refuse heap. Down at the waterline it’s better, with the ocean actively rinsing, but even there bits of metal and old springs show through. The garbage dump is still home to garbage.

A few miles in either direction are more beaches, endless beaches. They are without glass, but they are also without the grime. The waves lap and coat them with salt, nothing more. These stretch in either direction, south to Mexico, north to Canada, broken by more cliffbands than roads. I went looking for the glass, for the one expired trash dump on 3,000 miles of beautiful coast. Thank goodness I made some stops along the way. I will be making many more.

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