The Difference between Abraham Lincoln and Occupy Wall Street

The place we were given to stay by a friend of my dad's in Santa Fe.

The last leg of the long trip that began way back on May 21st, 2011 took us from Santa Fe, New Mexico, through Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri, all the way to Springfield, Illinois in just two days. It was in Springfield that we stayed with the last family member of the trip, my Uncle Steve. My dad’s youngest brother, whose children have all left home, lives in a suburban neighborhood not far from downtown Springfield. We enjoyed the novelty of spacious beds, engaging conversations, and ribs to die for.

Uncle Steve is not the only person of repute to live in Springfield, Illinois. History buffs and casual students alike will recall the sixteenth president, one Abraham Lincoln, made a home for himself in Springfield. When he arrived he was poor, when he left for the White House, he made $5000 a year at time when the average American made $150. He would of course go on to preside over the dissolution of the union, the end of slavery, and the reuniting of the states. Not bad for a country lawyer.

Supposedly the world's largest cross, somewhere in Oklahoma. Or Texas, I'm not quite sure.

Lincoln’s story reminded me though, that often to change the things we want to change most, to correct the most heinous injustices, we have to work within the system and take the opportunity when it comes. Had Lincoln, who, as far as history knows, always hated slavery, taken to protesting rather than politics, slavery might still exist. And so, as I have watched the Occupy movement unfold, I have, for the first time, had to make the conscious decision to move on what moves me and support the Occupier’s, or stay the course of higher education and system living and wait for the time—if it ever comes— when I can help create the world I want to see. Perhaps these two things are not diametrically opposed,or maybe there is a line to walk in between, but for the vast majority of my driving hours, my mind was occupied with those thoughts.

The spot and couch where Lincoln was offered the nomination for President.

After touring the Lincoln home and watching a video on his life, it was on to Indianapolis and the home my father spent his high school years in. As we drove the ten miles from the interstate through what was once farmland and in now strip malls, we came up on a funeral home and a barn that, over fifty years ago, was my father’s home. It was amazing to see him point out the changes, rediscover his old bedroom, and tell stories of the house to the funeral assistant who let us inside to look.

The house has changed dramatically, but interestingly enough the barn remains pretty much unchanged in fifty years. It was in that house that my father made the same decision I have to. Work with the system to affect change, or against it. Once a lock for the Foreign Service, his time in the Peace Corps (in, where else but Peru?) led him instead to protest the Vietnam War as the President of the Committee of Return Volunteers. Had he not, he would never have founded his own organization and spent the last forty years working to help the Vietnamese, Laos, Cambodian, and Cuban people. Had he stuck with the Foreign Service, who knows…

My dad's high school home.

And so, from Indianapolis to Mansfield, Ohio we sped, arriving later than we thought thanks to the ever changing time zones. The very next day, we woke up early, completed our final day of between eight and ten hours of driving, and arrived without incident in Irvington, New York—to everyone’s shock, in time for dinner. Even more of a shocker: no speeding tickets for all 4,603 miles of the final leg of the Road Trip of Passage.

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Such a fine sight to see: A Canyon, a Volcano, and A Forest

We traveled essentially all of Route 66, from Southern california to central Illinois.

The purpose of driving all the way down California was not to see our relatives, though I enjoyed seeing them quite a lot, but to reach the Grand Canyon. It is a place my father has always wanted to see, and it isn’t every day you are driving across the country (unless you are a trucker) so it was worth taking a 2000 mile detour to see. Little did we know we would see the canyon at the dawn of a full moon.

We camped out in a campground there, made ourselves a little fire, and actually kept pretty warm despite temperatures in the lows 30’s. It isn’t every day you get to go camping with your dad either. We woke up around 5, intent on viewing the sunrise over the canyon. We had been told to catch a
bus, so we hustled to the stop nearest our eventual destination and waited. And waited.  Then, as it started to get light, a bus came…and went. Without stopping.

Five AM fuming, I watched as it turned down the “Bus Only” path, followed by two cars. So I yelled at my dad to get in the car, because we’re breakin’ the law, park law that is. I was not about to miss the sunrise because of a regulation nobody seemed to follow anyway. Sure enough, past the “Authorized vehicles only” sign was a fullsize parking lot full of cars. The moral of the story is, sometimes rules really are made for no reason, and if you follow them without making an objective decision based on the evidence, you end up losing out.

The moon at sunrise.

We didn’t this time though, and got to see our sunrise. After a quick breakfast of motel muffins and bananas, we decided that the rim was no way to really experience the Grand Canyon. So my 69 year old dad and I hiked a half mile down a mix of perilous cliffs and man-made staircases to reach a point “Ooh, Ahh! Point” to be exact, deep within the canyon. The canyon is an incredible place, and to imagine it formed by a comparatively tiny river is a testament to the impact of nature’s power (and consequently ours) to change our environment dramatically.

A series of steep ramps we hiked. Mildly precarious.

After hiking back up, we drove along the rim, stopping at lookouts along the way. We should have been moving faster though, since we had something else to get to that day.

The tower at the parks easternmost ridge.

And part of its view.

With the Canyon behind us, we drove south to meet up with the old route 66 near Flagstaff, Arizona. As a pair of peaks rose before us, we pulled into Sunset Volcano National Park. The park is the site of a thousand year old volcano, but more interesting than the crater itself (closed to the public due to tourist-caused erosion) is the surrounding landscape. Lava and cinder cover the earth while spiraling, twisted trees try and root themselves in the rocky landscape. The hardened lava juts out to form ledges, create caves, and replace once thriving forest with holey rocks of red and black.

Traversing a landscape entirely different from that of any I’d ever seen, I decided to scale the smaller and much older volcano nearby. The mile hike straight up hill at 7000 feet has more difficult than I expected, but hours of driving gave me energy, so I ran it. At the top was not a crater at all, but a mesa covered in tiny cinderocks connected by glistening spider webs.

The volanco turned the earth black and grey with basalt cinder.

The craggy lava fields.

This tree appears to have grown from the dead tree, but in doing so bubbled at the bottom, angled out, and shot up, creating a regal natural chair.

By the time I ran back down, the sun had given way to the still bright moon, and sunset was coming soon. We drove on, eventually coming to rest for a night in Winslow, Arizona.

It was not a fine sight to see. No girls in flatbed fords, and nobody seemed like they had the luxury of taking it easy. As we searched for a place to eat, we found only a Chinese restaurant. The town that sprung up, like so many did, from Route 66, was being kept alive by a lyric in a song.

“Well, I’m a standing on a corner in
Winslow, Arizona and such a fine sight to see It’s a girl, my Lord, in a
flatbed Ford slowin’ down to take a look at me.”

In the morning, all we found was a statue and a gift shop.

Standin' on a Corner in Winslow, Arizona.

Our travels then took us to the Petrified Forest, a dry region of hardened clay, fossilized dinosaurs, and petrified wood. We were supposed to be in Santa Fe, New Mexico by five, and had gotten up early to make it, so we had a couple hours to spare. It’s hard to describe how much more amazing petrified wood is than it sounds. The wood—now a rock—is heavy. Its once strong fibers have been replaced by agate of every imaginable color, from gold, to royal blue, to hot pink. Take a look.

After wandering around the “forest” we heard about some fossils a mile out from the road. In retrospect, why would a park ranger tell tourists where to find fossils? They wouldn’t, but our trusting selves hiked through a landscape of hills made from toe sized balls of clay and canyons made by the rains. Not a single fossil was found that day, but it was worth it to get off the path and explore the park without all the people.

These are some of the treasures that the southwest has to offer, most of which I didn’t know existed. If you ever travel to the Grand Canyon, missing the nearby Sunset Volcano would be a sin, and if you are traveling by car, experiencing the perplexing beauty of fossilized trees is unmissable. Both are right along the route. Sadly, unless you are a devout fan of The Eagles or want to support a degenerating American town, you can skip Winslow, Arizona.

Occupied by my thoughts in San Francisco

San Francisco from afar.

San Francisco is a two hour or so trip from Philo in Mendicino County, and we left early to meet my cousin Will at a café in one of the city’s suburbs. Will knew my mother when they were growing up. That was a long time ago, and now he has a family of his own, with all but one off in college. We talked journalism, politics, and family over cappuccinos and hot cider, as busy Saturday morning patrons sped in and out with their pre-bike ride coffee.

I had really no contact with Will since I was a baby, when I went to his father’s funeral.  It was the history that connected our families though, that interested me. Will had recently named the Math Commons at Harvard—he was a mathematics major there years ago—after my grandfather whose name I share, Chilton, and his mother (Chilton’s sister.) When I asked why, he said it was because when asked by the department who had inspired his course of learning, my grandfather had jumped into his mind.

I found it amusing then, that it was Will’s grandfather who had originally inspired me to journalism. My mother was very close with Will’s father, her uncle, and she never hesitates to tell a story of their summers in California or travels in Europe. Their relationship too, planted the seeds for the life we have today by helping my mom buy her first New York City apartment, the one I would later spend the first 13 years of my life in.

A roadside oddity to break up the flow of the story.

As the heir to a family whose line includes presidents, billionaires, and war heroes, I have always felt like I represented a family who expected great things, that somewhere among the giants of journalism and science, war and politics, that dominate my family, I had big shoes to fill. How it is I am to do that, I am not yet sure.

The rest of our time in San Francisco was spent visiting friends. I saw the same Liz from way back in post three in North Carolina, and we had lunch with a work friend of my dad’s on a peninsula looking out at the golden gate bridge and the city of San Fran. That night, I went to check out the Occupy San Francisco protests downtown.

This time, it was just a general assembly meeting, where the protestors hold an Athens style total democracy meeting to decide on actions and plans. Unfortunately, the large majority of the time was spent arguing and debating asinine points. The rest was taken up by activists visiting to recruit
for their causes. For those reading from Masters, it was not unlike a harkness discussion taking place in middle of the street, with a couple twists. One is the hand signals, which are used when someone goes on too long, says something inappropriate, or says something people like. Each person was given two minutes to speak, though virtually everyone ran over their allotted time because everything is said once and then repeated by the crowd in the “Mike Check” call and response fashion of the movement.

The GA, with an iconic trolley in the background.

They have these assemblies most nights, which is good given the slow pace of complete democracy. I took the San Francisco subway back to Berkeley, and had dinner at an empty Vietnamese restaurant while my dad visited a High School friend.  Since it was empty, they taught me how to make spring rolls! The next day we drove, and drove, and drove, reaching the beginning of the Mojave Desert with the nearly full moon as our guide.

Makes the turbine I built with WindAid seem like less of a big deal...

Of Natural Medicine and Mexican Maurijuana Cartels

An elk we met on our way south through the redwoods. At some point he got sick of he taking pictures and started eyeing me suspiciously, so I took his picture. Those are huge horns

In a beautiful central California valley, the redwood trees line the stomach wrenching curves of the two lane road before opening up to the vast Pacific Ocean. In the mornings, fog hides the treetops, until at midday, it collects itself and drifts away.  Once the home of Marilyn Manson and eerily reminiscent of many a horror film while driving the curves on a misty night, the Mendicino Valley is battling economic woes in a unique way.

Just beyond the redwoods that line the highway, the mist hides more than treetops. If you smell a skunk, you’ve found someone’s secret garden. Up to 99 plants of Maurijuana can be grown in Mendicino County by any licensed farm. It can sell from $2600 to $4000 per pound. Each plant, if well taken care of, yields a pound. Perhaps no legal cash crop in American history has such a harvest value per plant, so it comes no surprise that most anyone with a tract of land is growing weed.

Pretty self explanatory, but just in case: These are maurijuana plants.

The problem is, so are the people who have none. “Don’t go walking into the forests here” says my newly discovered cousin/aunt/relative Mary Pat, an Herbalist with seventeen acres of dense redwoods. It turns out that the drug cartels are in on it too, and they use whatever spots they can find—public, private, or deserted—to grow their crop. Then they put armed guards in charge
of the clearings.

The forests of Mendicino are beautiful, but dangerous. Trespassersare shot at regularly, and there’s no telling when a walk in the woods could lead to a shootout. Recently before my arrival, a local conservationist—famous for his love of the redwoods—was gunned down when he accidently uncovered a poppy farm. He didn’t survive, and the killer was eventually caught, but the all too unnecessary death illustrates the contradictions of Mendocino well.

A little California nightsnake I ran into while wandering.

It will be interesting to see what happens in central california, especially as places around the country consider legalizing Mary Jane. Just a year of growing the plant would pay for all of college, so its hard to imagine the issue won’t remain contentious, and deadly.

On a more personal note, we stayed for two nights and a day with Mary Pat, head of the Philo School of Herbal Energetics. Her land, covered mostly by redwoods, is also used to grow her many herbs. She would be the first of several rarely visited family members I’d get to see this trip, a special rarity since I had no idea she existed. Aside from her all natural and entirely effective
toothache cure, I also enjoyed spending hours talking with her, getting a perspective on my family and my future.

Mary Pat's school.

Some of her herbal medicines.

And her two friendly dogs. The one on the left is the mother of the one on the right.

 

The Mendicino coast portion of the Pacific. I climbed a steep rockside down to the beach before reading the sign that said doing so generally results in death. "Few survive."

From the Redwood Forest to the New York Island—The Road Trip culminates with a father-son cross country adventure

A gull coasts on a wind current in front of the ferry from Whidbey Island near Seattle to mainland Washington State.

It has been a long time—nearly a month—since I officially ended the Road Trip of Passage and returned home from Peru. Steve Jobs passed away, a movement began, and I started my semester at home. Keen readers will remember that before flying to Lima, I left my car in Seattle with my cousin David and his wife Maria Jose. These next and final entries will tell the tale of how I got it back.

My Dad and I decided it would be fun to embark on a father-son road trip adventure, so after persuading him to take some time off work, we flew out to Seattle. Normally the route home would be a pretty quick 3000 mile trek across the northern US, but since Dad had never seen the Grand Canyon we would take a 1500 mile detour. My Camry, dampened by Seattle rain but more than happy, I’m sure, to have a well-deserved vacation from my driving habits, was dried off, got an oil change, and was ready to go. After spending two nights with our rainy city relatives, we headed south.

Clouds drifting through valleys are a common sight along the state roads.

It wasn’t long before the issues of the day caught up with us. As we passed the college town of Portland, we saw helicopters buzzing up above the peninsular city and the news was excited by this new movement “Occupy Wall Street.”

“Do you wanna go check it out?” Dad ventured cautiously.

“I guess so.” I responded with relative indifference. Lethargic from the pacific northwest coast cloud cover, I wanted to sleep more than protest, but I didn’t want to miss it either. I figured that traveling across the country during the birth of the movement, if it turns out to be one, gave me a unique opportunity to watch it take shape in different cities. So we saw a sign for city center, and sped off the highway. We realized in short order that we had no idea where the protest was.

Occupy America's logo...?

After driving around aimlessly for several minutes, I thought of using the positions of the overhead news copters to triangulate—a word forever linked to class with President Ayers—the position of the protest. It actually worked—sort of. We did run into three squad cars with riot police dressed up for their date with the protestors, and eventually found the park itself where the frustrated Portlanders had set up camp.

That’s when I was introduced to the Human Microphone, a form of call and response between the speakers and the masses that echoes of catholic ceremony. This article isn’t really about the protests though, but I’ll return to them throughout the trip.

After Portland, we drove to Eugene, Oregon. We had intended to get a motel room, but discovered that Oregon had a professional football team playing that very night. Who knew. So we drove on, finally finding space in Roseburg, about an hour long trip from California.

The next day, we titled this article. After a three hour trip to Crescent City, CA on which we dueled with the road-raging owner of a purple show-truck, we made it to the Redwood forest. That’s when we saw the Grey Whale.

Ok, I skipped a little bit. We spent some time learning about the forest at the Park Center before beginning our drive through the dirt-gravel roads of Jedediah National Park, home of some of the most picturesque redwoods in California. These trees are huge, in a word, but their size is a matter of spirit. They grow so tall that the groves that form when several grow close to each other are shrouded entirely in damp shade, even on the sunniest day. They grow so big in fact, that very little else aside of giant three-leaf clovers can grow at all, leaving the forest floor barren save for fallen red pine needles. The Redwood forests are silent and open, giving an aura of divinity to the entire experience.

Then there is the Grey Whale. We had heard that, another 50 miles or so south, a Cliffside lookout marked a perfect spot for Whale Watching, albeit from 500 feet up. Sure enough, after driving the windy roads that led out to the cliff, a Gray Whale was feeding in the bay below. I had never seen a whale before, so although I was far away it was an amazing sight.

The whale was down in that bay, but he is hardly visible without binoculars.

After the whale, we drove on through countless miles of redwoods on our way to my long lost aunt’s house. I’ll tell that story shortly, leave you with this image from Occupy Portland for now:

I want you! To stop taking my photo...

One Last Adventure

A ancient Whale Vertabra. It was REALLY heavy.

I was all packed up and ready to move on. It had been almost a week and I still had yet to find a couple to go on the desert trip. I was disappointed, but felt ok that I would not get to go out to the desert after all because my week had been filled with interesting people and experiences. It must have been around six when I finished packing and Alisa (the owner of the hostel) came in.

There’s a girl outside. She said.

I Laughed. Thanks Alisa, but I don’t need you to tell me every time a girl walks by.

Fine, but she’s American. Alisa remarked and walked down the hall. I wasn’t really in the mood for conversation, but it certainly would be nice to have a conversation with no translation, upturned “I’m not really sure what you’re saying” faces, and nods at remarks misunderstood, so I went out anyway to say hi. Lauren (pronounced Laur-en) is a 25 year old law graduate from Pittsburgh, and four hours later we were still engrossed in conversation about Peru, America, and everything in between. It was only around ten that night that I realized it was too late to catch a bus, anywhere.

Nature's phallic humor.

So as it turned out, I owe Lauren a lot, because I stayed an extra night at The Sand and Lake. Expecting to sleep in and leave around midday, I was awakened at 6 am by Alisa looking annoyed and exausted:

Roberto’s outside.

What? I said. Cabrera…Really? I forced my eyes open, threw on a sweater, and sure enough, just on the other side of the sliding glass doors was the Desert man and his trademark steel black truck.

I woke up this morning, he said, at 5 am, and I said to myself: I could wash my car, or I could go take you into the desert. For whatever reason, I felt like I had to take you. So go get ready, time spent here is less time there!

One of the best preserved whales Roberto showed me.

As it turns out, Roberto went from Hostel to Hostel looking for me before finally locating me at 6 in front of Sand and Lake. I tore open my bag and grabbed my camera, desert pants, trekking shoes, my hat, and the water I had left and we headed out of Huacachina.

Along the road, Roberto showcased his unusually potent driving ability as we narrowly avoided a head on collision with a tractor trailer by merging into a narrow gap between a pick-up and a sedan. We stopped for a breakfast of chicken sandwiches at a truckstop restaurant.

You always know the best place to get coffee if you look where the truckers are stopped, Roberto says. He is right, the little shop with more dogs than people had the best local coffee I’ve had in Peru.

A complete whale balleen.

By 8 am, we had reached the outskirts of the Ocucaje desert. As we drove, Roberto pointed out evidence of graverobbing and mining. He followed his tracks from past trips, mocking competitors who attempted to follow them but got turned around in circles. As we turn a bend, I watch a fox atop the Cliffside.

Is that a fox? I ask.

What? Where? Roberto slams on the brakes and backs up. I point out the little fox forty feet above us. I don’t believe it! This is incredibly rare. You do not see them during the day. I have never even seen one in daylight. You are very lucky. Roberto gets excited and snaps some pictures.

We tried to get a better angle, but it ended up being worse. The Fox is the little black dot in the center of the screen.

Pleased at the good omen and that it seemed almost as if our adventure was being watched by the spirits of the desert, or at least a fox, we continued on.

Running along tracks he knew well, Roberto showed me the remains of ancient whales and rambled on about geology while I tried to pick up as much as I could while transfixed by the magnificence of the desert sea valleys. Fossils dotted the landscape, anywhere the soil darkened to a reddish brown. The sheer multitude of them is fascinating, but these were ravaged by thieves and careless miners. The best was yet to come.

Roberto finds a suitable ledge and we hop out in search of his favorite finds: Shark teeth. I see the first three, all broken. Roberto smiles. You are good! He laughs and looks for his own. After just five minutes of walking or so, Roberto starts jumping up and down like a schoolgirl with a date to the dance. A few seconds later I see it, a bright red-orange tooth the size of my thumb in nearly perfect condition. I am still pretty impressed, but Roberto gets back to the hunt.

Roberto with his eyes to the ground, looking for fossilized Shark teeth

We search a while longer, and uncover some smaller teeth and crab fossils. As we comb the protected Cliffside, Roberto starts to describe his methods. I listen closely and try to follow along. Afterwards, I came up with these rules for fossil tooth hunting in the desert:

1. If the bones are shattered, the teeth will be too.

2. The teeth must be on the downside of a hill, where they are protected by strong afternoon winds and sandstorms.

3. The teeth are often found near bones, and always found where the sand changes from white to orange, red, brown, blue, or even black. The darker the better.

4. They can be often found together.

5. Look for a shimmer 5-10 feet away. Rocks will shine, but only teeth will shimmer.

6. Keep an eye out for triangles in the sand.

I could keep up these rules, but it takes a lot more practice to know where in a massive desert to pick the spot to search. We keep going as I pick up little ones here and there that Roberto is entirely uninterested in. We look at some more whales, and Roberto takes me to meet Pepe.

Pepe is not Hispanic, my one year of forensic science tells me. I explain this to Roberto, but he refuses to change the name. I knew that already, the Desert man says. No Peruvian had corduroys thirty years ago. Surrounded by plants, Pepe likely thought water was nearby and stopped to rest. He was fooled by the resilient plants though, and never got up again.

Pepe the Unfortunate Adventurer, in case you missed him during the last post.

As we drive in of search of Roberto’s favorite whale, El Diablito (Little Devil), we get lost. Time is the only thing you have, Roberto says, and we seem to be wasting it. The Desert Sage’s philosophy of life is this: All we have is time, and all we leave behind are our offspring. We come from the ground, which gives us life. Everything else is black and white. So to Roberto, life is a matter of time well spent and family well appreciated. He even has a wooden carved necklace to represent his philosophy: a donut shaped circle with green string on top (life) brown on the bottom (earth) and black and white on the top.

While I am not quite sure if everything is black and white, I can’t help but agree with the man whose life actually is the ground. He has some more practical philosophy on his work as well: I take nothing that will not be destroyed. The shark teeth, as you can see with your pocket full of fragments, shatter. What they have to show is lost. I do not dig for teeth, I rescue them. As for the rest of his fossils, he took only those at risk of being destroyed, and hopes to have a museum in Ica someday to house his collections.

They are Ica’s heritage, so the museum must only be here.

Unfortunately the task will fall to someone else, because Cabrera is tired of his fame and is getting to old to worry about a museum. It would be a hard sell besides, since Cabrera hates most paleontologists.

The Desert Man and his truck.

Fingerologists and rapers, all of them! He shoves a protruding middle finger at the dashboard, the sky, and anything else that will receive it. That’s his term for the illegal “scientists” who take fossils from the Desert and put them in museums thousands of miles from Peru. He wouldn’t mind so much if they built a museum nearby. But as far as Roberto is concerned, they are stealing. To be honest, he is right. They come without the permission of the government, take the fossils, and smuggle them out. Not to mention they leave trash like this cast around:

A discarded cast used to steal a fossil, broken bottles were also scattered around the abandoned digsite.

A complete fossilized baby whale, not unlike the one that was stolen.

The aged protector of the Desert who has taken the degree of a French Paleontologist and put grave robbers and fossil thieves behind bars is still just a bit lost. “I’m looking for two mountains on the right! He yells in frustration. I laugh inwardly, since I see no mountains at all within 50 kilometers. We eventually find our way to Roberto’s protected whale, El Diablito, named for his devilish good looks (really).

I like to camp here, Cabrera says. The spot looks out on a vast portion of arid land from a protected mountain cove. He points out the path of a meteorite down a mountainside. I start to see his point about Desert spirituality.

Do you see the devil in his face?

We seek out more teeth at a nearby hillside. It is about noon, and I am starving. The extra chicken sandwiches are gone, so I ask if Roberto happened to bring anything else. Of course! He says, and hands me a tin of Sardines and a spoon. Funny how the Desert smells like the ocean sometimes… I brave the first bite—not really a fish person besides—and find it disturbingly tasty. A thin film of preservatives coat each slimy, soft fish, but I gobble it down as fast as I can, partly out of hunger, and partly out of the fear I might hurl.

Satisfied but with a fishy taste stuck behind my wisdom teeth, we get on with the hunt. It had been almost five hours since our first great find at 9 am, and Roberto’s mood was growing sour despite the cigarette every fifteen minutes. I practice my technique, but end up picking up a lot of cool rocks and very few teeth. Roberto and I walk side by side, looking in opposite directions. He stops, bobs his head back and forth to catch the shimmer, and grabs my hand. Then my waist. Then the wild Desert man starts doing a greatly sped up waltz in place.

I don’t even see it! I yelled. I am looking twenty feet off, right where he pointed, and seeing nothing. He runs over and picks up a perfect black, blue, yellow, and white fossil the size of my palm. A tooth left behind from an ancient great white shark. $300 euros! Not even I have one with yellow like this! The Desert Man yells for all to hear.

I told you! I told you, John, didn’t I? I am the best! My guide turned babysitting gig would have made the coldest heart smile. He really does love finding shark teeth, even the ones he gives to me!

I admire his freedom, and of course the tooth itself. It really is beautiful in a way that none of the others we found are, so even though I’m now broke, I’ll never sell it.

We drove on, the mood permanently heightened. Roberto shows me two more of his treasures before we leave: a whale with fossilized skin and another whale with a crystallized brain.

Roberto covering up the crystallized Whale Brain in hopes it won't be stolen.

The strangely cut piece of rock in the center of the shot is the fossilized skin.

A close up of the crystallized brain.

Leaving the Desert, Roberto grows pensive again and we talk about his future, and the future of the Desert. You are like me, he says. I can tell now. That is why I felt the need to take you out today. How about this? You stay here and work for me. You go and find people to take trips, and you come along, make good money for each person, and teach them yourself what I’ve taught you.

I am very tempted. Exploring the Desert, always hunting for the next amazing find, living at complete peace in a silent landscape, and working with a man who has carved his own place in the world with pure skill and no degrees.

I know I have to decline for now, but if life goes south, I‘ll go with it and work in Peru.

The man and his vast charge.

 

What do you do with a Desert Oasis?

A Bottlenose Dolphin breaks through the water after following the morning fishing boats into port at Paracas.

What have I been doing for a week where most travelers spend just a day? My reason for staying in the desert lake of Huacachina was to find a couple to split the costs of the three day desert safari.

In the meantime, I’ve been sandboarding, which is a lot of fun but pretty tough to master. I’ve gone riding around in Dune buggies. I’ve wandered miles into the desert and climbed the highest dunes. As yet, I have not found any fossils, only a tiny bit of petrified wood.

My first few days, I was excited to meet people. I developed an inaccurate reputation as a ladies man among the locals for spending most of my time with attractive European women, which I discovered when the groups of middle aged men playing soccer and drinking at noon knew my name and invited me to join them. I hesitated to say that they could also spend time with such women if they didn’t spend their free time catcalling at them. I spent a fair amount of time hanging out with Alisa, the owner of my hostel. She’s a 27 year old Peruvian with a three year old son, Justin. Friendly, fun, and with pretty good English, I stayed in the slightly more expensive hostel ($7 a night rather than $5) in large because of the company of those who worked there.

As each new group of “traveler’s friends” I met stayed for lunch, or perhaps even dinner, then went off to new adventures, I stayed behind. There were the three English girls, the two Canadian scientists, the two Swiss bio-chem majors, the drunk German and the British teacher, Mike and friendly Canadian (he stayed a while too, actually,) the two German singer/musicians one of whom was named AnneMarie, and Lauren, the only American I met in Peru. It was Lauren who loaned me the phrase “Traveler’s Friends” to name the brief encounters with strangers who become “friends.”

Dune Buggy riding, and some Traveler's Friends.

It happens, we agreed, in part because the loneliness of travel and the distance from home tends to make people more outgoing. When a language barrier exists, they are often a bit mentally taxing, too. Yet those friends never stay long, and in most cases are never seen again. So after two days of busy mealtimes and fun trips, I withdrew within Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, sick of the same conversation ten times a day.

One morning, I took a trip to the Paracas Wildlife Preserve. A few miles offshore from the nearby fishing town of Paracas is a set of islands referred to locally as “The Poor Man’s Galapagos” for its close proximity to shore and rich diversity of wildlife. I took a tour to the island, finding birds of all sorts, including the rare and endangered Humboldt Penguin, the Black Cormorant, and the Pacific Sea Lion. What is impressive about these islands is not as much the type of wildlife as the incredible numbers of seabirds sailing and diving on ocean breezes and currents.

It was on this trip that I made one of my more useful discoveries. The Black Cormorant mates once for life, while the male Pacific Sea Lion has a harem of up to 40 females. As I watched a rock go by, I see a pair of cormorants preening each other. As we turn to the other side, a male Sea Lion and three females lounge. Then it hits me. I have been struggling these past years with the sense of monogamy I feel I want, and the sexual “diversity” that our society encourages young people today to embrace. I always felt pressure to do the latter, even though I always felt that the former was my forte.

Yet, there were the cormorant and the sea lion on the same rock exhibiting two entirely different ways of life, but both creations of nature. All this nonsense about it being “unnatural” for two people to spend their lives together flew out the window for me when I realized that nature leaves the choice up to each species. As Humans, we get to make that choice for ourselves. Some people really can’t spend their whole lives with one person, others can. This relatively obvious realization suddenly made me comfortable with all the values I hold, even those socially unpopular or taboo, which might have been one of the trip’s greatest accomplishments.

After returning to shore, I wandered in and out of the artisan shops. At the very end of a line of shacks was an artist intently focused on his latest project, fork jewelry. I watched him for a while, then realizing my group had left without me, figured I may as well ask him to teach me. Four hours later, I had learned the art of silver fork jewelry, made a new friend, and made a new bracelet.

On the way back, since my tour was gone, I figured I would try the Peruvian public transport system. For less than $5, I took a cramped 12 seat bus to nearby Pisco, a shared cab to the “Peru Bus” bus station, and a comfortable bus showing Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets back to Ica, an hour and a half away. While the experience was cheap and interesting, something happened truly worth noting.

While waiting in line for my bus ticket, I was the only tourist (gringo) around. Blue and white collar Peruvians flanked me, and a handicapped beggar wandered asking for soles. The first three gave him nothing, the fourth gave him a bit, and every single person in line after that (almost 40 people) also gave him at least a sol, often more. For all the talk about Peru lacking a national identity, I was really impressed that in a country where the customary tip for a waitress is 10% and a cabbie 0%, every Peruvian in line gave the beggar their spare change.

A range of mountains in the Ocucaje Desert, where the final adventure of the Road Trip of Passage takes place.