Saturday, December 25, 2010


It seems that if I time-traveled back to an ancient Egypt, if I was part of a society on this very same piece of earth, but thousands of years ago, I would be preparing for the afterlife.  Or thinking about it, or making appropriate offerings - hoping that the god, along his procession way, would notice my efforts.  There is a procession way out here in the desert sands, sort of. At least, the archaeological evidence speaks to a great deal of activity with another plane in mind. Shrines, graves, subterranean tombs, and funerary structures of all kinds, constructed over centuries, were built as portals connecting the present to the eternal. The living were involved in relationships with those who had crossed into another realm. I cannot, in good conscience, call this other realm the place of the dead because it seems so lively and populated - at least it was viewed as such. No wonder some folks today ponder the likelihood that ancient Egyptians were in cahoots with alien beings. They were in communion, in their hearts and minds, with their ancestors and gods.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

cairo and carcinogens

A fine layer of particulate settles on everything, the first strata toward an archaeological record. It rests on leaves and vertical walls, a patina of the tailpipe era. Zamalek, Cairo’s diplomatic quarter and an island in the Nile, is architecturally rooted in the early 20th century. Its packed-in structures (both colonial and boxy modern) are graying. I followed my colleague and friend – he remembers the winding path much better than I - to the art supply store, a coffee shop, and a fair trade store.  We passed fruit vendors and souvenir shops. I bought a pomegranate stirring those neurons, with any memory of Arabic, to life. We walked until an unfamiliar weariness filled us. Jet lag? Less oxygenated air?

The night before I pushed 100 lbs of luggage through customs and bargained for a taxi. Rush hour traffic gave us close to two hours (and it can take 30 minutes) for the sensory barrage. Cairo is absolutely packed. Somehow everything ancient and contemporary, coexist. It feels dilapidated, shabby, and sheik, and it’s never still or quiet. Even the call to prayer, five times a day, echoing from hundreds of mosques, seems to slow the city half a beat. It feels voracious – devouring, dividing, – a metastasized city world.   Traffic made five and six lanes where four were printed on pavement. Horn honking continues almost unabated into the earliest hours. But how else could you survive this migration? The sidewalks are broken and always ending, leaving people to wade through traffic. The man, navigating this driving tetris, bringing me to the Golden Tulip Hotel Flamenco in Zamalek, does this job night and day - but says he likes Cairo best at night.
Cairo is one of the most polluted cities in the world – surely one of the most polluted I’ve been to. There’s much to explore and enjoy in this outrageous city world. Cairo is often the place that comes to mind when one utters “Egypt.”  Maybe Egypt conjures a resting sphinx or rising pyramids. Those places are here too; the city grows under the gaze of these monuments, and a wall stops them from growing right up over top.

Friday, December 17, 2010

american research center in abydos

I’m writing from the blessedly quiet American Research Center in Abydos, set down in a swale between dunes, a low spot formed by a water flow (though no water flows now). It’s 7 am December 17th - nine hours ahead of my old New Mexico time zone. Most of the team is sleeping, apart from my British friend Tim – a doctoral student at Brown University. He’s reading here in the sufra (living room) – something about Napoleon’s Egypt. It is incredibly good to be here; getting here was full of those gyrations typical to Egypt travel. We couldn’t take the train – it’s off limits for Western travelers. We rented a van, waited for a police escort (for hours!), and cruised the rough desert highway south arriving at 8pm – nearly 12 hours after our planned departure.  This still, cool morning is refreshing after Cairo – and a calm before the commotion of the dig, which we’ll begin tomorrow. 

Friday, June 4, 2010

utah - we need this wilderness

Utah - for some a land of promise. For me, this is the landscape of Ed Abbey and Terry Tempest Williams. I'm northeast of the Aquarius Plateau, the territory Wallace Stegner referred to in his 1960 Wilderness Letter as a lively and terrible wilderness. I'm here to visit my own park ranger mom and my dad now living in Capitol Reef. They're living in an eden called Fruita, in orchards established by settlers in the 1880s and watered by the Fremont River and Sulfur Creek. This community has its own history - you may learn more here.

Capitol Reef became a national monument in 1937, but the geography we see as a part of the monument has been desert, then sea, then desert, and sea again - each era a layer, each strata a story of an older earth. The newer and intrusive layers mark volcanic eruptions or coagulated magma - cooled then exposed, like caps atop the red sandstone. The layers have character. The Dakota sandstone is full of mussel shells.

The Chinle formation is the most colorful. It's green, gray, and burgundy composition, ready for O'Keeffe, was a swampland that decayed into bright and curdled hills. 275 million years of the earth's history is exposed in uplift and canyon drainage.

For its grandeur we've made it a national park. Set it aside - a protected space that we keep safe even from ourselves. And it contributes to the health of our psyches. We need to see that we have foresight as evidenced by safely kept wild lands. We need to see that we today, and our predecessors too - carefully conceived of, and continue to understand, the fact that we are nature and we need nature. We need a place like this terrible wilderness especially now, while oil floods out into the Gulf of Mexico - as it has for more than 50 days after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig.
Wallace Stegner's Wilderness Letter made me understand that even if I come only to its edge - I need wilderness to exist. Not only I, but all of us. He said we are a wild species - and something will go out of us should we lose our wild places. He wrote in that letter a paragraph about the very place I am now exploring.

". . . let me suggest the Robbers' Roost country in Wayne County, Utah, near the Capitol Reef National Monument. In that desert climate the dozer and jeep tracks will not soon melt back into the earth, but the country has a way of making the scars insignificant. It is a lovely and terrible wilderness, such as wilderness as Christ and the prophets went out into; harshly and beautifully colored, broken and worn until its bones are exposed, its great sky without a smudge of taint from Technocracy, and in hidden corners and pockets under its cliffs the sudden poetry of springs. Save a piece of country like that intact, and it does not matter in the slightest that only a few people every year will go into it. That is precisely its value. Roads would be a desecration, crowds would ruin it. But those who haven't the strength or youth to go into it and live can simply sit and look. They can look two hundred miles, clear into Colorado: and looking down over the cliffs and canyons of the San Rafael Swell and the Robbers' Roost they can also look as deeply into themselves as anywhere I know. And if they can't even get to the places on the Aquarius Plateau where the present roads will carry them, they can simply contemplate the idea, take pleasure in the fact that such a timeless and uncontrolled part of earth is still there. "

(This excerpt of Stegner's letter was posted by The Wilderness Society).

But on this trip we did more than come to the edge of the wild - we went in. We walked through skinny canyons, soaked our feet, suffered fierce wind and even stubbed our toes in a manner that would make Ed Abbey proud. He was a park ranger too - and was faced with a predicament still a challenge in even the most beautiful places. That is - to make people get out and see them, not only drive through them.
"What can I tell them? Sealed in their metallic shells like mollusks on wheels, how can I pry the people free? The auto as tin can, the park ranger as opener. Look here, I want to say, for godsake folks get out of them there machines, take off those fucking sunglasses and unpeel both eyeballs, look around; throw away those goddamned idiotic cameras! For chrissake folks what is this life if full of care we have no time to stand and stare? Take off your shoes for a while, unzip your fly, piss hearty, dig your toes in the hot sand, feel that raw and rugged earth, split a couple of big toenails, draw blood! Why not? Jesus Christ, lady, roll that window down! You can't see the desert if you can't smell it! Dusty! Of course it's dusty - this is Utah! But it's good dust, good red Utahn dust, rich in iron, rich in irony."

Desert Solitaire, Ed Abbey

You must come here - however you visit - just do. Come to its edge, watch a sunset, and maybe leave your metal mollusk shell. I think you will be compelled. The night sky is protected from the haze our cities shoot out toward space. You will see stars, planets, and maybe skipping meteors.

I leave you with Stegner's closing words. These are the words that make me sure we can keep sane if only we un-hunch ourselves from our machines, our devices . . lean back on solid rock and gaze out.
"We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope."
Very sincerely yours,
Wallace Stegner
And very sincerely yours,
Gaea McGahee
Now I must go out - to a summer full of the backcountry - on the Mountain Desert Trek. So long.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

water on earth . . . day

Today - Earth Day - let's consider water. Water drying up, dirty water, and water coming in bottles.

Bottled water is weird. It's even unnatural! If you live in a nation where water - good for drinking - comes right out of the faucet then bottled water is a waste of money and materials. One thing that will make all our water worse is all the stuff we're putting into it. And making more bottled water (the irony) is polluting and wasting water by turning it into a commodity. Check out The Story of Stuff Project and this clarifying episode on The Story of Bottled Water.

In my travels through Peru and Bolivia, Egypt or Mexico . . . I've struggled with the bottled-water-issue because, well sometimes it's all there is to drink! By drinking it, I add to the production of plastic in our oceans AND take in whatever plastic-y toxin is leaching out of the bottle and into its contents. Yikes! Yet in these places - where the water coming from the tap isn't safe people need clean water. Not to mention many, many people don't have taps to turn on and drink from. In Bolivia I met some folks working with SODIS - an organization helping educate people about a way to get purified water by using the sun's UV rays to kill bacteria. PET-plastic bottles (or better yet) glass bottles filled with funky water, can be left in the sun for 6 hours allowing the sun's radiation to kill pathogens and make the water safe for drinking. This solution saves lives.

Finally, about water drying up - or being bought up, I recommend the documentary Flow: for the love of water. They offers some hearty sips for thought. The facts their website will link you to are shocking - 1.1 billion people on earth have no access to clean drinking water. No access. None. And this lack of water sanitation claims more lives through disease than any war claims through guns (

This Earth Day may those of us who can consider giving up the plastic bottle - or tradeing it for a glass one. And may we also consider a substance we're likely taking for granted - water.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

what's grand in utah

If ever you hanker for red rock canyon lands and the sense that you are an intrepid explorer head to Cedar Mesa and the Grand Gulch country of southern Utah. There you can throw on a backpack and hike into a spot like Collins Canyon where in a few hours you'll trek past Banister Ruin (above). It's well preserved thanks to the sheltered location and includes a roofed kiva!

These places housed the ancestors of today's People people. They dot the southwest and in Grand Gulch so many are tucked away in nooks and on south-facing sandstone ledges. They have lasted for centuries - time capsules that hold the history of a people.

They tell us that farmers lived here - managing to create enough surplus that they needed these clever storehouses for their corn crops. The canyons are well watered for an arid land - some have running streams and productive springs. The canyon walls that sheltered families were etched on too - here a collection of petroglyphs stand out, cut through the desert varnish (stained or oxidized rock layer) to reveal the lighter rock beneath.

On my second morning in a canyon labyrinth I bent to scoop water. The canyon walls were close here - they seemed to be on all sides, except for the blue strip above, and reflected in the running stream.

This places drew inhabitants for centuries, then they left and archaeologists and cowboys came. Writers, poets, and backpackers too. Edward Abbey roamed this land long enough to correctly (I believe) observe, “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit” . . how right on he was - still is.

Monday, April 12, 2010

dogs and other nations

Dogs have been our companions for ages. They may be descended from wolves or several species from the Canidea family, but we know we became fond of them long, long ago. In the southwest we can find their bones in the archaeological record sometimes buried with a person or with careful attention to their grave. Maybe they were offerings, maybe hunting companions or traveling companions. In the cool of a rock shelter, maybe they were warm sleepers. It's true that there are cut marks on some disarticulated bones. Perhaps some were eaten.

How we feel about our own dogs today is fairly diverse too. Some have jobs, some have homes, some I saw in Bolivia ran in packs and foraged for their food. The dog I knew was the kind of person I think of when I read Henry Beston's view of animals.

"We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth."
Henry Beston

I'm glad that as human beings we have for centuries founded friendships with these animal nations - to better enjoy the splendors and face the travails of life on earth.

Hanna pup
2000 - 2010

A dog's life must be a big adventure - and yours was . . . archaeological expeditions, escapes from peril, you were content with travel, dreaming rabbit-chase dreams. You kept us all company - you, a most loyal friend. Good dog. Good dog!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

dogs rule . . the beach

In San Fransisco we found the Fort Funston Dog Park - a land sculpted by the forces of nature and the footfalls of domestic packs. The dog-walkers of the city bring their charges down to the ocean and unleash them - literally. Very few pups were still tethered to a human counter-part. Leaving the city behind people and pets find freedom together or apart. People hang-glide from the cliffs, or para-sail, hike, rest, paint - all with dogs on the loose, descending dunes and running into waves. What a land-scape of escape!
The canine socialization seems highly successful - at least of the beach sample we observed. There was lots of frolicking and no notable fighting. The pup I brought (from the desert) ran into the water after the sticks I tossed and fled incoming waves on a quick set of three legs. All of this happens in-place of the fort's mid-20th century military maneuvers. The gun batteries of this former military outpost are still here, but defunct and broken. Today a dog-walking journey down the coast encounters dog Buddha and here you and the happiest dogs in town can picnic in the clefts of sea-worn rocks.
Leaving the sea was sad for the humans on this road trip, but the dog would have liked to run the shore forever.

Monday, March 15, 2010

the dead poet and the sea

Big Sur is a protected stretch of land along the western edge of the continent. About three hours south of San Fransisco - it's a place where few humans have built and where I drove the winding highway 1 at a slow, grazing pace. A journey here needs to allow for pulling into each lookout and gazing over precipice - looking to the ocean for signs of migration. If your road trip has little hike time, then the highway drive gives some satisfaction as it is precarious enough. And by making frequent stops, or by staying put on a razors edge, one may consider the greatness of Big Sur and hope, from this high vantage, to see whales.

I wanted to see this bit of coast because Robinson Jeffers - a dead poet - had made me aware of it - because it had exerted some power over his life. Living on the edge of land and sea, where fists of waves and wind-muscle pound and shape rock and tree - here Jeffers had sounded alarm and recorded thoughts that would lead us to identify him as an early environmentalist. I think Jeffers went out to live in this less populated place (at least, less populated in 1913) with his wife and their sons, to find peace in the wild and quite in the roar of the shouting sea. He rolled the stones for his Tor House up from the coast and watched as more humans came - moved in around this house at Carmel Point.

Maybe Jefers thought he could live there - better than the others - because his eye was keen toward the natural beauty and his humble cobbled home was borrowed from the shoreline. His voice spoke for this world, reminding humans to be a part of nature. He scolds, apart from nature we're like a severed hand in his poem The Answer. Jeffers, I think, recognized that to be a human and live in any place, we alter it - but perhaps the earth would always be more powerful and able to erase our careless traces. I hear this sentiment in Carmel Point.

Carmel Point

The extraordinary patience of things!
This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses-
How beautiful when we first beheld it,
Unbroken field of poppy and lupin walled with clean cliffs;
No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,
Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop rockheads-
Now the spoiler has come: does it care?
Not faintly. It has all time. It knows the people are a tide
That swells and in time will ebb, and all
Their works dissolve. Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty
Lives in the very grain of the granite,
Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff.-As for us:
We must uncenter our minds from ourselves;
We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident
As the rock and ocean that we were made from.

But Jeffers wrote edgy and haunting works, which feel appropriate to our life now and still I think they are little-heeded - we could have been listening to him since 1910. Maybe we will listen soon. Maybe now.

At one lookout, my sister and I saw the unmistakable sign of whales - waterspouts! First their exhalations, then their backs broke through the waves. This is what we had hoped to see. The gray whale migration is on, and while they are returning from the brink of extinction, their population may number 23,000 individuals only found in the Pacific.

Also found in the Pacific is a frightening amount of our rubbish - and I don't mean the bits I saw on the shoreline. The currents that move like enormous rivers stirring the seas have collected our buoyant trash - especially plastic - that we've launched into a perceived oblivion. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is vast - two times the size of Texas and deeper than the Golden Gate bridge is high. It's a flotilla of trash - what we're throwing away daily and on an ever-increasing scale, but there is no away. There's isn't only one garbage patch, but many. Captain Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, who discovered the Great Pacific gyre, says the soup is getting thicker. This trash is in my soup and yours too, in our actual food, because creatures that ingest it make their way up the food chain and into the bellies of the things we might eat. Plastic gets into everything and some things die of starvation with their bellies full. Nature has always been cruel and violent and survival a struggle. And now we give it this - sea bird parents feed their chicks our bottle caps and lighters. Our plastic breaks down to bits, mixing with phytoplankton, becoming the tiny plant's empty doppelganger.

The other side of nature's ferocious gnashing-toothed edge is a soft and soul-shaking beauty. The layered earth is squished, sculpted and lived on by those forms fit for survival. And fitful rest is due those survivors - like this loafing seaman warm in his blubber-wrap, asleep on a stormy shore.

"There is a great and quiet
water reaching to Asia and in
an hour or so the still stars will
show over it, but I am quieter
still inside than even the ocean
or the stars."
Robinson Jeffers

PS I've been thinking about what we're taking out of the ocean too. This documentary series about fish - The End of the Line - is one that ecosystems beneath the waves need us to view. We may be easily awed by the rise and fall of waves against shores - meditating on the sound of their sizzle and the pounding beat. But we are emptying the seas of creatures and filling them with the bobbing cast-offs we thought we'd never see again.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

city ride

San Fransisco. You can ride this city - taking highways to carry you up and over the hilly streets. Or you may get down on those streets for the urban hike. You can bike, take trains, go by street car, or cab, or add another car body to the traffic flow. Whether you mean to or not, every walk in this rolling place becomes a hike. I could have calves like Schwarzenegger if I traipsed around here long enough. Up and down the steep hills-for-roads, I thought - things could really get away from you here! Strollers, groceries, cars - my sister lost a complete carton of fresh blue berries. They spilled and the city took them from her like an offering. No 10 second rule. People on roller skates must have nerves of steel!

The place is a microcosm with collections of people and things from across the globe, a harbor to world goods, shipping in that we may buy (or some may buy). There's China Town, and Japan Town and The Castro - and even famous corners like Haight-Ashbury where I stood and wondered about that Summer of Love (while eating a crepe) . . . hmmm counterculture, communal living, freedom to do anything! There is the vast Golden Gate park where you wander through forest. You could live there. And some people do.

I was lost often in San Fransisco and I've trekked a lot of cities - La Paz, Lima, Cairo - maybe it's those hills - I had to find places to get perspective and landmarks, but I couldn't always see those. And yes, there is an ocean and a big bridge, but really sometimes, in a maze of house-lined streets ziggy like ric-rac, I could find no sea, no golden gate!

I hung above San Fransisco in the Starlight Room of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. Perched there I could see the city lit up at night, visible miles above us as a rosy glow so that the astronauts and stars may see it too. I was up there to view a fashion debut of handmade dresses - all sewn by one entrepreneurial young woman. They were feathered and silky, short with gauze and crocheted parts (maybe even ric-rac) wrapped around gals who would tell you how they loved them. There was a sudden photo shoot when the dim, crowded space was assaulted by light(ning). When the dark returned so did the crowd's comfort - and they danced.

I left soon after that night. Maybe I've lived so long in small places and cannot love cities. I can stare at them and ride them too, but soon enough I have to get off. So I left for Big Sur hoping to see fewer of the things we've built and more of the nature, and even . . migrating whales.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

three-legged dog blog

Today I travel with a three-legged dog. For years this old dog had four legs and found plenty of trouble. Hit by a mystery car while I was in Egypt - my folks nursed her til I returned for dog-and-human swim therapy. She had a strong mend on that back femur and a tan. Then she stuck her head in the mouth of rattlesnake and barely recovered her life and senses.

This fall a fat round bulb sprang from the top of her hind foot - a tumor. I spent quiet hours and inner-looking hours during winter days in Albuquerque and Taos waiting for biopsy results. I called people and I dreaded and wondered about what to do. Would it be possible for the pup to pull through another hard time?

Her vet thought so. But she would have to lose the leg. She did and recovered in southern New Mexico on a special pecan farm (more in a later post). She was road-ready the week before Valentines Day. Since then we've traveled to Phoenix, Tucson, and are in Oakland, California. There's a big bridge out here - we'll cross it in a day or two. Our last spectacular bridge visit was the structure spanning the Rio Grande Gorge in Taos, NM - you can see a dog serious about getting a good view below . . . this was her last four-legged hike day.

Today we walked down International Blvd in Oakland, CA - once called East 14th Street it became a rough neighborhood when people moved to other suburbs and left houses vacant - then boarded up. This morning it seemed like a lively place (maybe the name change helps focus us on what we may be proud to find here). It felt like somewhere South or Central America with pinata shops and cake shops and quinceanera dresses in windows. And on International Blvd I could have stopped for the international cuisine - Chinese, Mexican, Italian and more. But I had coffee and "organic banana bread" (that's how I knew I was in Cali) to share with a pooch who gets more attention than she wants these days. Everyone wanted to know how she learned to walk on three legs. But that's the thing. She just keeps going - not knowing to be sad over the loss of a limb, or to look back on a life with some major recoveries - and big adventures. This dog's brain isn't wired to worry and lament. Nope. She's forward looking (for eatable things).

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


"And its one life, and its this life, and its beautiful . . ." First Aid Kit - Hard Believer

Last fall I traveled in Peru and Bolivia. Those places sound exotic, but is it by virtue of their distance from home? The truth is they are similar in most big ways and the other-ness one feels - it's the trick of culture shock. People show up vibrantly against the backdrop of a new landscape, a different city. The things they do seems surprising. Oh, it's easy to romanticize when you travel. Sure, the Bolivian women - in long black braids and aprons all day squeezing fresh juice from every fruit available - was unique, was new. But it's juice. Why not try to see all the earth as special? Catch the details - find all precious things. Think about the juice - and the people here, there. Looking out a bus window I would try to absorb the passing world. Why not absorb always?

I returned in November to take a family road trip to the Grand Canyon. I knew the sense of "the extraordinary" could stay around me - a lens giving sharp focus to every day and every place of one's life. I wanted the lens to stay in place as I roamed in Arizona and now in New Mexico - my home.

I tell myself - and you can imagine it's true - the southwestern US is always ripe for adventure. Its wide-open spaces lure. Its nestled communities collect dust and invite the curious. Southwestern cities with fabulous culture, traffic, art, music, pollution, and people are as other as Peru, as Bolivia, as Egypt.