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The Last Shrine: first chapter.

            The sun bore down; bright and hot, glaring as it had every day of Skander’s life. He shielded his eyes and squinted as a red-tailed hawk traced a lazy circle through the desert sky. It dove, and Skander imagined himself as its prey, heart beating fast in terror, or possibly, unaware, calmly nibbling a morsel of foliage in its last moments on this beautiful spring day. The young cleric lost the bird among the sharp rocks that towered above his home; the small shrine known as Sundial Spring. Here in the lee of the bare mountains, Skander had lived out the last ten years of his life, tending to the needs of the trickle of worshippers who bothered to make the laborious climb from the cool river valley below.

He exhaled slowly as he turned from the mountains, his eyes settling thirstily on the shimmering blue waters of the spring. Their impassive surface sent a dancing reflection playing against the bright limestone columns that surrounded the pool. Six pillars remained of the colonnade that had once bounded the spring. Skander searched his memory. Had he ever read when the columns were erected? Perhaps they had once seemed impressive, but today they seemed pitifully dwarfed by the massive blades of amber-hued sandstone that towered behind. The highest spire cast its long shadow into the town below, tracing the curve of the Sossin River as it meandered through the valley. Sundial Spring was dedicated to the mountain god Anak, whose heavy-browed, black-bearded visage scowled out from carvings on every stone surface, but Skander saw the god’s true monument in the rocks themselves.

The cleric tugged uncomfortably at the woolen vestments that clung doggedly to his body in several chafing, sweaty places. There were many places in the vast realm of Batarrna where clergy of the mountain gods snuggled cozily in their icy eyries, grateful for such warm vestments. Sundial Springs of the boiling Near South was not one of them. Perhaps Anak, omnisciently aware of the impractical choice of garments, would understand if Skander only dipped his toes in the waters. He leaned over for the thousandth time to see if he could see the submerged cavern that led into the underworld. If he dove in, he could finally glimpse the water’s source. Skander frowned at his own blasphemy, blanching at the dread, statue scowl of the Bone Breaker. The god brandished his fearsome halberd in a threatening pose. “Forbidden!” the cleric shouted; voice gravelly in his best impression of Bishop Gustav. “For the gods have fixed their canon ‘gainst it!” Skander smiled, fondly missing the old man, and a bit in the hopes that he would not look mad if someone saw him talking to himself.

“Skander!”.

The cleric’s heart jolted. It was the first voice he had heard in three days. Making a conscious effort to calm himself, he turned and saw Bodrick, a shepherd who tended a small flock in the nearby hills. Bodrick was running, panting. Skander had run with the shepherd many times over the years, if he was breathless, he must truly have come here at a dead sprint. The cleric watched him approaching. Bodrick was flushed with the run, and as Skander saw his friend’s fit, athletic form, he felt the usual flare of jealousy, his mind drifting to his own failings in that regard. He ran a self-conscious hand over his bulging middle.

“Hey, Skander,” Bodrick breathed, holding a hand out as if to ask for a moment. Even Bodrick’s clothing gave Skander a pang of envy. The shepherd wore a loose practical tunic with short sleeves, perfect for a life in the desert hills. He took off his dingy short-brimmed cap and wiped his brow.

“Who’s minding your sheep, boy?” Skander hoped his face looked impassive. On the one hand, he knew it took very little to break up the monotony of a shepherd’s days, but on the other, he had to admit to a mild nibble of curiosity. Nonetheless, calling Bodrick ‘boy’ was ridiculous. Skander was slightly the taller of the two young men, and the gods knew he was much heavier, but as far as the cleric had ever been able to learn, they were only weeks apart in age. He couldn’t resist the awkward jab though. The last time they had seen each other, perhaps several months ago, they had wrestled. Despite Skander’s size, Bodrick had thrown him and pinned him quickly. Not such a big deal really, but of course Seleriya had been there watching. Skander felt a whirl in his stomach and a rush of blood to his face just remembering the way her beautiful green eyes had flashed with laughter to see him floundering on the ground.

“Macey’s got them,” answered Bodrick. There wasn’t a trace of wind in his speech. Skander marveled that he could have recovered so quickly from the run. “Ever since she scared that big Merino, the rest just fall in line. She’ll be fine. Look at this.” The shepherd fumbled for something in his belt pouch.

From what he could see, the small object Bodrick found was a stone. “A stone, Bodrick? Your pastures are practically desert. I’m sure that’s not the first stone you’ve found.” He couldn’t help teasing a bit more but immediately felt he had gone too far. Since the shepherd’s father had died, he and his mother lived in poverty, eking out a living from a small plot of the least productive land in the valley. He was ashamed of using it against his friend and promised himself he wouldn’t do it again.

Bodrick came closer and seemed to brush aside the barb, or at least not to let it diminish the proud grin on his wide-featured face. He held out a thick, callused palm. In the middle of his hand was a hunk of rock that even Skander’s untrained eye could see was more than a mundane pebble. It was green; the subdued glassy green of jade, and its smooth surface was pitted with craters like the surface of the Great Moon seen through a scope. “It’s not natural rock,” said Bodrick. “I think its manmade. You know? Like something left over from mining…” He accented his final word, raising his eyebrows suggestively.

Skander began to see where his friend was going with this. “Mining? You mean like…”

Bodrick cut him off excitedly. “It has to be from the mines! When I asked him about the legend, my father told me that if there were mines in these mountains, there would be slag left. And he’d never seen any sign of it.” The shepherd shook the stone between two fingers, smiling. “Well, I think I found it. This has got to be it. Right?”

Skander was genuinely surprised to hear anyone over the age of eleven saying such things. He knew the myth of Enderion’s Delving. Of course, he did, just as every person in North Bend Valley knew it. He remembered asking Bishop Gustav years ago and receiving a similarly dismissive answer. The legend claimed that centuries ago the last of the Lonely Kings had drawn valknite from the ground here, refined it, and turned it into the enchanted weapons that had unified an empire. As an adult and a scholar, Skander knew the stories for a fantasy. He had read many of the histories of the early imperial conquests. Enderion hadn’t needed magical rocks to unify the Batarrnan realm. The great king had updated his army’s weaponry, crafted new echelon formations, and adopted innovative methods of conscription, all to brilliant tactical effect. Skander agreed with the historians, that was how you won wars, not with mystical stones. He felt the same thrill he always did when dredging up facts and figures from his learning. Skander’s pride left him feeling of magnanimous. He knew valknite was a figment of the folk imagination, but he decided to humor Bodrick.

Skander held out his hand and was surprised to see a flicker of hesitation before his friend placed the stone in his outstretched hand. Whatever the truth of the stone, the cleric saw that Bodrick believed it held power. Skander turned it over, feeling the smooth and rough surfaces alternately slide pleasurably against his skin, then lightly abrade his soft fingers. The color was unique and called to mind the volcanic stones that were common in the Near South; but those were red, brown, even glassy black, never green. He tried to affect a scholarly frown of concentration for his friend’s benefit. “It is strange, Bodrick. Like nothing I’ve ever seen.” Skander meant it. “But that mine is just a silly legend.”

Now Bodrick smiled, a strange, confident smile that Skander hadn’t seen before. Without speaking, he held out his hand. Bodrick’s lips were an inscrutable grimace, but his eyes danced mischievously. Now Skander felt a slight reluctance as he handed back the nugget. He watched as Bodrick drew out a worn piece of leather attached to a cord. The cleric watched as the shepherd nocked the stone into what he realized was a sling. “See that little hollow near the top of the spire?” Bodrick asked.

He was gesturing back in the direction of the sun and Skander had to squint as he followed the pointing finger. The sun made his eyes water as he strained to force himself to look. At the highest point of the formation known as Twelvespike, the gnomon of the sundial that cast its shadow over North Bend, he could just make out an indentation. It was hard to gauge from here how big it was. “I see it,” he said, careful not to say anything stupid. “But that must be 300 feet up,” he added. He knew next to nothing about slings, but he could guess what Bodrick had in mind and it seemed like an impossible shot. Many times, he had watched Bodrick sling with deadly accuracy, training on improvised targets and even hitting the occasional predator that troubled his flock; but at this distance, with such an oddly shaped bullet? He sensed an opportunity. “Why don’t you let me put a few flinders on it?” Skander said and winced, realizing that once again he had forgotten his friend’s situation. He wondered if Bodrick had a single coin to his name, much less anything to bet.

Bodrick answered with a wicked smile and a violent, lightning-like underhand spin of the sling. The smooth, practiced motion was a blur that Skander tried and failed to follow, but the puff of rock dust a second later was clear enough. The cleric felt a thrill seeing that the impact was right in the center of the target and felt a cheer burst from him despite how wrong Bodrick had just proven him. Instead of griping, he slapped Bodrick’s outstretched hand hard. Without thinking, Skander followed through and caught the shepherd’s hand again on the reverse, the way they had done as children. “Astral,” he heard himself congratulate, a strange feeling of pride for his friend swelling inside him. “So, we’ve established that I know nothing about slings, which we already knew. What of it?”

Bodrick shook his head. “No, you were right ‘mano. I could never make that shot. Straight up? With a stone shaped like that?” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Skander noticed for the first time that a few dark hairs were poking through and felt another wave of nonsensical jealousy. “Maybe with the smoothest rock from the river. Maybe on my best day. But maybe not even then,” Bodrick continued.

“I’d like to see you do it again.” Skander meant it. He pictured himself accompanying Bodrick to the games this coming harvest season. The shepherd was unlettered and naïve, perhaps he could use a friend if he went to compete, a more educated, sophisticated person to help him avoid the pitfalls of the city. A realization cut Skander’s reverie short. “Voids,” he cursed. “Too bad you wasted it on target practice. We’ll never find it in all those rocks.”

Bodrick’s expression was another Skander had never seen. For a few awkward seconds, he watched his friend’s face, looking for some hint. Then Bodrick seemed to make a decision. “Skander,” the shepherd said. “That’s where it gets really weird.” Without explaining further, he strode uphill leaving the cleric to follow. He hadn’t gone far when he bent to the ground and picked up what appeared to be the same stone from the broken jumble of sandstone talus that littered the slope.

Skander felt his eyes widen. “What the?”

“I know,” answered Bodrick. “I’ve been shooting it all day. The first few times I kind of accidentally found it again, but then I realized I seemed to know just where to look. I never find the normal stones I shoot. You’re right, my pastures are filled with stones, but every week I walk down to the river and find more of the smooth, round ones that are best for bullets. This is…” Bodrick paused as if unsure whether to say more. “It’s a little scary,” he finally admitted. “And you haven’t even seen what the stones do to the things I hit. You think it’s easy to make a cloud of rock dust we can see from three hundred feet away?”

Skander felt an odd, boyish thrill. He couldn’t contain his excitement anymore. “Could it be valknite?” he asked aloud, letting the words linger.

He had meant the question rhetorically, but Bodrick surprised him by answering. “I don’t think so,” he said. “You would know better than me but wasn’t valknite a shiny metal. Like silver or something?”

The cleric was flattered as he always was when his friends came to him with such questions. He focused. Pages turned in his mind like a book in his hands. Yes, there it was in an illustration he had seen; a metallic sheen like silver twig coins. He had seen precious few silver coins in this backward region, but those he had were imprinted in his mind as well. Skander’s mental eye rarely failed him. He smiled as he realized they needed more information. “There’s only one way to be sure. Let’s go to the library.” As usual, the thought of heading into the book collection brought a broad smile to his face. Without waiting for Bodrick’s reply, he whirled and walked toward the three-story building attached to the shrine.

Bishop Gustav’s small library was a calming place for Skander; his favorite part of a small world. He had no other words for it. Since he had come to live with the bishop, and he had very few memories of the time before, the cleric had whiled away many happy hours among its shelves. He knew the tomes and scrolls lining its walls like friends- perhaps better than he knew he friends- but somehow there were always new possibilities for exploration.

Skander stood at the entrance to the library, an intricate series of columns, doors, and hanging panels that formed a maze of sorts. It had been a long time since Skander had thought about the path he needed to tread to get through, but now he looked at Bodrick. Something about the shepherd’s appearance troubled him. “You’re filthy. Scrape your boots here.”

“Really?” Bodrick said with a raised eyebrow.

Skander felt annoyance. “Yes, really. I know you’re not much for reading, but this place is as holy as the waters outside.” Canonically speaking that was not true, but it felt right.

“Fine,” grumbled Bodrick. “But quit brushing at me like my mother. Next thing you’ll be licking your hand and smoothing my cowlick in place.” He stamped his boots and brushed his tunic, knocking a cloud of grime and dust.

Skander watched in fascination as the warm air leaving the library lifted the dust, gently dragging it and wafting it away. The cleric remembered Gustav’s explanation that the elaborate labyrinth served to bring cooling air into the main chamber of the library. The room was lit by an ancient six-foot-high stained-glass window. Its ornate panes told a visual story of the legend of Bimmuk the shepherd. During the day, the images cascaded onto the worktables from the window. As an acolyte, Skander had often traced the projections into his copybook, laboring over Bimmuk’s battle with the mole dragon. He winced remembering the raps on the knuckles when Gustav had seen him wasting paper. The brilliant windows should have filled the library with air heated by the desert sun, but in some way, the builders had created the maze at the doors so that warm air would filter out and cool mountain air could get in. Gustav had called it an ingenious feat of ancient engineering, but as Skander watched the dust gather up and leave as if on its own, he suspected there was some glamer of minor magic on the building.

“There, your fussiness. Am I presentable?” Bodrick performed a mocking bow.

“It will do.” Skander moved over the worn flagstones toward the shelves. His instincts guided him to the southeastern wall, to a stack just below the great window. He passed over the reflected image of Bimmuk loosing a sling bullet and for the first time felt a glimmer of recognition. He said nothing about it to Bodrick, staying focused on the task at hand. “I thought I saw something here once.” He ran his hand gently over the books, calmed by their familiar feel, passing the thick leather spines of Tridorio’s Great Trees of the Northwest, The Uses of Ever Blessed Cinnabar, and Fifty Beasts of the Dryptic Deeps. It was exactly where he expected. The book was a broad tome of light tan hide: The Tales of the Lonely Kings. Wrinkling his nose at a musty smell both acrid and faintly pleasant, Skander pulled the volume down. He couldn’t make out what animal the hide cover had come from, but it bore large, black spots and was worn through to the leather in several places. The fine hairs edging the title were green with age. A sensation of deep time made the cleric woozy as he wondered just how old this book was; a hundred years, two hundred? He gingerly opened the cover and thumbed through the pages with a sense of purpose, sensing rather than actively remembering what page he was looking for.

“Here.” He held the heavy book out to Bodrick, hoping his friend wouldn’t see the slight quiver he felt in his arm muscles. The page was an illustration; a drawing of a bulbous blue nugget of brilliant blue with a caption that read: valknite in victorious sunlight, middle latitudes. What in the dark, black void did victorious mean? “It’s blue not silver, but it still doesn’t look like our stone.” He felt a surge of disappointment, but a lingering doubt nagged at him. Skander never forgot a picture. So, where had he gotten the idea that it was silver?

“So, it’s not valknite,” said Bodrick. Skander heard annoyance. “What is it? Ore? Something else?”

The cleric knew Bodrick had little time for books and the things written in them, but he found himself frustrated with the shepherd’s impatience. “Give me a second.” He ran his finger over the lines below the drawing. Skander had a sudden flashback to a long-ago session with Bishop Gustav, making his way through Zalanday’s painfully translated version of the epic of Dressik. There was a poem covering the bottom half of the page. He felt a revulsion. What was wrong with prose? “I can’t get anything from this,” he complained.

“Yeah, me either,” said Bodrick flatly. Skander noticed he hadn’t even looked at the page.

It was hard to strike a thoughtful pose with three wispy, nearly translucent blond hairs on his chin, but Skander made the gesture anyway. He turned a broad page, gently, attempting not to crack the dry leaf. “Maybe there’s more, something about slag, or mining,” he murmured. He found another illustration, a black and white copy of an engraving depicting a trapezoidal building with a cavernous opening. Men in heavy leather aprons busied themselves around the building. There was a caption: Of the extraction of the Godsmetal from the sully earth. Skander sighed in frustration. Beneath the drawing were more lines of verse. He read the first line four times without getting any sense of the meaning. “Who wrote this damn thing?” he grumbled. The cleric felt Bodrick pacing behind him. It wasn’t doing anything to help his concentration. “Can you sit down or something?”

“Did you find it? Is it slag? Is it ore?”

Skander fought the impulse to shove Bodrick into a chair. “I don’t know. Give me a few hours and I might be able to puzzle out this page.”

“Hours? Forget it. If it’s slag, there was a furnace.”

“I didn’t exactly say it was…”

“If there was a furnace, there was a mine. Let’s go find it,” he said beaming. Bodrick’s voice had gotten much louder, his eyes were wide with excitement. He looked ten years younger.

The shepherd was heading out the door by the time Skander had carefully closed the book. He left it on the table with a sharp regret not to have placed it back on the shelf. The cleric promised to finish reading later. “Wait for me!” he called out, tracing his usual quick path through the maze. He emerged into the morning sun, blinking. Bodrick was nowhere to be seen. Skander toward the hills. Was the shepherd that much faster than he was?

An echoing voice gave him his answer. “Voids, Skander! How do you get out of this damned thing?”

Skander laughed to himself as he retraced his steps. In the gloomy labyrinth, dazzled as his eyes were, he strained to find Bodrick facing the wrong direction, his face six inches from an enameled wooden panel. Skander reached out to help him.

“I know you’re not trying to hold my hand,” said the shepherd suddenly, startling Skander with a rapid about face.

“Of course not,” lied Skander. Bodrick had just looked so childlike for a second. “Follow me.” He led the way through a quick series of turns.”

“I swear I followed your path exactly,” complained Bodrick.

Skander ignored him. “Where should we go?” he asked. He hoped to salve Bodrick’s pride with the admission of his own ignorance.

The shepherd studied the hills and Skander admired the way his cool gaze projected authority and knowledge. “I found the stone… there. At the north end of my fields.” He pointed to his hardscrabble plot. “It must have washed down from the mountains somewhere above. What do you think?”

Skander tried not to smile. There was nothing he could offer Bodrick by way of advice about this landscape. The shepherd knew every inch for ten miles in every direction, while Skander spent most of the sunny days in his library. Of course, that had taught him a bit about water and gravity. “I think the stone probably came down, yeah.”

“I’d say Twelvespike Arroyo is the most likely place.”

Skander followed his gaze to a small canyon that opened high above them in the mountains. Above it stood the massive plinth of Twelvespike. The formation got its name from the shadow it cast down on the town, but Skander had always seen in it the finger of Anak, pointing ominously toward the town of North Bend. He frowned, realizing what Bodrick had in mind.

“What do you say? You up for a bit of a hike?”

Skander wasn’t, not even remotely. It wasn’t quite noon, and he was boiling already, standing here on flat ground. The thought of trudging into the mountains made him queasy. Skander looked at Bodrick; hale and healthy, rocking on the balls of his feet like a player about to run onto a ballcourt. He would be damned if he would let his friend know how little he wanted to climb into the mountains. Skander breathed deeply and summoned a smile from the depths. “Lead the way!” he commanded. His hoped his false enthusiasm was convincing.

Covid comes to Tatooine

                So, this is entirely anecdotal, but it seems to me like it’s getting real with Covid lately. I know it has been intense in many parts of the country over the last six months, but it seems a bit more unavoidable lately. We’ve been treating it as a clear and present danger in New Mexico, but a part of me kept thinking like Luke Skywalker. It’s all such a long way from here.

                I had guilty thoughts about Covid in those first months. I was treating it like it was real, but I kept thinking, did I actually know anyone who had been sick? Did I know anyone who had even tested positive? I certainly didn’t know anyone who had died. Then this last month, we had a nurse come by to do assessments for life insurance. No, we aren’t worried about dying from Covid. The only correlation to the pandemic was that I finally had time to make the arrangements. Over the conversation, the nurse told me her mother had died due to Covid. I realized that was the first even second-degree connection I had found with a Covid death.

                But in the last three weeks, it has hit home a bit more. Our babysitter tested positive, and we were lucky not to have anyone else in the family get it. Once we heard she had been exposed, we immediately told her to stay out, got ourselves tested and warned the kids’ school. As a precaution, she had been wearing a mask when driving, and I’d like to think that was the deciding factor in protecting the kids. It gives some illusion of control.

                What we couldn’t control was the fallout. We had to tell the school of course, so that meant a two-week quarantine order for our family. This was when I was just getting over the months of quarantine dating back to March. I love my little monkeys to death but being stuck in the house for even longer was not productive or enjoyable for anyone. Day care was not an option if there was even a chance they might have been exposed to the virus. We went into emergency planning mode. I considered just knocking off and taking them to visit grandma until the start of the next school session in late October. In the end, I decided to bite the bullet and just have them at home.

                It wasn’t that bad of course. Once I settled down and became a rational being once again, I realized we only had eight school days to get through. I resisted thinking of it in terms of hours, minutes, and seconds. We watched TV, zoomed with friends, and generally recapitulated those halcyon days of absolute quarantine from the spring.

                But when the day came to go back, it wasn’t over. We got an email the night before they were to return saying that a teacher had been exposed. I could only send back one of my kids. Then another email came the next day saying that we couldn’t even do that. School would be closed until the fall session. We were planning a trip to see grandma (in a green zone by New Mexico law), so I thought I would change our flights to a bit earlier. United supposedly has a no-change-fee policy. When I tried to invoke it, they happily informed me that I would only be on the hook for a four-hundred dollar per person fare difference. Thanks, United!

                I decided to stay and weather the storm at home. There are only five more school days until our trip. I can do it. I won’t say my mental state has been top shelf, but I’m getting through the final stretch. The last straw in Covid seeming manifest has been the revelation that Donald Trump has it. My first thought was to remember the scene in The Stand where even the president gets the Superflu. If we can’t protect the chief executive, who can we protect, right?

                But the guy wasn’t doing anything to protect himself or anyone around him. He created a culture of going without masks and even went so far as to make fun of Joe Biden for his distancing measures. Like a lot of things with the administration, the positive policy has been less dangerous than the example set. Millions of Americans are exposing themselves by not wearing masks because of a culture that only lib-tards wear them. I’ve been continuing to live my life during the pandemic, but wearing a mask seems like a bare minimum, with very little cost. When we were driving through Wyoming this summer, we got dirty looks from people because of our masks. Why? Who does it hurt?

                Anyway, regardless of how little the president has done to avoid the virus, it still marks a saturation point to me that he caught it, that my babysitter caught it, that teachers at my children’s school got it. For months, our actions have just been precaution, or solidarity with more heavily hit areas. Now that has changed. Even out here in the Outer Rim Territories Covid has become a manifest reality.

Civil War Two?

                So I really hate to get political, or rather I hate to give the impression that I may be getting partisan, but I was a little alarmed when I saw Trump’s comments this week on whether he would “commit to a peaceful transfer of power after the election”. I watched it several times to make sure I was hearing it right, and as I always do, I tried to see both sides of this conversation. Honestly, the most generous reading I could come up with was that the president simply didn’t understand the phrase “peaceful transfer of power”. Considering that this is a man whose entire career has been one long act of false bravado, I could imagine that he was perhaps just refusing to even countenance the idea of losing the election.

                But what came out of his mouth was a refusal to abide by the most basic principle of American governance. The long history of peaceful relinquishment of power is one of the only tenable arguments for American exceptionalism. It is ironic that a president who claims to think America is great would refuse to abide by one tradition that actually does make us great. The idea of a president refusing to leave office is mostly silly, but I began to imagine what would happen.

                First off, we may be saved from this scenario by a landslide Democratic victory. I’m generally not a fan of huge mandates for either party, because I am committed to a principled neutrality. I think that handing the keys to either of these ships of fools would be the worst thing for our country. Gridlock is the only way to keep them all in check and let America get on with business. But if one of the parties is threatening some low-grade civil war if they lose, I suppose I would have to hold my nose and pull for a big blue win.

                That doesn’t look terribly likely though. What feels most likely is a narrow Biden margin. In this case, we’d be looking at Mr. Syracuse sulking in the White House for several months. Hopefully, that would give enough time for the Supreme Court to make a Bush v. Gore decision on the election. I know people are bent out of shape about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death and the possible appointment of another conservative justice, but I really do think the court will decide by conscience not party. These are professional attorneys who understand the law and they serve for life, so they have little incentive to curry favorites. I’m not a psephologist of any kind, but I don’t put much stock in the conspiracy theories about voting. I think the court would decide in favor of Biden.

                Now our scenarios get really wild. Trump doesn’t strike me as a physically courageous man, but what would happen if he refused to leave? Would a standoff occur? Would it be in DC? New York? Or would Trump attempt to rule as some anti-pope from Mar-A-Lago? In DC, the population would clearly be hostile to Trump. I don’t think the capital would be a good place for him to stay, but if he did, we would have 27 different law enforcement agencies who would potentially be called upon to remove him. I don’t know whose responsibility it would be, probably because no American president has ever been irresponsible enough to talk this way. I’m not sure anyone knowns. Would it be up to the Secret Service to defect? Would you have multiple agencies making different decisions and possibly coming to blows between themselves? Lincoln had to depend on the services of the Pinkerton Agency to ensure his personal security during the first days of the Civil War. I’m not sure the lines are drawn any more firmly today. Would Trump need to rely on private security forces? Would they back him?

                I’d like to take it for granted that the military would follow the law in deciding whether or not to support a rogue president. I suppose I do in my heart of hearts. But in these days, it seems at least remotely possible that the question could be up in the air. To reference the events of 1861 again and the war I hope we can continue to refer to as the first and only American Civil War, each branch of the military made its own decisions. The Navy went overwhelmingly with the Union and the Army, especially the officers went south. I think this is how it would go again. Politically, the Navy and Air Force are less conservative, and geographically there would be very little ability for the red states to support much of a navy. But the Army at the officer level is dominated by right-leaning, white, and mostly evangelical people. That isn’t as true at the rank and file level, but most of the expertise would go red, I think.

                So, if Trump could manage to survive in the short term. I think the Army would back him. That would be the most likely way for him to succeed. In the highly unlikely event of a long-term war, the higher population of the blue states, the fact that the Army enlisted population is much more diverse, and the fact that the blue states would control nearly the entire American coastline would prove decisive.

                But like most fantasy scenarios of modern war, this leaves out the truly decisive factor of geopolitics in the last century. What would happen to the nuclear arsenal? The world has never seen, aside from some low-grade regional insurgencies in India, a civil war in a nuclear armed country. Even when the Soviet Union fell, nations like Ukraine relinquished their weapons (much to their later chagrin). In the United States, the Navy would control the submarine fleet, while the Air Force would control the bombers and the missile silos. But if quick-thinking and politically right-leaning members of the Army moved to seize either the bombers or land-based missiles, we could quickly have a standoff where conventional might would be nearly meaningless. So, this is the truly frightening scenario, where nuclear blackmail could be used to keep an electorally neutered president in office. It seems too dark to even contemplate a president holding the country hostage this way. Thank goodness Trump has shown such restraint throughout his presidential term.

Orlando: a Biography- Virginia Woolf

It occurs to me that it’s a little strange for a man to write about Virginia Woolf in general, and Orlando specifically. Not for any good reason, but it’s an oddity. Why should a book that is a reflection on gender roles and identity be the sole province of women? Well, I picked it up because I have a lifelong goal of trying to read every book in my house and I needed a fiction book in my queue. Overall, I have a fondness for writing in this era, the early twentieth century. (Is it called modernism, or Edwardian? Someone please enlighten me.) I enjoyed Somerset Maugham, T.S. Eliot, and the British war writers like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. I’m also partial to historical fiction, so this seemed like a good fit.

                Orlando turns out not to be a terrific work of historical fiction. It drifts through eras and setting without the benefit of the kind of research one expects from authors like Gore Vidal or Kenneth Roberts. But that isn’t the point of the book. Woolf paints an impressionistic picture of these time periods with just enough detail to set a scene as Orlando lives through the Elizabethan, Georgian, Industrial Revolution, and Modern eras. Specific historical events are painted over and skipped, most notably the First World War. That said, the images of the frozen river and London in the time of Shakespeare are powerful. The imagery of the English countryside and seasons are evocative, and the vocabulary is a treasure trove throughout the book, but it just isn’t a proper historical fiction.

The film does a better job with historical setting, both because it is a visual medium where changes of clothing can serve to set a historical scene, and because there are so many conventions to draw on in film making for different eras. It occurs to me that this may be true for the writing in the book as well. Orlando is considered a satire on periods of English literature and that may be apparent in the language throughout the book. If that is the case it would be a cool technique, but I missed it dolt that I am.

                Why did I watch the film? Well, for one, the edition of the book that I have is a huge advertisement for the movie. The cover is Tilda Swinton in Elizabethan male costume. Stills from the film abound on the back cover. For another reason, I often gain a great deal from watching a film adaptation of a book. As long as it hews fairly closely to the book that is. I have a bad habit of drifting off mentally during a book, distracted by worldly concerns or prompted to tangential thought by something I read. Sometimes that leaves me missing vital points in the plot. I read and enjoyed The Hunt for Red October for instance, but completely lost the thread in certain places. Watching the movie cleared up quite a bit for me, especially the sub-plot about the radiation badges and the fake nuclear reactor incident. In Orlando, I somehow trailed off and missed what is probably the most important scene in the book. After surviving a revolt or coup in Turkey, the protagonist goes into a death-like trance and wakes up as a woman. Several pages had gone by before I realized what had happened, and I didn’t understand why it had.

                As far as I know, the book never answers or seeks to answer the question of why Orlando lives for centuries, or why he/she undergoes a spontaneous sex change. The film hints that the Highlander-like immortality is a kind of glamer laid by Quentin Crisp’s androgynous Queen Elizabeth. If this happened in the book, I must have been wool-gathering again. As to the sex change, as far as I can tell it is a deux ex machina in book and film alike. Overall, the movie makes a lot of changes to the story, especially to the ending. In the book, Orlando doesn’t lose her home, which I thought was strange when reading. The whole legal controversy that ensures when a landowner magically transitions to a woman was rather glossed over. In the film, this point marks a complete change to the storyline where Orlando ends up a single, dispossessed mother on a motorcycle. The movie ends in what appear to be 1993 which I thought was an appropriate change. The book ends on its own date of publication.

                The film had a few fun quirks. I enjoyed the absence of subtitles. There is even a good joke told entirely in French that must have been lost on nearly everyone who watched it, at least in America. Orlando tells his paramour Sasha (not a woman’s name by the way) that the English only speak English. Sasha asks how they talk to foreigners and Orlando answers that they speak English louder. It’s a solid burn on English speakers and it gives the art house crowd a quick thrill of feeling superior. Tilda Swinton is great in this movie and as far as I know she was relatively unknown at the time. When the movie breaks the fourth wall, I had flashbacks of something else. It took me a minute to realize that it was to Fleabag. Phoebe Waller-Bridge must have been channeling this movie on some level. Even the tones of Waller’s perfectly posh accent are a dead-on match for Swinton.

                I don’t want to delve far into the feminism of this book. I saw nothing particularly controversial to a modern reader. I agree that women should be allowed to own property and pursue careers and it seems obvious. But I’m sure that’s only on the surface. I hinted before that I felt like a stranger in a strange land with such subjects and it’s true. I’m aware how well-trodden this book is in such circles. I might as well try to pontificate to Richard Feynman on quantum theory. But I would like to make an open request that there be more guys like me thinking and talking about gender. The only time I’ve ever seen anything like that was in Fight Club. That was the only discussion of male gender I’ve ever seen that wasn’t directly related to war. Not that it said anything terribly smart or correct about masculinity, but it was talking about it, which was a change. Men tend not to think about being men the way that fish don’t spend a lot of time thinking about water. I guess I’m saying that there should be an Orlando for boys.

The Dalton Highway: Part One

                I don’t know what Fairbanks, Alaska is like when there isn’t a pandemic going on, but it didn’t put its best foot forward on my visit. That was disappointing, because at first glance, downtown was promising. The Chena River flows right through with a handful of pedestrian bridges crossing. There are nice little parks along the river, and the kind of density in building stock that usually means a downtown will be full explore. In practice, the parks were made a bit less welcoming by packs of aggressive and intoxicated homeless people and all the buildings were boarded up. There were exactly two restaurants in the area, and one had gone out of business to turn into a bar. I had planned a bit of a visit, but after an hour of walking, we were done.

                So, first thing in the morning we jumped in the car and set off on the craziest part of our Alaska trip. The eight-hundred-forty-mile, gravel road odyssey called the Dalton Highway. Originally, I had intended to make an open-ended trip up the Highway with no deadline to get back. But when we tried to go to Denali National Park, we found that because of Covid restrictions on daily visitors, we could only get tickets for the shuttle bus on one day. So now, we were headed into the Alaskan wild needing to be back in three days. Not ideal, but I was not willing to miss Denali, so there it was.

                The Dalton Highway essentially exists to get oil trucks between Fairbanks and the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean. It only opened to private vehicles in the nineties. As soon as I saw it on the map, I knew we were going to drive it. Even to get to the Dalton, you have to drive more than a hundred miles north of Fairbanks on the Elliott Highway. While I was anxious about the quality of the gravel road, it turned out that the paved miles of the Elliott were worse. Something about the geology or climate this far north creates buckles in the asphalt deep enough to create violently jolt any vehicle moving more than forty miles an hour. I learned this the hard way and we heard our gear slam into the ceiling of the truck more than once.

                The landscape along the Elliott Highway is filled with beautiful and green mountains. In summer, it is hard to imagine why there aren’t people living all over the Alaskan countryside. It seems empty and enticing. But I haven’t seen winter here. It would have been interesting to explore the area, but with 828 miles of gravel driving in three days, I decided to save our stops for the Dalton. The night before, I had found an excellent PDF with mileage and some suggested highlights along the way. So, there was going to be a lot of stopping.  I also took a thirty-second video of the road through my bug-splattered window every ten miles.

                Following my checklist, we stopped at the first mile of the highway, a high view of a lonely, possibly bear-infested creek, and at a strange tundra geological feature called a pingo. These features only happen in permafrost environments and are essentially like an ice pimple or even an ice volcano, that pop up and create weird cones in an otherwise flat landscape. The pingo itself wasn’t much to look at it, but it was an introduction to the power of subterranean ice, a concept that is entirely foreign to me. Yet another way of reminding us of how strange and exotic Alaska is.

Our constant companion on our route was the Alyeska Pipeline. Occasionally, it would dip below ground to get through some obstacle, but it would appear again, snaking its way through the forest and over the mountains. We followed it as we drove north. About twenty miles from the pingo, we came to the dramatic crossing of the Yukon River. The south bank is on a high cliff and the highway crosses at a downward angle. The bridge is at least a hundred feet above the river and is surfaced with wooden planking. It looked rickety but obviously was capable of supporting massive oil rigs in all weather. As I crept along, filming every foot, the huge river, white with glacial runoff ran fast under our tires. Nearly 2,000 miles long and thus one of the longest rivers in North America, the Yukon is only crossed by four bridges. That fact was yet another reminder of how harsh and remote this region is. Under me was a river that looked as big as the Mississippi, but we were two hundred miles from the nearest decent-sized settlement. The fifth longest river on the continent toils in obscurity. We stopped at the north bank of the Yukon for pictures and to read some historical markers. They told us about the river’s use as a highway in winter. Far back into prehistory people have used its frozen surface to haul goods. I want to come back with skates and do a long skate/hike. Do people do that?

                A swarm of bugs drove us back into the car and we continued north. We crested several massive hills along the way. Each one has a name like Sand Hill, Roller Coaster, Beaver Slide, and Oh Shit Corner given to them by the ice road truckers. We had fun coasting down Roller Coaster, but I had to imagine how terrifying it would be in an eighteen-wheeler in January. The highway began to climb as we approached the foothills of the Brooks Range. Suddenly we were high up on treeless plains. I imagined we were getting a first taste of the tundra. As it turned out, that wasn’t far off the mark from a visual perspective. But when we got out to take a short hike, we were able to hop from rock to rock, avoiding the squishy terrain in a way that would prove impossible north of the Brooks. I was constantly grateful that we didn’t need to worry about snakes. The kind of broken ground we crossed would be perfect habitat in New Mexico. We picked our way across the treacherous pits and were able to reach a landmark called Finger Rock, which really does look like an index finger of granite pointing at the sky. A few pictures, a bit of scrambling on the boulders, and we were on our way again.

To be Continued…

The Anthropology of War

The Anthropology of War– Keith F. Otterbein

                While I was studying at George Washington University’s Elliott School, I had a penchant for buying books on military history. I’ve always had a problem with purchasing books and studying a field with so many great books was the perfect excuse. It seemed like I was acquiring knowledge when I bought a book, never mind the fact that there are only so many hours in the day. Occasionally I would add up all the pages and compare them to the number of minutes in my life. Each year more and more books hit my shelves, always just a bit more than I can actually read. The math was easy. I was going to die with a pile of unread books by my bedside. That would be true even if I wasn’t constantly acquiring more books, which I am.

                Regardless of that dismal calculus, I sometimes try to chip away at the glacier of tomes in my house. So, I picked up a slim volume called The Anthropology of War by Keith Otterbein. The origin and nature of human warfare is a topic that has always fascinated me. There are certain “facts” floating around about violence in the world of hunter gatherers and other societies. One of my favorites is the statistic that the death rates from homicide in these groups is higher than the global rate throughout the twentieth century. That includes the world wars and all the other conflicts that devastated the modern world. It doesn’t take many ambushes that kill twenty people before the proportional death rates skyrocket in a society of only two hundred people. It reminds me of the Stephen King and Peter Straub book The Talisman, where a small conflict in a less populated parallel universe leads to the Second World War in our own.

                If Otterbein makes one good point throughout this book, it is that these facts may just be, as Stephen Colbert would put it, truthy. They feel right, and seem to provide ammunition for a worldview that I hold, so I accept them without a thorough level of criticism. Now I’m not saying that primitive societies don’t have higher homicide rates than modern ones, they almost certainly do. I’m just saying that this is a very difficult thing to quantify.

                I want to make a quick point about using the term primitive here. Yes, it’s incendiary, and yes it carries a lot of baggage. I don’t mean it to put down these societies. There’s nothing wrong with being primitive in my mind. The word just means that these groups live in ways that would have been familiar throughout ninety-nine percent of the human experience. Perhaps there is a better word to encapsulate all these different groups. If there is, I don’t know it, but something links societies like the Yanomamo, Dani, and Ilongot. Someone please enlighten me. Primarily, I use the word to mean a lower level of technology. I believe that smaller societies, tribes, chiefdoms etc. lack the technology to organize at greater levels. So, in that sense only they are primitive. Otterbein talks about monotheism for instance as an idea that allows greater societal control and thus larger societies. I agree with that. Things like monotheism are superior organizational technologies. Societies with them are larger and more powerful than ones without them, not morally or qualitatively superior.

                Anyway, that was a bit of a tangent. The main point I wanted to make about this book is that it reminded me of a problem with every general theory of military history that I read while writing my thesis. Sadly, it afflicted my own work as well. I was responding to Victor Davis Hanson’s famous book The Western Way of War. The thesis is basically that we have a particular way of war in the west that is inherited from Ancient Greece. Some of that argument is concise and based on particular facts about Greece and the Mediterranean lifestyle, but much of the book wanders off into vague generalities. This is especially true when Hanson talks about other parts of the world, areas that he is not a specialist in.

                Broad theories of history are dear to my heart. I love reading all kinds of history and pulling facts from all over that reading to create theories. It’s the antiquarian in me. But a lovely historical diversion doesn’t make for powerful analysis. It’s almost a form of brainstorming that asks other people to do the hard work. That is a strength of this sort of generalist thinking.  A weakness, and a terrible temptation, is the ability to cherry pick historical details to make one’s point. Otterbein meanders between a tight, scientific anthropological analysis that attempts to classify societies by war-making culture and a slapdash description of historical incidents. Frankly, he is weakest when he moves beyond the level of simple chiefdoms. This isn’t surprising. You can’t really spend ninety percent of a book talking about line battles and ambush, then jump into a mention of Hiroshima. Those are vastly different situations.

                This book would have benefited either from sticking to the strengths of anthropology, or from blowing up the sections on more technologically advanced societies into a much longer book. Darwin’s Origin of Species* is one of the most successful books to ever put forth a broad, inductively based theory. It is successful because it is exhaustive, literally. If a reader can suffer through all the details of finches and barnacles, it is hard not to be convinced of the overall theory. Darwin’s book was only the starting point for two centuries of evolutionary theory, but its broad thesis is incontrovertible. Otterbein’s field of the anthropology of war needs such a thorough treatment, and this short book isn’t up to the job.

*I always think of Darwin’s book as “Oranges and Peaches” thanks to the movie Party Girl. Anyone else?

Exploring Kachemak Bay with the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies: Part Two

The first several hours of the visit were a hike through the hilly forest all around the research station. The young women who were guiding us knew everything about the plants and animals of the forest. It was great to get the chance to pick their brains. We learned to avoid cow parsnip and devils club, and also that both plants produce berries that bears love to eat. Bear scat was all over the trails, as were many areas where bears had clearly torn away the bark of trees to get to the juicy sap underneath. We saw no bears though.

What we did see were tons of new birds and a new phenomenon for me, squirrel middens. I don’t know if the grey squirrels of my native biome do it, but red squirrels leave little piles of pinecone scraps. Once it was pointed out to me, I saw them everywhere, and could imagine a squirrel sitting and eating like Donald Duck with a corncob, pine scales flying all around him.

The forest all around us was a sea of green to my desert-hardened eyes. It was not, as we learned, technically a temperate rainforest. The precipitation clocks in just under the requisite 50 annual inches of rain. But as far as I was concerned it might as well have been. There was moss everywhere, even dangling as epiphytes from the branches of spruce in a formation called old man’s beard. It was fun to look at, but our favorite thing was learning what we could eat. Alaska has a surprising amount of edible plant life to hand. I don’t know if it’s because we are visiting in the right season or whether there is just so much more natural knowledge in a place that still has so many native people, but it’s a slightly paradoxical thing I’ve noticed about what I had imagined would be a fairly hostile landscape.

Our guides showed us how to pick and eat spruce tips, the green tips of branches. They taste… piney, but also slightly citrusy. Not a lot of caloric content, but tasty and full of vitamin-C. We ate quite a few. We also got to sample false azalea, a plant that grows little flowers that can be sucked in a manner much like honeysuckle. Just like that Virginia summer delicacy, they are delicious. Later in the day, we also tried a bit of beach greens growing by the mudflats. They had a taste that I called avocado and my son called oyster, not my favorite.

After our forest hike, we sat by the research station and ate our packed lunches. Ours were awful. I had hurriedly thrown together sandwiches that hadn’t fared well during the day’s hiking. I’m just that kind of dad. After lunch, we headed down to the beaches to see what we could find in the bay’s tidal pools. Right below the dock, we found an octopus’ den. It was just a hole under a rock, just above the waterline, but all around the hole you could see the remains of the cephalopod’s meals. I suppose that’s where the phrase octopus’ garden comes from. I had the damn song stuck in my head the rest of the afternoon, but it was an exciting find.

We walked through mud wearing boots we had been given and came to a high ridge dotted with whitened tree stumps. Apparently, this is the ghost forest, the remains of woods destroyed in the wake of the 1964 quake and tsunami. On the other side of the remnant stand of trees we found Otter Island, a formation of rocks that looks just like a floating sea otter. It even has little hands and feet in the right places.

All around Otter Island, we found tide pools. They were absolutely littered with sea stars. The more I looked, the more I could count. You make a first scan, spot one and then suddenly realize every crack in the rocks is filled with more squishy, purple aliens. And the sea stars weren’t alone. Every nook and cranny was filled with invertebrates all along the spectrum of disgustingness: barnacles, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, marine worms with multisyllabic names, and the aptly named Christmas anemones. These took first prize in gross anatomy, red and green placental blobs lurking by the water.

As we climbed around the rocks, a sea otter floated in the waves watching us, as if to say each time I found some strange life form, “Are you going to eat that?” I slipped a few times, once managing to get shards of black and broken barnacle shell embedded in my finger. It would take a day to get them out. That’s a lot better than my trip to the Dominican Republic, when it took weeks to fish out a broken purple sea urchin spine from my toe. I have bad luck with invertebrates. Maybe I should stop calling them disgusting.

After an hour or so of exploration, we trudged back to the research station to wait for our boat. I would have been fine sitting and waiting, but my son insisted on following the guides on another short nature walk. This one was to a small bog with carnivorous plants. Despite my fatigue, I did learn that the difference between a bog and a fen is that a fen has flowing water. So, put that in your pipe and smoke it. Even with the walk, we still had a few minutes to sit and chat with an older couple that were with us on the trip. I mentioned to them that we were contemplating a drive on the Dalton Highway and they gushed about having made the drive decades ago. I was on the fence a bit about doing it and they urged me not to miss the opportunity. We’re totally doing it now and that will be a later post.

The boat came to get us, and we made the splashy trip across the bay to Homer. My son insisted on sitting in the stern despite the spray warning and was accordingly demolished by water. I sat just in the lee of the cabin and watched him grin broadly the whole time. When we got to Homer, I was planning on making a tired return trip to our cabin in Nikiski. Instead, when I went to get gas, an old man came up to us and told us Mt. Augustine, a nearby volcano, was smoking. My son and I exchanged a look, jumped in the truck, and drove to a lookout on the highway above the city. Through binoculars, we could see a cloud circling the peak a bit more than fifty miles away. It wasn’t exactly the last days of Pompeii, but to see anything of the sort was a thrill. We were buzzing with it the whole drive home.

P.S. I checked the USGS webcam on Mt. Augustine that night and the smoking calmed down fairly quickly. Homer was safe.

Exploring Kachemak Bay with the Alaskan Center for Coastal Studies: Part One

                On the southwestern edge of the Kenai Peninsula is the small fishing town of Homer, Alaska. We had heard that it was a good jumping off point for expeditions into the national parks on the opposite side of Cook Inlet, so one day we drove down to see what we could scrounge up. If we could cross over to Lake Clark or Katmai, we stood a good chance of seeing the world-famous gatherings of brown bears that make all the highlight reels of Alaska.

The Sterling Highway, which hugs the western coast of Kenai, gives lots of great views of the snow-covered mountains on the other side of the Inlet. Along the way, we saw a moose crossing the road and more bald eagles than we could count. But even with the views and wildlife, the highway became a bland stretch of road after the first trip. It reminded me of staying on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. It doesn’t take more than one drive past the same miniature golf courses and t-shirt shops to dull the mind.

Our first visit to Homer was a bust. We visited a little nature center in the mountains called Earl Wynn and had a nice walk among the spruce trees on a boardwalk. We spotted birds and had fun watching a pair of Canada Jays fighting in the treetops, but it was pretty tame. Down at the shore, along the spit, which is a long strip of gravel and sand that juts out into the sea, we tried multiple tour companies that offered expeditions across the Inlet. None of them could do it for less than a thousand bucks. I’m sorry, but I’m not paying more than I paid to fly to Alaska to jump across a puddle in Alaska. We walked along the beach a little and saw some sea otters out in the water, but otherwise there wasn’t much for us on Homer Spit.

It was my fault to some extent. When we went home, I did some research and found some interesting options. There weren’t any reasonably priced ways to visit the national parks, but there were some fun options for crossing Kachemak Bay to the south. So, I booked us a nature expedition to Kachemak Bay State Park with a local research outfit called the Center for Coastal Alaskan Studies.

The night before the trip, we drove down to Homer and got a room in town. We were just too far away to get to an eight o’clock boat from Nikiski. We took our time getting there and had a nice hike at a state recreation area on the way. That stroll took us along the side of a creek filled with fishermen. Guides were rowing frantically trying to keep the large boats in place against the strong current, then paddling hard to help tourists reel in whatever it was they were catching. On the trail we spotted our closest yet moose, a cow browsing on plants just fifty feet off the trail. She glowered at us for a few seconds and I watched for the characteristic retraction of the ears that signals moose-anger. She stayed calm and let us pass in peace.

We got groceries in Homer. Even when we stay in hotels, I try to save by making meals in the microwave or just from sandwich materials. At the grocery store, a strange local version of Sam’s Club or Costco called Save-U-More, we saw large numbers of Russians. Not the modern, glamorous Russians of the twenty-first century, but the Old Believer, pre-Soviet type. They were bonneted and long-dressed and reminiscent of the Amish. I also made the mistake of buying a pack of Nutter Butters that turned out to lack the characteristic peanut-shaped cookies. Instead, they were disgusting gluten-free wafers that looked and tasted like astronaut food. Yes, I still ate them. Caveat om-nom-nomptor I guess.

In the morning we met our crew and the other tourists on Homer Spit. Of course, we were just barely on time, of course we had to be told to put on our masks, of course I parked in the wrong place, and of course we were chastised for not having rain gear. I’m just that kind of dad. But we were there and soon we were puttering on the water taxi across the bay. It was a sparkling, clear, blue-skied day and again there were glaciated mountains all around us. I’ve mentioned it several times, but it really can’t be overstated and should certainly never be forgotten. Alaska is beautiful and that beauty is everywhere.

On the way, we passed a pile of rocks called Gull Island. The crags were covered in kittiwakes and puffins, and there was even a little harbor seal popping up to say hello. The east end of the island was a sea cave that looked exactly like the first, lightning-streaked room on Pirates of the Caribbean, the one you pass right before shooting down the only drop of the ride.

We docked at an inlet called Peterson Bay, right next to a pay of oystercatchers poking around on the mudflats for clams. There was a steep walkway up to the land, steep enough that I had to dig my toes into the metal slats of the boards and that we were worried the less fit members of the party might have trouble. I think it was like that so that it could serve in higher tides.

The facility we came to was a research station built on the property of a southern doctor’s abandoned retirement home. We sat outdoors and were given wading boots and a talk on bear safety. There are no brown bears on this side of the bay (I wonder why), but the black bears are apparently numerous and not to be trifled with. I had bells and spray, so I wasn’t terribly concerned. We were also in a party of about twelve people, which makes bear attacks astronomically improbable.

To be Continued…

Kenai Fjords: The Four Ice Seals of the Apocalypse

                When I was in sixth grade, the Exxon Valdez crashed into a reef in Prince William Sound dumping ten million gallons of oil into the water. I knew about it, because Mrs. Winkler made us read about it in our current affairs unit. It was depressing, as was most of the news back then. We read articles in Current Science magazine about the AIDS epidemic, the Challenger disaster, the hole in the ozone, global warming, and lots of other cheery subjects for eleven-year-olds.

                The oil spill killed thousands of sea birds, marine mammals, and fish. It was upsetting at a remove, and now that I’ve been to Alaska to see these creatures in person, it seems like an unfathomable tragedy. But in Seward, we learned that some good did come out of the disaster. As part of their settlement for the damage, Exxon was forced to pay $37.5 million toward the construction of the Alaska Sea Life Center. A town like Seward, with about 2500 people, could never have built a state-of-the-art conservation center like this without that money.

                It may seem crazy after a day on a boat viewing wildlife, but my son and I decided to go the Sea Life Center the next morning. We’ve done this kind of thing before. In the environment of a zoo or aquarium, you can learn different things than you can in the wild. A smart phone helps enhance learning in the field, but the best places to see wild creatures are often the worst for cell service.

                Corona has severely limited the number of tourists visiting Alaska this summer, so we essentially had the aquarium to ourselves. At the first exhibit, we met a super helpful biologist named Derrick. He talked to us for quite a while about all the injured animals. They have otters and seals from all over the state. Our favorite was a little spotted seal who kept climbing out of his pool and doing little belly rolls for us. Like my kids, he knew exactly how cute he was, and he was milking it.

                My favorite takeaway from all the recovering animals was the existence of what Derrick called “the four ice seals”. Apparently, there are four species of Alaskan seal that live in the remote, icy Arctic and will basically never be seen by normal mortals like me. If I used footnotes, this would be the place for them, because I would like to leave it up to my reader to decide whether they care about the names of these seals. There is no way I’m not going to write them down. I’m bursting with it. They are the bearded, ringed, spotted, and ribbon seals. Somehow, someway, I’m going to see them. As yet another parenthetical, I’ll mention that when I googled “is there a ribbon seal in a zoo anywhere” I found that someone has looked up “is there a ribbon seal in the bible”. What the hell, people?

                I am equally obsessed with a new shark we learned about, the pacific sleeper shark. Apparently, scientists are only beginning to learn about them, and they are huge, as much as 23 feet long.  The biologist told us that the sharks can live for hundreds of years and that they feed on sea lions. I pictured them lurking around at the bottom of Resurrection Bay, which is one of the deepest bays in the world. They’re like an even more mysterious version of the Greenland Shark, which is one of my all-time favorites.

                We finished up the Sea Life Center with a swing through the lower levels where you can really get a good look at the marine mammals from underwater. My intuition about the California and Steller’s Sea Lions was dead wrong. From down there you could clearly see the that the male Steller’s they had was enormous. He must have weighed a ton, almost in the weight class of walrus.

                After the aquarium, we went back to the national park. First order of business, handing in the junior ranger book and getting sworn in. Through the corona-shielding plexiglass, he took his solemn vows and got his badge. Now when the park is in danger, they will light the junior ranger beacon and my son will have to fly back to Alaska to join with the other nine-year-olds in forming Voltron to protect the wildlife. Or is it Captain Planet?

                On our first visit, we had just sampled the trails around Exit Glacier. This time we wanted to make the difficult hike to the Harding Ice Field. The ice field is named for my favorite scandal-ridden president and my third favorite to die peacefully in office. Obviously, Harding trails William Henry Harrison (I died in thirty days) and FDR.

                We spotted a red-backed vole on the trail as soon as we started walking. Normally, I can’t tell one rodent from another, but there are signs all over the park announcing the existence of these little guys for some reason. As soon as we hit the steep portion of the trail, I realized my legs were dead. And it was a super steep trail. I brought three bottles of water and by the time we had hiked the two vertical miles to Marmot Meadows (great name for a British TV show) I had finished them. So, we pushed on a tiny bit to a point called Top of the Cliffs and called it a day. It was just high enough for my son to see his first glimpse of true, above-the-timberline, alpine tundra.

We were also within sight of the stunning expanse of the ice field. Until the twentieth century no one (and by that I’m sure they mean white people) realized that all the glaciers in the region were connected to a 700-square-mile ice field. It looked the way I imagine Antarctica looks, an intimidating blanket of whiteness dotted with crevasses, seraks, and other incomprehensible dangers. We got great pictures, but I was sad we couldn’t go any farther. Instead, we limped back down the mountain and made the long drive back to Nikiski. Tomorrow I’m rewarding myself with a lazy day around the cabin. Or at least that’s the plan.

Kenai Fjords: Whale Watching among the Glaciers

                Having returned safely to the truck, still free of bear chew-marks, we headed into Seward to get dinner. Aside from Anchorage, Seward is the most town-looking town I’ve seen so far in Alaska. There is a main drag with a few shops and restaurants, all leading to the Alaska Sea Life Center on the water. It makes sense that Seward feels more like a town. It was a huge port until the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake demolished its waterfront. It still is to some extent. There are port facilities at the northern end of Resurrection Bay. Seward reminded me a bit of Galveston, Texas (where I lived for one memorable year in the mid-2000s),a tourist town with grand memories of dominance before a disaster dashed its hopes.

                We hit the Seward Brewing Company for dinner. I tried a few new brews and helped my son with his junior ranger book. It was a nice, relaxing follow-up to a strenuous day. I love to cap off a day of hiking with a brewery visit. After dinner, we took a long walk along the waterfront, watching kittiwakes and sea otters, hoping for a glimpse of whales, porpoises, or seals. We ended up traveling about two miles north. In the little tide pools, we found isopods and crabs. There is a huge marina in Seward, and we walked around the boats for a bit. We were surprised to find a sea otter floating just feet away from us. Someone had caught a good size halibut and had either thrown it to the otter or had it stolen. He was rolling on his back, tearing into the fish and eating big, white, jiggling chunks. From time to time, he would drop his meal and dive to retrieve it. I couldn’t tell if it was a genuine mishap or whether he was playing with his food.

                Even with the midnight sun, we could tell it was getting late, so we trudged back to the truck. My whole plan was finding a quiet spot to park and camp. We ended up partway up the road to the national park in a little pullout. I hollowed myself out a little area in the bed of the truck and had a fitful night sleeping diagonally in a space that must have been exactly my height.

                The next morning, we had a fun adventure planned with a cruise into the glaciers and fjords. I got myself some much-needed coffee and then we met up with all the other tourists on the docks. For such a large boat, I could tell there were far fewer passengers than the company would have liked. That’s good for us though I suppose.

                As we steamed out into Resurrection Bay, we were surrounded by spectacular scenery. Everywhere I looked, there were glaciers, bright blue water, and the Bob Ross dots of spruce and hemlock covering the mountains. The captain, or at least the guy on the loudspeaker, was a park ranger and he seemed to know everything about the area. I had a moment of worry when he stopped the boat and made a big deal about a pair of bald eagles on the cliffs above. Bald eagles are beautiful, impressive birds and I’m as much of a patriot as the next guy, but they’re incredibly common in Alaska. You can go to the town dump in Kenai and see a hundred bald eagles. I hoped we were going to see better.

                We were. Just past the eagles, we came to a group of islands that shield the bay from the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska. Apparently, in 1964, these islands stopped a 100-foot tsunami from completely obliterating Seward. 100 feet, think about that. It’s hard to imagine. As we approached, we saw a group of boats floating and an absolute horde of kittiwakes circling above the water. What had attracted them was a small group of humpback whales. As we learned from the park ranger, this is not common behavior. Humpbacks are normally solitary, and this was a strange and rare group strategy called bubble net feeding. The whales dive and blow bubbles, stampeding fish into the mouths of their… I don’t know what to call them, friends? Compatriots? Co-conspirators? I didn’t even know big baleen whales ate fish. Each flamboyant dive gave us a perfect view of the tail flukes. Flukes are like fingerprints for humpbacks, no two are the same. It was like the whales were waving and saying, “Hey, make sure you remember it was Paul the Whale you saw. I’ll be here all week. Tip your servers!”

                We watched the whales awhile then moved on past the islands where we headed out into the open Gulf of Alaska. The captain claimed that from here you could travel south for ten thousand miles before hitting land in Antarctica. Whether that was true, the seas were pretty serious. We rolled and pitched so much that for the first time in my life I could at least understand the concept of getting seasick. My son was not so lucky and got hit with a full lesson. I had to let him lie on my lap with his eyes closed all the way until we sailed into the calmer waters of Aialik Bay.

                He perked up when we passed a rookery of Steller’s Sea Lions barking and lounging on the rocks of a craggy island. We’ve seen sea lions before in California, but these dwarf them. The endangered Steller’s is about four times the size of the California Sea Lion. We also got strafed by a horned puffin zooming by from its own nesting site on the same island. Puffins were one of the big reasons we wanted to come to Kenai Fjords.

                The hit list didn’t stop there. As we went into the bay, we saw a small pod of Dall’s porpoises racing the boat. Through the waves you could see their striped bodies hurtling through the water at thirty knots. They were considerably faster than our boat and they were having fun with it. Through the superior set of binoculars we had borrowed, my son spotted a sea otter floating several hundred yards from the boat. It was a mother with a little pup resting on her belly. When you pay a hundred bucks for a day at the aquarium you don’t see that kind of wildlife.

                At the end of the bay, we came to a narrowing of the fjord. I don’t know how to use those words. A fjord is a narrow waterway formed when glaciers carve out high cliffs. So, a bay can be a fjord and vice versa, right? Anyway, at the end of the bay/fjord we came to the intimidating bulk of Holgate Glacier. Our boat stopped several hundred yards away, just close enough that we were supposed to be able to hear the ice cracking. I heard nothing. There is a safety rule that says you should never get closer to a glacier than twice its height. We watched as a small sailboat shattered that rule and sailed in right under the ice. If the glacier had calved at that moment, they would have been done for. I was still jealous.

                We lingered there for a few minutes and the crew dipped into the sea for a hunk of iceberg. Then they sold margaritas on glacier ice for four dollars a pop. As I had slept in a car and skipped showering, and as it was just past noon, it didn’t seem like margarita-time to me, but that’s a cool gimmick. So, I had one. My rating: cruise margarita 4/10, glacier ice 10/10.

We came about then and steamed out of the bay. I was just settling in to enjoy the ride back when we struck wildlife gold yet again. Close in to a small, pebbly beach, we found a family of orcas playing about. There were at least five of them, and two were calves. Somehow, they were swimming about within about ten yards of shore. I gather that glacial bays drop off in depth sharply, but this must have been a dramatic shelf. The adult male with the group was huge. He swam around our boat as if scoping out a potential threat. With each dive, his huge dorsal fin stood out of the water at least as high as the lower deck of our boat.

After watching the orcas for a good twenty minutes, we headed back into the open sea to make our return trip. We passed floats of both types of puffin, horned and tufted, and made an even closer pass to the sea lions. The surfeit of creatures was exhausting, but we were happy. Back in port, I caved in and got us a motel room at a place across the street festooned with cartoonish drawings of most of the marine creatures we had just seen. Even the relentless midnight sun couldn’t keep us from sleeping early.

To be Continued…

Kenai Fjords: 43 of 62 (Part One)

                After a well-earned day of rest, it was time for us to head out and explore, to chip away at my lifetime goal of visiting all of the national parks. For anyone who is counting, there were 62 the last time I checked. I’ve been to 42 of them. Next on the list? Kenai Fjords. Now, as I explained before, our cabin is in Nikiski, in the far northwestern corner of the Kenai Peninsula. Same state, right? Same peninsula, right? So, it must be pretty close, right? Wrong.

                To get to the eponymous fjords of Kenai, a little beardlike dangle jutting out into the Gulf of Alaska from the peninsula’s southwestern edge, we had to drive 116 miles. The Kenai Peninsula, a little landform you can squint and make out on a map of the state, is bigger than West Virginia. So, yeah, the drive was a big chunk of the day. Along the way, we spotted a mother moose with two calves. We jumped out and got pictures of them from a nice, safe distance while they were nibbling on plants in a little bog by the roadside. I say safe distance because apparently a mother moose is force to be reckoned with.

                When we were nearly to Seward, we made a right turn at the Resurrection River and drove into the national park. There is only one road into Kenai Fjords, but that actually puts it high on the list of Alaska national parks in terms of accessibility. Out of the eight Alaska national parks, only three have roads leading into them. This road followed the river, which is really a smallish stream surrounded by a glacial outwash plain, leading us to our first view of Exit Glacier.

                A glacier is an awesome sight. I don’t know if it’s an innate feeling like the powerful impact of a great mountain, or whether the feeling comes from having read about glacial impacts, but the first time I saw a glacier it was like seeing the inexorable hand of nature’s god. Exit Glacier doesn’t even rank high on the list of Kenai’s glaciers, but it is a stunning sight, nonetheless. As we approached the visitor center, we passed a series of signposts emblazoned with the year that the glacier had ended at that point. They go back to 1815 and steadily move forward in time.

                Now, the point at which the glacial moraine ended in a given year is a simple fact, but I felt the signs were leaning toward a point about climate change. I’m not a climate denier, but I’m not sure this is great evidence. That date of 1815 also happens to be just about the time that the Little Ice Age ended. So, yeah, the glaciers have been receding since then, which seems obvious and almost circular.

                But I digress. When we got to the visitor center, it was closed for Covid. Fortunately, the rangers were holding a limited open house through a plastic enclosed window, so Alex was able to get his passport stamp and junior ranger book. I don’t know how many of those he’s gotten over the years, but I don’t think I’d be exaggerating to say it’s more than fifty. They’re a necessity.

                It was getting late in the day, so we chose the lesser of the two possible hikes and marched directly to the glacier, bear spray and bells at the ready. We followed a paved trail through a forest of mixed spruce, alder, and hemlock and scrambled from there onto the outwash plain. The first thing I saw was a bear ambling toward the river. Then I saw that the “bear” had left his walker near the end of the trail, because the “bear” was an elderly man with such a badly bent back that from afar it looked like he was walking on all fours. God bless him for getting out there in that state, but I really felt like I should offer some help. In the end, I settled for passing with a friendly wave, assuming that if the man wanted help, he’d ask for it. I figured he was like John Locke on Lost and just didn’t want to be told what he couldn’t do.

                My son and I on the other, scampered along like the devil was chasing us. Sometimes when we get to an exciting new park it goes that way. I get so excited that I feel strong and fast enough to mirror his youthful energy. When we first saw Theodore Roosevelt National Park, we spotted bison in the distance, and ran over three miles of badlands to see them from a nearby butte. This was a similar exhilaration. We ran over the outwash plain, then hopped up a crumbling ridge to reach the bluffs above the point where the glacier melted into the river. We were way past the proper end of the hiking trail, but we did respect some signs that warned that further progress was dangerous because of ice falls. This despite the fact that there was no ice over our heads.

                Beneath us, the glacier met the river, melting out an ominous-looking frozen cave. I both wanted to enter that cave and dreaded it like the gates of hell. Above us, the glacier stretched for what looked like miles to the point where it met the Harding Ice Field on top of the mountains. Both my son and I marveled silently for a few moments, and that silence from a garrulous nine-year-old should speak wonders, then began climbing back over the gray rocks to try and reach the main trail.

                The path I chose, thinking it looked well-trodden, instead led us into a narrow defile choked with alders. I looked at it and my roleplaying instincts kicked in. It was the perfect place for an ambush. If we ran into a bear nibbling berries in that thick stand of bushes, there would be no way for him to leave, as the guidebooks say, with dignity. But there was no other route. So, we jingled our bells as loudly as possible, and pushed through the mosquito-infested trees until we reached the trail. Whenever I tumble out from some unexpected place, such as a bear-haunted glen of alders, to the surprise of more normal tourists, I picture the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones emerges from the water onto the deck of U-boat to the cheers of a pirate crew. That mental scene played now as we surprised the hikers on the main trail. I had to imagine the pirates cheering for me, but it was still a thrill.

To Be Continued Wednesday…