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How come everything was so easy? I had been warned of constant difficulty. It was not only a matter of the historical record: There were also admonitions from knowledgeable friends, not to mention a quaint word of advice or two from the locals. This was a bad pass.
It occurred to me the record could be wrong and the people could be wrong, because I found that the trail was, in fact, straightforward and unchallenging: On this day, in this spot, it was easy.
The horse was gentle, the trail clear of down timber, the weather salubrious, and the way ahead wide enough to accommodate several riders.
We were, in fact, on a relatively broad gravel road, so broad that this part of the trail system, a system reputed to be one of the most rugged in America, was pretty much a walk in the park. On a road like this we might have even trailered the horses and ridden around in the cab of the pickup.
But that would have been wrong. History demanded verisimilitude: We needed to attack the trail on horseback, clippedy-clop, clippedy-clop, and so on, into a long, warm afternoon of yawning lethargy.
Presently, however, Harlan Opdahl, the cowboy in the lead, turned onto a narrow trail littered with roots and covered in shrubs. The trailthe damn historical trail, unmarked heretook a long, steep dive.
I looked downhill; there was little to distinguish what I was seeing from the face of a cliff. In this trembling instant, nothing was as easy as it had been only moments before.
The immediate thought was that if the horse lost its footing here, on this precipitous slope, it would plummet headfirst into the trail, probably twisting to save its neck, neighing loudly, and thenvery quicklythere would be a tail-over-teakettle tumble that would involve caroming off various trees growing on this near vertical incline deep in the Bitterroot mountains, in the Clearwater National Forest, in eastern Idaho.
* * * *
The first party to make a written record of the area was a group from out East called the Corps of Discovery, headed by Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. There were 33 men in the party; one woman, the Shoshone guide Sacagawea; and her baby, Pomp.
At this point in their trip, and very near where I was ridingcertainly in the same drainage and not more than a mile or two away [1.6 or 3.2 kilometers away]Captain Lewis wrote: "The road was excessively dangerous along this creek being a narrow rockey path generally on the side of [a] steep precipice, from which in many places if ether man or horse were precipitated they would inevitably be dashed in pieces."
Well, I'd have to say that was pretty much the case, and more or less the way I'd describe it myself (see above). Lewis was writing about the Hungery Creek drainage, a watercourse named by Captain Clark for the condition of his stomach at the time. Clark had gone ahead with six men to search for food.
At this point in the trip, the entire partyClark in the lead, Lewis bringing up the main groupwas wet and cold, and it is probably not an exaggeration to suppose that many were almost hypothermic, which is to say (as we do in the West), them folks was damn near froze to death. (I have a cabin in Montana just off Froze to Death Creek. Honest.)
The Corps set out from St. Louis in 1804. Captain Lewis had been commissioned by President Jefferson to explore, collect scientific data, investigate any and all opportunities for agriculture and trade, andmost especiallyto find "the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent."
It was possible that there was a route up the Missouri River, which would be followed by a brief portage over some hills, which would put the Corps on the Columbia River. Most of the land between Fort Mandan, in what is now North Dakota, and the mouth of the Columbia was unexplored by whites.
They never found a "practicable water communication" across the continent. There isn't one. The journey itself was dangerous and taxing. The Corps almost didn't make it.
They almost didn't make it in a lot of places, but the place where they almost didn't make it absolutely was in these Bitterroot mountains, negotiating this pass. The path through the rangeit is more properly a braided complex of trailshas been called a lot of things besides the Road to the Buffalo, but the most common (and mystifying) name for the bad road over this bad pass is the Lolo Trail.
* * * *
It occurred to me that, until very lately anyway, no one ever said, in whatever language, "Oh, boy, hurray, we're traveling the Lolo Trail tomorrow." This is a journey that has been anticipated with deep dread throughout the whole of history, protohistory, and prehistory. The Lolo Trail is a bad pass.
Get the full storyand an Adventure Guide to the Lewis and Clark Trailin the April 2002 issue of Adventure.Subscribe to Adventure today for only $12 (U.S. rate) and receive a free three-in-one tool!
Napoleon in Exile
The mist was just starting to lift off the treetops as we made our way into the village. Pungent campfire smokethe unmistakable smell of life, and death, in the Amazondrifted along with hysterical wails through the porous stick walls of a nearby hut.
* * * *
We were in a native village, or shabono, along the Upper Orinoco River, in the heart of the Venezuelan rain forest. It is one of the world's least accessible regions, and home to the Yanomami, some 15,000 Indians living along the ill-defined border between Venezuela and Brazil.
Though the area has been closed to journalists since the previous autumn, photographer Les Stone and I were allowed to accompany this fact-finding trip organized by the Venezuelan government in the summer of 2001.
The expedition would be the government's first on-the-ground investigation into the charges leveled against Napoleon Chagnon, the American anthropologist whose 1968 book, Yanomamö: The Fierce People, brought worldwide fameand, some say, deep misfortuneto what was then one of the world's largest virtually uncontacted indigenous populations.
* * * *
Yanomami culture has undergone rapid change in the ensuing years, as evidenced by the Western clothing and firearms on display here. Yet we could see that certain traditions were still intact.
We had arrived in the middle of a funeral ceremony, a complex ritual that, despite all the assaults of the modern world, remained almost identical to those described by Chagnon a quarter century earlier.
In one corner, mourning women swung in hammocks arranged in a tight triangle around a smoldering fire. Close beside them, a cluster of mensome in T-shirts, others with painted chests and headbands made from monkey tailscrouched by the fire.
Freshly smoked wild boar and armadillo dangled from a wire above the hearth. The men intoned a repetitive chant that rose and fell in perfect counterpoint to a woman's baleful lament.
Now [a] warrior placed [a] vase on the dirt floor and set his full weight into grinding the [human] ashes and charred bone with his staff. When he finished, he snapped the staff over his knee and fed it to the flames. With the reverence of a priest celebrating the Eucharist, his companion sprinkled the ashes into a battered tin pot and stirred them into a steaming yellowish soup of boiled plantains.
Soon the pot was making its way around the room, mourners slurping it down by the cupful. The host shoved the pot under my nose, filled the communal ladle, and beckoned me to drink.
In other far-flung corners of the planet, I'd mustered the courage to sample such delicacies as the fermented brew of masticated cassava and steaming bowls of moose-snout soup. On occasion I have ingested the symbolic flesh and blood of the Savior.
But I had never been called upon to partake of real human remains, no matter how well incinerated. Reluctantly, I hoisted the chalice to my lips.
* * * *
Now gray and balding, Chagnon at 63 bears faint resemblance to the svelte, shirtless Indiana Jones who once wandered the jungle with a shotgun on his shoulderand whose image was captured so indelibly in Yanomamö: The Fierce People.
Chagnon's groundbreaking fieldwork spanned more than three decades, and his best-selling books captivated more than a million readers with vivid tales of his exploits among the natives.
He produced scores of ethnographic films: There was Chagnon on celluloidbare-chested, painted, and bedecked with feathers, striking an erect, unflappable pose in the midst of howling Yanomami warriors. Throughout the seventies and eighties, he was a marquee name on college syllabi, the closest thing academia had to a rock star.
But by the early nineties, it all began to come undone. Responding to a chorus of criticisms from both inside and outside the country, the Venezuelan government restricted his access to the region.
Today Chagnon lives under a cloud of allegations that he perpetrated misdeeds against the population he studied. He hasn't been to the rain forest since 1995.
* * * *
In return for access to Yanomamiland, I agreed to shoot a documentary to be screened at a Yanomami conference in the Upper Orinoco that [Venezuelan anthropologist, Jesús Cardozo] was helping to organize.)
In all, we spent a week in Caracasreassuring the officials that we wouldn't somehow perpetrate further crimes against the Indiansbefore taking a government flight to Esmeralda, where we boarded the boats.
Our destination was the Catholic Salesian mission at Mavaca, on the banks of the Orinoco. There we set up our base of operations in a round, open-air hut that was wrapped with steel caging to deter potential thieves.
Yanomami kids clung from the mesh and kept us under constant observation whenever we happened to be in, leading Stone and me to dub our base the Mavaca Zoo.
For the following two weeks, we motored up and down the Orinoco, Mavaca, and Manaviche Rivers with Cardozo and a rotating crew of Yanomami boatmen and translators, visiting ever more distant villages.
I would come to realize that Chagnon, despite nearly a decade of absence, has left an indelible mark on the Yanomami psyche.
People told us tales of the fierce outsider, or napë, whom they called ShakiPesky Little Beeand how he painted himself in red and black, dressed in parrot feathers, and performed witchcraft that terrified some villagers while amusing others. Shaki learned their language and uncovered their secrets.
He brought precious gifts, which he used to pry from them forbidden knowledge. He told them he would pay them for their sadness.
At times, he would arrive with other napë, who collected their blood and feces, prepared the specimens in vials "like food," as one headman put it, and dispatched them on planes for reasons the Yanomami still don't understand. "We thought he was curing us," the headman said.
Indeed, Chagnon has become a mythic figure among the people he studied. There is perhaps not a single Yanomaminot even in the remotest corners of the rain forest where napë have yet to treadwho has not heard stories in the night, when men squat by fires to sing elaborate narratives, of the legendary Shaki.
Get the full story in the April 2002 issue of Adventure.Subscribe to Adventure today for only $12 (U.S. rate) and receive a free three-in-one tool!
|Chasing the Red Barren
People who rise before the sun like to rhapsodize to those who don't about the joys of witnessing the pastel genesis of another day. But for me the experience of dawn almost always pales next to the treasure of extended shut-eye.
A rare exception is a sunrise on the eastern edge of the White Rim Trail in Utah's Canyonlands National Park, an otherworldly maze of desert and rock where even an unremarkable and cloudless night sky gives way at sunrise to one of the most sublime displays of light and topography you could ever hope to see.
My own enjoyment of just such a White Rim daybreak was marred by one thing: the pained recognition that if it weren't for my hardheaded cycling snobbery, I could have enjoyed it years ago.
Built by the Atomic Energy Commission in the 1950s to facilitate a search for uranium, the White Rim Trailreally more a dirt roadwas discovered by cyclists back when mountain biking and Moab's bike boom were in their infancy.
Word of mouth, a reasonably low skill threshold, and a breathtaking backdrop soon combined to elevate the White Rim to the top of the riding pantheon. Hence my reflexive disdain: What self-respecting, dialed-in cycling diehard wants to bother with what is surely an overrated tourist trail?
Thus, on previous trips to Moab, I had made a practice of skipping the White Rim in favor of steeper, more technical pitches. But somehow the trail didn't disappear as a result of my neglect; in fact, over time, the din of the accoladesfrom people whose opinions I trust, no lessactually got louder.
Finally, I realized I could bypass one of mountain biking's classic must-rides no longer.
Most people take three or four days to complete the hundred-mile [161-kilometer] trail, supported by a truck loaded with suppliesbut I knew many who had hammered it out in a day.
When longtime cycling compadre Shidan Towfiq and I arrived at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center, we had no idea which approach we'd takethe gracious ramble, the one-day marathon, or some self-supported middle way.
The National Park Service limits traffic on the trail to day-trippers and a few campers, who are restricted to 20 primitive sites. The highly coveted camping permits are sometimes locked up a year in advance; our chances for a same-day reservation were slim.
Slim, but not nil: A cancellation had freed one lonely site, available for a single night. Outside on the curb, we located the Hardscrabble B site on the far western side of our map, 70 miles [113 kilometers] clockwise from the visitors center, 30 miles [48 kilometers] counterclockwise.
We decided to tackle the big day first.
Get the full storyand an Adventure Guide to Utah's White Rim Trailin the April 2002 issue of Adventure.
|A Very Good Place to Disappear
When a man decides to vanish into the jungle, it's usually for a good reason. And if you go to find himif you find himyou may discover there's nothing romantic about it.
But a few years ago, standing in my father's study, looking at a 50-year-old picturea man in a military uniform, with a sharp nose and a scar sliced into his face, glowering at the camerathe whole idea seemed thrilling, mysterious.
"That's my uncle David," my dad said. "He livesor livedin Belize."
Belize? I thought Koeppels were supposed to reside in Queens (or Brooklyn, for the adventurous ones). What was an uncle doing in Central America?
"He's crazy," my father said.
An insane, scarred, pissed-off, jungle-hiding dead relation? How could my dad be so blasé? Who was this Uncle David? I pressed my father, and he tried to fill in the blanks.
I already knew the background: My ancestors were German-speaking Jews who lived in what is now Poland. Most of them emigrated to the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. The world was splendidly lousy with Koeppels (and Köppels and Kopels) in those days.
It turned out that my grandfather grew up in an extended family of seven siblings and a slew of cousins; David was one of the youngest members of the household.
After the Nazis rose to power, that web of relational intimacy was destroyed. Some Koeppels escaped. Many didn't, including David's parents.
David was serving in the Polish Army and attending medical school when World War II started. He decided to stay in Europe and fight. When Poland was overrun, he escaped and enlisted with the British Army.
The war gave David a taste for adventure. After it ended, he fought alongside Zionist partisans who wanted to create the modern state of Israel, then began traveling the world as part of Britain's Royal Army Medical Corps.
He'd stay at a remote posting for a few years, help build a hospital or two, shack up, have a few kidsillegitimatelythen bolt. Sometime in the 1950s, he arrived in Belize (then British Honduras). After my grandfather passed away in 1970, my family lost the scant contact it had with David.
"He'd be at least 80 by now," my dad said. "He's got to be dead."
But he wasn't certain. I wanted to find out, but I couldn't seem to work a Belize trip into my schedule.
Then, recently, I landed a magazine assignment to write an article about the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary in Belize's southern jungle. I planned an extended stay. I'd bring my mountain bike. Do a little exploring. Maybe find my uncle.
Belize has always been Central America's gringo oddball. It was one of the last outposts of the British Empire, having gained independence late, in 1981.
Before the English, there were the Maya, who covered the region in palaces and pyramids, many of which lie in jungle so deep few people have ever visited them. The country is the size of Massachusetts but with just 250,000 people.
Belize is an unpaved nation. There are more rivers than roads and just five traffic lights (only three actually work). The jungle starts at the beaches and spreads, more or less uninterrupted, to the hills along the western and northern borders.
Hemming the country's shores is the largest coral reef in the Caribbean, along with dozens of tropical islands and deep blue holes. Belize is a good place for eco-yuppies, scuba enthusiasts, and Margaritaville tramps.
* * * *
Since the country is so smalland since my uncle was a doctor there at a time when the country had very little in the way of medical carethere was a good chance that many people knew of him.
"Never heard of the man," said Mick Fleming as he poured me a drink and lit a cigarette. "And I bloody well know everyone in this country!"
Fleming came to Belize from Britain in the late 1970s with his wife, Lucy. In a Belize City bar, a man offered to sell them some land in the Cayo district, Belize's remote central quarters.
Sounds good, they said, then learned that the only way to reach the new homestead was by canoe. That was no problem, Mick recalled. "We were young."
In the decades since, their once inaccessible spreadnow reached by a dirt roadhas become an elaborate retreat, The Lodge at Chaa Creek, with cabanas, a tent camp (where I stayed), and an outdoor bar where Fleming is cheerily loose with the Cuba Libres.
Fleming wasn't terribly optimistic about my finding David, even though a government official I had met a couple of days earlier at the airport had an instant recollection: "Oh, yes. He was a very famous doctor."
As the official and I drove through Belize City, we stopped at an old house on a street of tattered, sun-bleached colonial buildings. "His office was here," the official said. "He must have delivered half of the babies in this country."
The place was abandoned.
"Do you know where he is now?"
"No," the official said. "I'm sorry." In 1978, he explained, Hurricane Greta hit, severely damaging Belize City. Records were lost. People vanished. "A lot of things changed after that," he added. "I haven't heard of him in 20 years."
Get the full story in the April 2002 issue of Adventure.
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