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The violence witnessed in Charlottesville, Virginia, during a white nationalist rally thrust the debate about Confederate monuments onto the nation's front pages. Should statues honoring the leaders of the Confederacy, like that of General Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, remain standing? Or should they be pulled down, as the city had planned to do – the very action that inspired the vicious rally.
While this discussion is not new, the murder of Heather Heyer has accelerated the removal of these monuments in much the same way that the murders of nine Charlestonians by Dylann Roof in 2015 instigated the lowering of Confederate battle flags across the country. Since this weekend’s events, the city of Baltimore removed four Confederate monuments in the middle of the night and the mayor of Lexington, Kentucky, has announced that his city will soon follow. They will join a number of smaller town and cities - most notably New Orleans - that have already taken similar steps.
The most controversial of these monuments already removed or under fire honor Confederate leaders such as Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and Jefferson Davis. Historians have correctly pointed out that these monuments distort the history of the Confederacy by ignoring the cause for which they were willing to give their lives, namely the creation of a slave-holding republic based on white supremacy.
The disfranchisement of black Americans through legal means and the threat of lynching, throughout the Jim Crow-era, allowed white southerners to frame their struggle as a “Lost Cause” - a defiant and righteous stand against an illegal invasion by a corrupt federal government that sought to wipe out their peaceful civilization.
But if we only focus on monuments that honor Confederate leaders, we miss the many monuments and memorials that intentionally distort history by presenting a false narrative of the “loyal slave.” Well into the 20th century, “Lost Causers” relied on this idea to clearly justify maintaining and extending the ideology of white supremacy. In 1895, local cotton mill owner Samuel E. White and the Jefferson Davis Memorial Association dedicated a memorial in Fort Mill, South Carolina, to honor the "faithful slaves who loyal to a sacred trust toiled for the support of the army with matchless devotion and sterling fidelity guarded our defenceless homes, women and children during the struggle for the principles of our Confederate States of America."
In 1931, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) erected a memorial to Heyward Shepherd, a free black man who was accidentally killed by John Brown's men during the October 1859 failed slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry. Shepherd worked as a porter in the town's railroad station, but in the words of the SCV and UDC represented "the character and faithfulness of thousands of negroes who, under many temptations throughout subsequent years of war, so conducted themselves that no stain was left upon a record which is the peculiar heritage of the American people..."
These monuments promulgate the idea that the Confederate cause united both races against invading Yankee hordes. In doing so, they reinforce a myth that ignored the many ways that enslaved people undermined the Confederate war effort, most notably by running off to the Union army and fighting against their former oppressors.
On June 4, 1914, the UDC dedicated what is perhaps the most egregious loyal slave monument, as it sits on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, not far from the former home of Robert E. Lee. A 32-feet-tall monument stood in a new section of Arlington, ringed by the graves of 267 Confederate soldiers, who had been reinterred from nearby locations. The dedication followed years of resistance to the idea of honoring Confederate dead on the same ground containing Union troops, black and white soldiers who had given their lives to save the United States.
Atop sits a statue of a human representation of the South, but beneath that, like tiers of cake, lies a ring of 14 shields emblazoned with the 13 seals of the Confederate states plus Maryland, then a series of life-sized friezes of the people of the Confederacy. Moses Ezekiel, a Confederate veteran and sculptor from Richmond, designed the monument and said he hoped to "show without any description how intensely and how seriously the men and women of every station in life had responded to the call to arms."
All together, they represent the pillars of Lost Cause ideology: Confederate military service, white southern family life and crucially, the faithful slave. One of the reliefs depicts, in the words of former Confederate Colonel Hilary Herbert, who chaired the executive committee of the Arlington Confederate Monument Association, "an officer, kissing his child in the arms of an old negro 'mammy.'"
To the left of this scene, Ezekiel placed a black man in Confederate uniform marching alongside white soldiers and officers. The meaning of this was clear for those who attended the dedication ceremony at Arlington. Herbert described Ezekiel's scene in the official history of the monument this way:
Then the sons and daughters of the South are seen coming from every direction. The manner in which they crowd enthusiastically upon each other is one of the most impressive features of this colossal work. There they come, representing every branch of the service, and in proper garb; soldiers, sailors, sappers and miners, all typified. On the right is a faithful negro body-servant following his young master, Mr. Thomas Nelson Page’s realistic “Marse Chan” over again.
Ezekiel's monument fit neatly into the racial and segregated landscape of its immediate surroundings at the time. Just a few years earlier, Virginia re-wrote its constitution to disenfranchise a large segment of its African-American citizens. Shortly after his inauguration in Washington, President Woodrow Wilson, who spoke at the dedication, ordered the segregation of all government offices.
This monument to the Confederate dead and its depiction of enslaved people as loyal, content with their subservient place, and disinterested in their own freedom, was a historical explanation that justified and helped maintain this new racial order that was now well in place throughout the former Confederacy.
Today, these monuments continue to distort the history of the Civil War and the Confederacy. Numerous SCV sites refers to the Ezekiel monument as evidence that black Confederates served in combat. In the hands of one unidentified author, Ezekiel's body servant is now a "Black Confederate soldier...marching in rank with white Confederate soldiers," and the monument itself is identified as "one of the first monument[s], if not the first, honoring a black American soldier." .
In recent years the SCV and UDC have advanced this myth not only to stem the tide of calls to lower Confederate flags and monuments, but to suggest, as their forebears did, that the cause of the Confederacy had nothing at all to do with the defense of slavery. Since black men fought willingly for the Confederacy, the argument runs, the preservation of slavery and white supremacy could not have been its goal. The Confederate flag and the many monuments that dot the southern landscape—properly understood—ought to unite black and white Americans.
The sons and daughters of the Confederacy understood that the key to re-imposing and justifying white supremacy following Reconstruction involved controlling history. Arguments against removing Confederate monuments often raise the dangers of erasing history.
What is often missed, however, is that the depiction of African-Americans as loyal and submissive itself constituted an erasure of history in favor of a fictional narrative that ultimately justified segregation and disfranchisement. The push to remove these monuments is recognition of the damage they have done and continue to do in communities across this country.
For me, it is the most beautiful view in the world. I am sitting on my rooftop balcony, looking through a tunnel of sea, mountains and sky that connects this former Venetian town to her ancient metropolis, the Serenissima. It is late afternoon. The northwest wind known as the maestral is whipping down the channel that separates us from the Croatian mainland. Windsurfers, kite surfers and sailboats dart back and forth across the milewide expanse of water. Below me are the ocher rooftops of Korčula (pronounced KOR-chu-la), perched on a rocky promontory surrounded by the translucent sea.
In a couple of hours, the sun will go down over the mountains, creating a seascape of musty pinks, blues and greens. In my mind’s eye, I follow the age-old trade route along the Dalmatian coast to Venice at the head of the Adriatic, nearly 400 miles away. It is easy to imagine Venetian galleys and sailing ships on patrol beneath the ramparts of Korčula, ready to do battle against rival city-states like Ragusa and Genoa, the Ottoman Empire and the Barbary pirates of North Africa.
I have been coming to Korčula—or Curzola, as it was known in Venetian times—for more than four decades, ever since I was a child. It is a place that still has the power to take my breath away, particularly in the quiet of the early morning and evening, when the polished white stones of the Old Town seem to float above the water. With its cathedral and miniature piazzetta, dreamy courtyards and romantic balconies, and elaborately carved Gothic windows and family crests, Korčula is “a perfect specimen of a Venetian town,” in the phrase of a 19th-century English historian, Edward Augustus Freeman.
More than three centuries have passed since the “Most Serene” Republic ruled this stretch of Dalmatian coastline, but her influence is evident everywhere, from the winged lion that greets visitors at the ceremonial entrance to the town to the hearty fish soup known as brodet to the “gondola” references in Korčulan folk songs.
The extraordinarily rich Korčulan dialect is sprinkled not only with Italian words like pomodoro (tomato) and aiuto (help) but also specifically Venetian words like gratar (to fish) and tecia (cooking pan) that have nothing in common with either Croatian or Italian.
Image by Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis. Shadows cast on stone stairs in the medieval Old Town area. The streets are steep and narrow. Often there is barely room for two people to pass each other without touching. (original image)
Image by Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis. A sidewalk café near St. Mark’s Cathedral in the heart of the island buzzes with activity. (original image)
Image by Josef Polleross, Anzenberger/Redux. In a dance called the Moreška, rival Christian and Moor armies fight over the honor of a fair Korčulan lady. (original image)
Image by Doug Pearson, JAI/Corbis. A young man sports a traditional sword fighting costume. (original image)
The legacy of more than 400 years of Venetian rule can also be felt in the habits and mind-set of the Korčulans. “Every Korčulan imagines himself to be descended from a noble Venetian family,” says my friend Ivo Tedeschi. “We feel that we are at the center of our own little universe.” Families with Italian names like Arneri and Boschi and Depolo have been prominent in Korčula since Venetian times. As befits a place that was sometimes called the “arsenal of Venice,” Korčula still boasts its own shipyard, albeit one that has fallen on hard times with the economic crisis in Croatia.
Contributing to the sense of crumbling grandeur is the location of Korčula at the crossroads of geography and history. This was where West met East—the intersection of Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Islamic civilizations. For the most part, these worlds have lived in harmony with one another, but occasionally they have clashed, with disastrous consequences, as happened in the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. My house overlooks the narrowest point of the Pelješac canal, which straddled the dividing line between the western and eastern parts of the Roman Empire—Rome and Byzantium—and marked the seaborne approaches to the Serenissima.
Korčula changed hands several times during the Napoleonic Wars, from the French to the British and finally to the Austrians. Since the early 19th century, it has belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Communist Yugoslavia and the Republic of Croatia. Each shift in power was accompanied by the destruction of the symbols of the previous regime and the wholesale renaming of streets, leaving people confused about their own address.
My friend Gaella Gottwald points out a frieze of a defaced winged lion, sitting forlornly next to the town hall. “The lion was the symbol of Venetian power,” she explains. “When the Communists took over after World War II, they destroyed anything that reminded the people of Italian rule.” A few winged lions survived high up on the city walls, but most were removed and replaced by the red Partisan star and portraits of Marshal Tito. Similarly, after the fall of communism in 1991, most of the Partisan stars were replaced with the checkerboard emblem of independent Croatia. The Josip Broz Tito Harbor was renamed the Franjo Tudjman Harbor, after Croatia’s new nationalist leader.
Most of what I know about the winds of Korčula I have learned from Rosario Vilović, a retired sea captain who lives up our street. Each wind has its own name and distinct personality. “The maestral blows in the afternoon in summer,” he says, pointing to the northwest, toward Venice. “It is a warm, dry, very refreshing wind.” His brow thickens as he gestures to the northeast, over the forbidding limestone mountains of the Pelješac Peninsula. “The bora is our strongest and most destructive wind. When a bora threatens, we run inside and close all our shutters and windows.” He turns toward the south. “The jugo is humid and wet and brings a lot of rain.” And so he continues, around all the points of the compass.
Winds are to Korčula as canals are to Venice, shaping her geography, character and destiny. When the city fathers laid out the town at least 800 years ago, they created a medieval air-conditioning system based on wind circulation. On the western side of the town the streets are all straight, open to the maestral. On our side of town, facing the Pelješac, the streets are crooked, to keep the bora out.
In Korčula, horses and carriages “are as impossible as at Venice itself, though not for the same reason,” wrote Freeman in his 1881 book, Sketches From the Subject and Neighbour Lands of Venice, which remains one of the best guidebooks to the Dalmatian coast. “Curzola does not float upon the waters, it soars above them.” Viewed from above, the island resembles the crumpled skeleton of a fish, straight on one side but crooked on the other. A narrow spine down the middle serves as the main street, centered on the cathedral and its miniature square, climbing over the top of the humpbacked peninsula. The streets are steep and narrow: There is barely room for two pedestrians to pass each other without touching.
One result of Korčula’s unique wind circulation system is the orientation of the town toward the maestral and therefore toward Venice. The western side of the town is open and inviting, with a seafront promenade, harbor and hotel. The eastern side is fortified, against both the bora and the Moor. It is a layout that reflects the geopolitical orientation of Korčula toward the West, away from the Slavic world, Islam and the Orient.
The battle between East and West is echoed in a traditional sword dance known as the Moreška, which used to be performed throughout the Mediterranean but seems to have survived only in Korčula. The dance is a morality tale pitting the army of the Red King (Christians) against the army of the Black King (Moors), over the honor of a fair Korčulan lady. Sparks fly (literally) from the clashing swords, but needless to say, the fix is in, and the favored team emerges triumphant every time.
Given Korčula’s strategic location, it is hardly surprising that the island has been the prey of numerous foreign navies. The Genoese won a great sea battle over the Venetians within sight of my house in 1298, leading to the capture of the Venetian explorer Marco Polo. An Ottoman fleet led by the feared corsair Uluz Ali passed by here in 1571. According to Korčula legend, the Venetians fled, leaving the island to be defended by the locals, mainly women who lined the city walls clad in military attire. The show was sufficiently impressive to dissuade the Turks from attacking Korčula; they sailed away to pillage the neighboring island of Hvar instead. (An alternative story is that the Turkish fleet was dispersed by a storm.) In recognition of its devotion to Christendom, Korčula earned the title “Fidelissima” (Most Faithful One) from the pope.
The winds and the sea have also endowed Korčula with a long line of distinguished seafarers. The most prominent of them, according to the Korčulans, is Marco Polo himself, whose celebrated travel book gave Europeans their first insight into the customs and history of China. In truth, Korčula’s claim to be Marco Polo’s birthplace is tenuous, but no more so than the claims of others, such as Šibenik (farther up the Dalmatian coast) and Venice itself. It rests mainly on oral tradition and the fact that a “De Polo” family has been living in Korčula for centuries. The Marco Polo connection has proved a boon to the local tourist industry, spawning a “Marco Polo house,” half a dozen “Marco Polo shops” and “museums,” “Marco Polo ice cream,” and several competing Marco Polo impersonators.
Collecting absurd Marco Polo claims has become a pastime of Korčula’s foreign residents. My personal favorites: “Marco Polo brought these noodles back from China” (on the menu of a local restaurant) and “Marco Polo found great food and love in this house” (sign outside another restaurant). A few years ago a friend of ours packaged a bulbous piece of plaster in a cardboard box and labeled it “Marco Polo’s Nose—an Original Souvenir from Korčula.” It was an instant hit with locals and tourists.
A different state of being
One of the qualities that Korčula shares with Venice is a sense of living on the edge of disaster. Venetians face floods, storms and the demands of modern tourism as threats to their noble city. In the case of Korčula, it is the onslaught of vacationers in the summer months that fuels concern over the town’s fragile infrastructure. Megayachts with names like Will Power and Eclipse and Sovereign maneuver for docking space in the harbor. A 15th-century tower that was once part of Korčula’s defenses against the Turks becomes a cocktail bar selling overpriced mojitos to raucous Italians and Australians.
The most obvious evidence of the imbalance between tourism and infrastructure is the unpleasant odor of raw sewage that wafts over parts of the town on hot summer days, particularly when the breeze is blowing in the wrong direction. The Venetian-built sewage canals, known as kaniželas (from the Venetian canisela), have become clogged with the detritus of unauthorized construction and the waste of the Marco Polo-themed restaurants. Short of ripping out the medieval guts of the town and tunneling deep under the cobbled alleyways, there is no obvious solution.
Yet Korčulans are the first to admit that they lack the moneymaking dynamism of their neighbors in Hvar, who have turned their island into the showcase of the Croatian tourist industry. In Korčula, tourists tend to be viewed as a necessary evil. The Hvar city fathers considered silencing the church bells after foreign visitors complained about the noise; in Korčula, the bells are as much a part of the landscape as the sea and the air, and continue to peal at all times of the day and night.
For those of us who consider ourselves adopted Korčulans, the summer crowds and occasional unpleasant smells are a small price to pay for the privilege of living in a magical, almost timeless place. The Croatian tourist slogan “the Mediterranean as it once was” seems an exaggeration on other parts of the Dalmatian coast but encapsulates the laid-back pace of life in Korčula. It is a world of lazy afternoon siestas, invigorating swims in the crystal clear Adriatic, scents of wild mint and rosemary and lavender, sounds of crickets singing in the pine trees, tastes of succulent tomatoes and fresh grilled fish, all washed down with glasses of Pošip (pronounced POSH-ip], the dry white wine that is native to the island.
There is a Dalmatian expression—fjaka, deriving from the Italian word fiacca—that sums up this blissful existence. The closest translation would be “indolence” or “relaxation,” but it has much subtler connotations. “Fjaka is a philosophy, a way of life,” explains my neighbor Jasna Peručić, a Croatian American who works as a hard-charging New York real estate agent when she is not relaxing in Korčula. “It means more than simply doing nothing. It is a state of well-being in which you are perfectly content.”
To fully achieve this state, however, requires a reorientation of the mind: The locals also use fjaka as a one-word explanation for the impossibility of finding an electrician or a plumber—or getting very much done at all—particularly when the humid south wind is blowing in the dog days of summer.
Like other foreigners who fall in love with Korčula, I have come to understand that true relaxation—fjaka—comes from adapting yourself to the rhythms and habits of your adopted town. Every summer I arrive in Korčula with ambitious plans to explore more of the Dalmatian coast, go for long hikes or bike rides, improve the house, or work on an unfinished book. Almost invariably, these plans fall through. Instead I am perfectly content with the daily routine of shopping for fish and pomodori, cooking, eating, talking and sleeping.
The flip side of fjaka is occasional bursts of almost manic energy. A decade or so ago, my neighbors invented a new festival known as “Half New Year,” which is celebrated on June 30. For one hilarious evening, villagers from all over the island compete with one another to devise the most outrageous form of costume, parading around the town in rival teams of prancing minstrels, dancing Hitlers and little green men from Mars. Marching bands lead the revelers, young and old, on a tour of the ancient battlements. And then, as suddenly as it has awakened, the town falls back asleep.
When I sail away from Korčula at the end of the summer, watching the white stones of the old town recede into the watery distance, I feel a stab of melancholy. As in Venice, the feeling of loss is enhanced by the sense that all this beauty could simply disappear. It is as if I am seeing an old friend for the last time. But then I remember that Korčula—like Venice—has survived wars and earthquakes, fires and plagues, Fascism and Communism, Ottoman navies and armies of modern-day tourists.
My guess is that the Fidelissima, like the Serenissima, will still be casting her spell for many centuries to come.
The Night Wind, (To the Child Sitting Cozily in His Home, the Roar of the Wind Outside) [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)
Baur, John I., "Charles Burchfield," (NY: Macmillan Company, published for the Whitney Museum of American Art, 1956), no. 13.
Black-and-white study print (8x10).
Orig. negative: 8x10, Nitrate, BW.
copy 1 negative: 8x10, Safety, BW.
This story originally appeared on Travel + Leisure.
The House of Eternal Return, Santa Fe's unlikely new cultural destination, is a two-story Victorian built by the art collective Meow Wolf inside a converted old bowling alley owned by Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin. The décor recalls the 1970s, with faux-wood paneling and afghan-covered beds and a hamster cage in a child’s bedroom. You follow various passageways—through the fireplace, the refrigerator, a closet—and find yourself in fantastical worlds that cling to the periphery of the house like moss. There’s a forest of neon trees. A Star Trek–ian spaceship. A mobile home plunked down in the middle of a desert.
The 22,000-square-foot installation is a haunted house without the monsters, an amusement park without the rides, an acid trip without the drugs. It is embedded with clues about the mysterious fate of a family who lived there. You can choose to simply steep yourself in the abstract visual stimuli, or you can attempt to piece the narrative together. In an upstairs office, I found the Perry Mason crowd: visitors of various ages pulling books from shelves, riffling through spiral notebooks, unpinning papers from a bulletin board, and clicking through files on a computer.
“It’s, like, a lot of Illuminati stuff,” Anna, a blond 16-year-old, said with teenage earnestness. She could have been discussing Dungeons & Dragons.
“It’s about the occult or time travel,” said her friend Sabrina, an 18-year-old with a pixie cut who was flipping through a legal pad like an extra in a crime show. The House of Eternal Return looks exactly like what it is: a surreal fantasia concocted by a group of 150 artists with a $2.7 million budget. Though it’s nothing like the soothing pastels and bright landscape paintings on display at Santa Fe’s many galleries and museums, visitors have flocked to it. In the six months after it opened in March, the exhibit brought in 350,000 visitors and revenue of $4 million.
Santa Fe’s boosters like to say that more art is sold in Santa Fe than in any American city other than New York or Los Angeles—a surprising claim when you consider that the town’s population barely grazes 70,000. Collectors from all over the world travel to buy at its internationally renowned summer fairs: the Traditional Spanish Market, the Santa Fe Indian Market, and the International Folk Art Market. Santa Fe also has more than 200 galleries and a dozen museums. Much of the work is characterized by an overwhelming Southwesternness. One friend, an editor at the Santa Fe–based Outside magazine, summed it up as “burros with sunsets.”
More than a million tourists come each year in search of this Southwestern aesthetic. Santa Fe, a guidebook by longtime resident Buddy Mays that I picked up in the gift shop of the New Mexico History Museum, explains that the town’s quaint image was deliberately crafted as a means of driving tourism. Beginning around 1912, the year New Mexico was granted statehood, civic leaders sought to define Santa Fe’s architectural style, set restrictions on signage, and draw attention to Hispanic and Native American arts. The idea was to give the city a historic regional identity and the patina of an exotic travel destination.
The plan worked. Too well, some would argue. For years, Santa Fe has been trapped inside its own successful branding. Besides the art, there’s the ubiquitous turquoise jewelry and the inescapable red and green chiles. There’s the low-slung, mud-brown adobe architecture, the result of a strict zoning ordinance passed in 1957 that remains in effect today. There’s the pervasive undercurrent of New Age spiritualism.
Image by iStock / csfotoimages. The New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe (original image)
Image by iStock / arak7. International Folk Art Market held annually in July in Santa Fe, New Mexico (original image)
Image by iStock / annHuizenga. Spanish Market artist with her artwork, exiting the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis at the 64th (2015) Spanish Market en route to the Santa Fe Plaza (original image)
Image by iStock / JannHuizenga. The traditional beaded costumes and regalia of artist Vanessa P. Jennings at the 2015 (94th) Annual Santa Fe Indian Market (original image)
Since the early 1980s, when an Esquire cover story called it “the right place to live” and a real estate boom brought a wave of second-homers and celebrities (Sam Shepard, Ali MacGraw, Jane Fonda, Val Kilmer), Santa Fe—or the idea of it, anyway—has been entrenched in the popular consciousness. Countless articles have praised its clean high- altitude air, tasteful old-world aesthetic, and quiet rhythms. Magazine spreads pay homage to “Santa Fe style,” a term (codified by a popular 1986 coffee-table book of the same name) that describes the town’s characteristic mix of Pueblo and Territorial Revival architecture and an interior-décor approach that favors folk crafts, Native American artifacts, and Western accents, like bleached steer skulls.
Many locals told me that they try to avoid their town’s most popular destinations, like the Plaza, the historic downtown square, and Canyon Road, the row of galleries that was once an artists’ enclave. Once in a while, they might go to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum to see the paintings that are so foundational to Santa Fe’s identity. But, my editor friend told me, “We’re due for a reset. It’s just been Georgia O’Keeffe straight through.”
One could argue that Santa Fe has already gotten its reset in the form of Javier Gonzales, 50, the city’s first openly gay mayor. He was elected in 2014 after running on the slogan “Dare to grow young,” a reference to the town’s aging population (the median age is 44, seven years higher than the national average) and youth exodus (the under-45 population has sharply declined in the past decade).
On a bright, breezy day in early May, I met Gonzales at his office in city hall. Long-limbed and handsome in cowboy boots and jeans, he told me that Santa Fe “can’t be afraid to move forward” on issues that matter to people in their 20s and 30s: affordable housing, job growth in industries other than tourism and government, green energy, and nightlife. Gonzales plans to bring more film and digital media to town, not only to increase employment opportunities but also to diversify the cultural landscape, which leans disproportionately toward crafts and visual arts. He has challenged the city’s institutions to support creative work that is more inclusive, and “not just for the patrons,” as he put it.
I thought about this mandate at the opening of “Lowriders, Hoppers, and Hot Rods: Car Culture of Northern New Mexico,” on view until March at the New Mexico History Museum. Rather than the white, middle-aged crowd you might expect to see at an exhibition in the city’s most touristy district, the attendees were young, tattooed, and diverse. One was Julia Armijo, a seventh-generation Santa Fean who had come with her daughter, Justice Lovato, the founder and president of a local car club called Enchanted Expressions. Lowriders, Armijo told me, are works of art that are “built, not bought.”
Perhaps the best example of Santa Fe’s broadening definition of art is the ascent of Meow Wolf. The collective’s bowling-alley complex, which, in addition to the House of Eternal Return, contains studios, offices, and a youth-education center, is four miles across town from the Plaza, in the Siler Road District. The area, which was once dominated by auto-repair garages, metal shops, and old manufacturing buildings, has swiftly become a creative hub. Several small theater companies have sprung up: Teatro Paraguas, which performs in a black-box space; Wise Fool New Mexico, a nonprofit circus troupe; and Adobe Rose Theatre, which opened in January in a former door factory. The Arts and Creativity Center, a city-backed development providing live-work spaces for artists, could be completed there by next summer—a major step toward making Santa Fe, a town that depends on art, more hospitable to the people who create it.
Image by iStock / RiverNorthPhotography. One of the galleries of Canyon Road, a section of town filled with galleries, cafes, and arts and crafts stores and a major tourist attraction. (original image)
Image by iStock / egumeny. Christian Ristow's 'Becoming Human” robot statue in the Meow Wolf parking lot (original image)
Image by iStock / JannHuizenga. The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum (original image)
Vince Kadlubek, Meow Wolf’s 34-year-old CEO, radiates the entrepreneurial savvy of Tim Ferriss and the monomaniacal intensity of Captain Ahab. As the collective’s chief fund raiser and spokesperson, he is superhumanly busy. At 9 a.m. on a Tuesday, he had not yet slept. Seated in a back room of Meow Wolf headquarters, Kadlubek, who grew up in Santa Fe—his parents are retired public-school teachers—expressed both pride and frustration in his hometown. “The cultural identity of Santa Fe was sooooo valuable, and powerful, and controlled, that it had very little ability to change, to be agile,” he told me. A decade ago, like so many young Santa Feans, he moved away—in his case, to Portland, Oregon—but he returned after a year. “I played this out in my head,” he recalled. “If Santa Fe keeps the same old identity, it becomes less and less attractive to a new generation. The demographic that is attracted to it grows older and older, and we just start to see the vibrancy—the actual health and sustainability—of the city that I grew up in and love start to come into question.” He pounded a fist on the table. “When I got back, I was like, ‘I’ve got to do something.’ ”
In 2008, he founded Meow Wolf with 11 other artists. In a former hair salon, the group hosted shows and punk-rock concerts while developing its signature creative style: immersive, colorful, multimedia, hyper-collaborative. Initially, Meow Wolf “had zero entry point into the art world of Santa Fe,” Kadlubek told me. But eventually the establishment took notice. In 2011, the Center for Contemporary Art commissioned the group to create the Due Return, an interactive 5,000-square-foot ship with a backstory about traveling through time and space to an alien planet. The project was a hit, and brought commissions for installations in Chicago, Miami, New York, and elsewhere.
Around the same time, Santa Fe resident George R.R. Martin, though a sexagenarian himself, had grown concerned about his town’s lack of youthful vigor. So in 2013, he purchased a dormant 128-seat, single-screen theater, the Jean Cocteau. On a spooky, windy night, I attended a showing of Blue Velvet. It was instantly clear to me that the theater also serves as a youth hangout. There are board games and a wall of books signed by authors, like Neil Gaiman and Junot Díaz, who have given readings. In addition to popcorn with real butter, the concession counter sells corn dogs, turkey Reubens, and deep-fried Twinkies. “Is George ever here?” I asked a girl with a half-shaved head. Yes, on Wednesdays for game night, she told me. “He really loves this place.”The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture Laboratory of Anthropology Library is a research library dedicated to the study of Native cultures, anthropology and archaeology of the Southwestern United States, Mexico and Central America. (iStock / ivanastar)
When he opened the Jean Cocteau, Martin hired Kadlubek to oversee marketing. By then, Kadlubek had begun mapping out the permanent interactive-art experience that would become the House of Eternal Return. He found the abandoned bowling alley in 2014 and immediately e-mailed Martin. “Do you want to buy this building?” he asked. “We could do something cool with it.” As a fellow architect of fantastical worlds, Martin was intrigued. He purchased it for $800,000, spent $3 million more on renovations, and now rents it to Meow Wolf at a below-market rate.
“All these pieces came together,” Kadlubek said, leaning back in his chair. “This is the new identity. It’s still art. But it’s new art. And now we are the tourism darling of Santa Fe.”
As I drove back to the Plaza to meet the contemporary Native American artist Cannupa Hanska Luger at the gallery Blue Rain, it struck me that artists in Santa Fe are unusually aware of their city’s image. They seem to feel the need to decide whether to engage with or rebel against the local brand.
For Hanska Luger, 37, this dilemma is more personal because what many tourists want from Native American artists is art that looks Native American. “I try not to draw from my cultural background,” explained Hanska Luger, who was born on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. He has long dark hair and a blank “To Do” list tattooed on his arm. Instead of his heritage, he told me, he draws from his experiences of popular culture: anime, cartoons, science fiction. But the inspiration for his eerily beautiful work—sculptures created out of yarn, felt, wood, and clay— also seems to come directly from his unconscious.
We climbed into his red pickup and drove to the Railyard District. A former warehouse precinct, it is home to galleries, restaurants, shops, a farmers’ market, and the independent Violet Crown Cinema. On our way, we passed SITE Santa Fe, the nonprofit contemporary-art center whose arrival in the Railyard District 21 years ago was the catalyst for the neighborhood’s transformation. Last summer, SITE Santa Fe broke ground for an ambitious yearlong expansion by New York City–based SHoP Architects that will add 15,000 square feet of space and a pleated metallic façade.
We met Hanska Luger’s friend and fellow artist Frank Buffalo Hyde, 42, at his studio. Buffalo Hyde told me that his cheeky acrylic paintings “deal with the commodification of popular culture and Native culture.” In one, a buffalo is sandwiched inside a burger bun—“a statement,” he said, “on how they’ve gone from the brink of extinction to being farmed as a healthy alternative meat.” Other paintings depict a Hopi woman dressed as a cheerleader and Gwen Stefani in an Indian headdress. Like Hanska Luger, Buffalo Hyde has felt the weight of the town’s aesthetic expectations. “For a long time,” Buffalo Hyde said, “the market dictated what Native art was, and if it wasn’t salable and marketable, it was just pushed aside.”
I asked what was salable and marketable. “Sunsets, coyotes, warriors on horses,” he said. “Anything non-threatening and decorative.”
If Santa Fe has a culinary equivalent to the warrior on a horse or the burro with a sunset, it is the chile. Red, green, or Christmas-style—that means both mixed together—chiles are in or on almost everything. I’d been in Santa Fe 24 hours when I realized that every meal I’d eaten, including breakfast, had contained them. At Café Pasqual’s, the huevos rancheros arrived, soup-like, in a bowl atop black beans, covered in tomatillo and green-chile sauces. At Sazón, I’d had zuppa d’amour, a corn-poblano soup with amaretto cream, and a mezcal dusted with red-chile powder instead of salt. At Shake Foundation, I’d ordered the green-chile cheeseburger. I’d even taken an impromptu cooking class at the Santa Fe School of Cooking. The topic? Green-chile sauce. “I’ve always loved it,” said my lunch companion at Pasqual’s, an amiable woman who rides horses and works in PR. “But not everybody does.” She was quiet for a moment, then added, “You can get other things.
Image by iStock / JannHuizenga. Raul Malo, lead singer of the Mavericks, pausing for a water break during a free outdoor community concert on the Santa Fe Plaza. To his right is saxophonist Max Abrams. (original image)
Image by iStock / RiverNorthPhotography. The Santa Fe Railyard (original image)
Image by iStock / ablokhin. El Molero Fajitas food stand in downtown Santa Few (original image)
Edgar Beas, the new chef of the Anasazi Restaurant at my charming downtown hotel, the Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi, uses Southwestern ingredients whenever possible. But when it comes to the chile, his touch is light. One dinner began with focaccia made with onion ash, which renders the bread black, and butter sprinkled with the same oddly appealing ingredient. Next was a beet salad topped with scallops, oysters with (you knew it was coming) red-chile sauce, and tiny gnocchi accompanied by kumquats and crème fraîche. The main course was buttery seared halibut with potato polenta and squid ink, plus another dish of tamarind duck breast with local morels and green strawberries on a bed of barley. For dessert: a hazelnut gâteau accented with whiskey cream, prickly pear, a bay leaf, and ginger “snow.” The food was itself a form of contemporary Southwestern art.
Paper Dosa, one of Santa Fe’s most popular new restaurants, doesn’t perform any twist on Southwestern cuisine. Instead, it does South Indian food with an emphasis on fresh, seasonal, often surprising ingredients, like persimmons and sunchokes. Its specialty is the eponymous thin rice and- lentil crêpe that’s nearly as big as a boat sail. Married co-owners Nellie Tischler, a native Santa Fean, and Paulraj Karuppasamy, who was born and raised in India, met while working at Dosa, a restaurant in San Francisco, where they lived for a decade. Like Meow Wolf, Paper Dosa earned a following before finding a permanent home. The couple began with a series of well-attended pop-ups, then moved into an airy space south of the Railyard District in early 2015. Tischler showed me an iPhone photo of a line of customers snaking around the front of the restaurant. “That was yesterday,” she said.
When you taste the food, you understand why people wait. Many dishes are Karuppasamy’s family recipes, passed down by his grandmother. Tischler, a former drummer for Wise Fool who has bangs and a nose ring, sat with me as I enjoyed a plate of bright-red beet croquettes, a rich, nutty potato masala, and a complex asparagus soup with coconut milk and Thai chiles. “This food is what you would find in someone’s home in India,” she explained. We watched Karup pasamy, dressed in chef’s whites, cooking in Paper Dosa’s big open kitchen. “There are a lot of people in this town with a fresh energy, who left and came back.” Tischler said. “We got schooled in bigger cities and we’re doing what we learned, but in more interesting and inspiring ways.”
After dinner one evening, I drove back across town to the Meow Wolf compound for one of their semi-regular parties. I was thrilled to have something to do. Santa Fe shuts down early, and I do not. When I’d ask residents about nightlife, they would seem slightly confused. You mean like a club? And then they’d recommend Skylight, the only one in town.
That there is so little to do at night has been an ongoing concern in Santa Fe. In 2010, a coalition of artists, promoters, and venues formed the After Hours Alliance to “identify creative ways to stimulate local nightlife,” as their mission statement puts it. In addition to bringing Uber to town, Mayor Gonzales has set up his own Nighttime Economy Task Force. These groups might seem silly, but the issue they’re attempting to confront is real: How do you keep young people from leaving town if nothing’s open late?
In the parking lot, I passed a “Kebab Caravan” food truck and a group of twentysomethings in thrift-store clothing. Inside, I wandered through the House of Eternal Return’s maze of psychedelic rooms until I reached an inner sanctum, where a DJ was performing on a dais. Electronic music pounded. Partygoers danced and twirled through a fog of dry ice. Someone whizzed past on roller skates. The room reeked of marijuana. It felt like anything was possible here, with Santa Fe’s graying elders asleep at home, and the next generation daring to be young.
The Details: What to Do in Santa Fe, New Mexico
Bishop’s Lodge A 1920s ranch turned resort and spa set on 317 acres in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The iconic establishment is currently undergoing a renovation and expansion and will reopen in spring 2018.
Drury Plaza Located in downtown Santa Fe, this spacious 182-room hotel opened in 2014 and has a pedestrian promenade that allows visitors to walk from Cathedral Park to the galleries on Canyon Road. Doubles from $170.
Four Seasons Rancho Encantado A secluded resort with 65 casita-style guest rooms, each with its own fireplace and terrace. The restaurant, Terra, serves excellent contemporary American cuisine. Doubles from $330.
Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi Just steps from Santa Fe’s historic Plaza, this 58-room hotel incorporates local handcrafted textiles and paintings into its design. Take in the traditional wood-beamed ceilings and three wood-burning fireplaces while sipping a margarita made with tequila from the property’s extensive collection. Doubles from $315.
Sunrise Springs Spa Resort Guests visiting this wellness resort can connect with nature via the property’s natural springs and 70 acres of gardens, walking trails, and undeveloped desert. Doubles from $280.
Restaurants & Cafés
Café Pasqual’s Locals and tourists line up out the door for the legendary Mexican and New Mexican cuisine. Entrées $26–$39.
Kakawa Chocolate House This charming chocolate shop, tucked in a small adobe house on the edge of downtown, serves all kinds of confections, but is best known for its chocolate elixirs.
Paper Dosa After earning a following with a series of pop-ups, chef Paulraj Karuppasamy and his wife, Nellie Tischler, opened this brick-and-mortar spot, where they serve South Indian cuisine and their eponymous specialty, a thin crêpe made from a fermented rice-and-lentil batter. Entrées $10–$18.
Sazón Chef Fernando Olea focuses his small menu on daily specials made with locally sourced produce and meat accompanied by a medley of moles. Entrées $27–$45.
Shake Foundation This tiny, walk-up burger joint is dedicated to the preservation of the green-chile cheeseburger, and that’s precisely what people come for. But the fried-oyster and spicy fried-chicken sandwiches are also worth a try. Burgers $4–$8.
Blue Rain This 23-year-old gallery shows fine contem-porary Native American and regional art in a variety of media: painting, ceramics, bronze, glass, wood, and jewelry.
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum With more than 3,000 pieces dating from 1901 to 1984, it’s the largest permanent collection of O’Keeffe’s work in the world. It was the first museum in the United States dedicated to a female artist.
The House of Eternal Return This colorful, 22,000-square-foot, immersive multimedia art installation, created by the collective Meow Wolf, is the stuff of childhood imaginations. It is housed in an erstwhile bowling alley owned by Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin.
Jean Cocteau Cinema Before acquiring the bowling alley, Martin bought and restored this 128-seat, single-screen theater. It shows old, independent, and cult-classic movies, and hosts a weekly game night, which Martin is rumored to attend.
New Mexico History Museum This enormous exhibition space, next to the 400-year-old Palace of the Governors, has collections covering various aspects of New Mexican history.
SITE Santa Fe Founded in 1995, this contemporary art space has become known for its international biennial exhibition. The current iteration, “Much Wider Than a Line,” on display until January 2017, is the second installment in SITE’s series that focuses on art from the Americas.
Violet Crown Cinema The year-old, 11-screen theater in the Railyard District shows new releases, classics, independent, foreign, and art-house films. It also has a full bar and a café that serves farm-to-table food that can be enjoyed while watching your favorite flick.
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When I drove with forest ecologist Nathan Stephenson on the twisted Generals Highway through Sequoia National Park in central California last September, it was like a tour through the aftermath of a disaster. As we zigzagged up the road in his car, Stephenson narrated our journey blithely, like a medical examiner used to talking about death. “There’s a dead skeleton there,” he remarked, pointing to a bony oak corpse jutting toward the sky. A haze of nude branches clung to the distant slope.
“So all that gray up there is dead live oaks,” he said.
Above us, a band of brown streaked across the slopes—dead pines, their remains still standing upright in the forest—and when we reached nearly 6,000 feet, Stephenson parked on a gated road and led me into a desolate scene of parched earth and dying trees.
Tall and lanky as a sapling, with angular shoulders and a neatly trimmed white beard, Stephenson—who, at 60 years old, has worked here since he began as a National Park Service volunteer nearly four decades ago—looked like he could have sprung from the forest himself. Today, as a full-time research scientist with the United States Geological Survey, stationed in the Sierra Nevada, one of Stephenson’s main jobs is to keep watch over these trees. He tromped through a carpet of brown needles and paper-dry oak leaves to show me a deceased Ponderosa pine about six feet wide at the base and as tall as a 15-story building. Someone from his research crew had peeled the bark back to reveal the cause of death: the curled signature of a pine beetle etched into the wood.
“And there’s another Ponderosa pine,” he said, pointing a few feet away. “They all died.”
Drought suppresses a tree’s ability to make sap, which functions as part of both its circulatory system and its immune system against bugs. About a decade ago, even before the historic California drought, Stephenson and his colleagues saw a slight but noticeable uptick in the number of insect-inflicted casualties in the forest—twice as many as when he started his research—and he suspected that the rising temperatures were stressing the trees.
The mass death of trees, pines especially, accelerated after the winter of 2014-2015 when the weather went haywire and Stephenson walked the foothills in a short-sleeved T-shirt in January, and again during the record-low snowfalls the following year. Then came the swarms of beetles, which appear to be thriving amid the warmer temperatures. That spring, “it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, everything’s dropping dead,’” Stephenson recalled.
Since then, about half to two-thirds of the thick-trunked pines at this elevation have been lost, along with an increased number of fatalities among other species like incense cedars (trees that seemed so hardy before the drought that Stephenson and his colleagues used to call them “the immortals”). His crew keeps a running count of the casualties, but the park doesn’t intervene to save the trees.
Image by Visual by Thom Halls for Undark. Nate Stephenson has spent most of his life as a government scientist working in these forests, and he has witnessed the changes brought on by rising temperatures. (original image)
Image by Visual by Thom Halls for Undark. Tourists arrive in Sequoia National Park and quickly see the results of the drought and the infestation of the western pine beetle. (original image)
Image by Visual by Thom Halls for Undark. Stephenson traces the tracks of the fir engraver beetle for an autopsy patch on the side of a dead white fir. (original image)
Even though the National Park Service is charged with keeping places like Sequoia “unimpaired” for future generations, it doesn’t usually step in when trees meet their end because of thirst and pestilence. Droughts and insects are supposed to be normal, natural occurrences. But it’s hard to say whether the changes witnessed here—or at neighboring Kings Canyon National Park, or at national parks across the nation—still count as normal, or even “natural,” at least as park stewards like Stephenson have long understood the term. And those changes raise a lot of prickly questions that cut to the very heart of what keepers of public lands do, and how they perceive their mission.
After all, even as tens of millions of tourists throng through their gates every year to get a glimpse of the “wild,” official policy has, for decades, directed scientists and managers to keep the parks they oversee as untainted as possible, looking as nature would if humans had never intervened. But how do you preserve the wilderness when nature itself is no longer behaving like it’s supposed to? How do you erase human influence when that influence is now everywhere, driving up temperatures, acidifying oceans, melting glaciers, and rapidly remaking the landscapes we’ve come to know as our national parks?
In Alaska, boreal forest trees are rooting into the previously treeless tundra. The javelina, a hoofed, pig-like mammal, has wandered north from part of its traditional range in southern Arizona into Grand Canyon National Park. The glaciers of Glacier National Park are withering in the heat and will probably be gone in less than 15 years.
Under the Obama administration, the park service took on climate change as a kind of combat mission. A quote from then-National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis is still emblazoned across a number of agency websites: “I believe climate change is fundamentally the greatest threat to the integrity of our national parks that we have ever experienced.” Three years ago, a memo sent to directors and managers of every region of the park service confessed that “some goals described in our current planning documents reflect concepts of ‘naturalness’ that are increasingly difficult to define in a world shaped by an altered climate.”
Those realizations were already upending the park service and its affiliated agencies when the nation elected its new president, Donald Trump, who has famously called climate change a “hoax.” Since arriving in Washington, the administration has been busy erasing references to climate science on federal websites, and in June, Trump officially withdrew from the Paris climate accord, a landmark global pact reached just two years ago. Several of Trump’s cabinet members and nominees have hedged on their views regarding climate science—including former congressman Ryan Zinke, whom Trump has put in charge of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the park service.
Meanwhile, the agency’s 22,000 olive-and-gray-clad rangers, scientists, and other staff have recently acquired a near-mythical reputation as a cadre of outlaws fighting to avenge assaults on climate science. The internet and social media buzzed with enthusiasm when Badlands National Park’s Twitter account “went rogue” and posted a series of facts about global carbon dioxide concentrations, and spoof national park Twitter accounts proliferated under names like @BadHombreNPS and @AltNatParkSer.
But it’s really nature itself that is going rogue, and while the current administration may dismiss climate change, managers and scientists in places like Sequoia National Park can already see its impacts first-hand. Figuring out what to do about it—or even whether they should do something about it—has been as much an existential journey as a scientific one for the overseers of the nation’s parks. With the evidence all around them, they have spent the last several years painstakingly tracking fire and drought, gathering data from trees and soils, and developing models of possible futures—including ones that might usher in leaders who are unsympathetic to their cause.
“It’s our responsibility under the law to understand and respond to threats to the people’s resources,” said Gregor Schuurman, an ecologist with the National Park Service’s Climate Change Response Program. “Those of us engaged in that try as much as possible to not be too influenced by the day-to-day politics, which are often pretty volatile.” Nonetheless, Schuurman admitted, the threats to parks from climate change are “ongoing” and “concerning.”
For all of this, Stephenson remains optimistic. “Most trees are alive,” he told me. “I’m so used to this idea that we’re going to be seeing big changes that it’s sort of like, ‘Okay, here’s step one. This is our learning opportunity.’”The National Parks stand at a precipice. (Visual by Anar Badalov/Undark)
When the National Park Service was formed in 1916 to take care of the “scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life” in the parks, it didn’t initially treat nature with that much reverence. It was more focused on providing attractions to visitors. Park managers cut a tunnel in a giant sequoia tree in Yosemite so you could drive your car through it, encouraged visitors at Western parks to watch the bears feeding nightly from the garbage dumps, and in the agency’s first decade, frequently gunned down wolves, cougars and other predators they considered a nuisance.
All of this changed in 1962, when A. Starker Leopold, the son of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, was put in charge of a committee to examine how to manage wildlife in the parks and whether to allow hunting. He and his committee gave the park service more than it asked for: a sweeping statement of principles that set the parks on what might now look like a quixotic mission. “A national park should represent a vignette of primitive America,” their report declared—something resembling the landscape before European settlers started tampering with it.
The report largely omitted the myriad ways that indigenous people had, of course, managed ecosystems for many thousands of years. But in many ways, it transformed the park service from a tourism bureau into one of the country’s leading agencies for ecosystem science. It advised parks to abide by the best principles of ecology and to keep intact the many interdependent relationships among different species (like the ways that wolves keep deer populations in check so they don’t destroy too much vegetation). After the Leopold Report, parks put an end to most practices, such as bear-feeding, that treated wild animals like entertainment.
Early in Stephenson’s career, he internalized the Leopold tradition and saw it as his mission to help make the forests look something like they did when conservationist John Muir tromped through them in the 1860s and 1870s—sun-speckled groves of thick-trunked sequoias, pines, cedars and firs. In 1979, he spent his first season as a volunteer, hiking through the backcountry to catalog the park’s remote campsites. Then he worked for a few years as a low-paid seasonal employee—until he helped launch a climate change research project in the park in the 1990s. “I wanted to be here so badly,” he recalled.
Image by Visual by NPS. In the earliest days, managers of the national parks were focused on taming the wilds so the public could come and enjoy them. Left, rangers pose with a U.S. Cavalry member (center) at Kings Canyon National Park. (original image)
Image by Visual by NPS. Under the influence of the forester and conservationist A. Starker Leopold, the parks took on a new mission in the 1960s: restoring and preserving the land in a state approximating a natural, pre-colonial America. (original image)
Over the years, part of his work with his forestry colleagues has involved providing information to help correct Sequoia National Park’s fire problem.
Many Western landscapes, including Muir’s beloved sequoia groves, are adapted to wildfires. But before the Leopold Report, firefighters had feverishly extinguished even small fires in the Sierras, and the results were sometimes disastrous. The sequoias, which need light and fire to germinate, languished in thick shade and stopped producing seedlings. In the absence of little fires, forests became dense and stockpiled with flammable bits of tree and leaf debris, and the risk of bigger, hotter, unstoppable infernos grew. In the late 1960s, Sequoia National Park began to fix the problem by lighting low, tame ground fires in the park—“prescribed burning,” as it’s known—a practice that has persisted in part because it works, but also because it is supposed to imitate a natural process, as Leopold instructed.
By the mid-1990s, though, it became clear to Stephenson that recreating the forests of centuries past this way was an unreachable goal. Two of his colleagues used scars on old trees to calculate how many fires burned through the forests of Sequoia before Europeans got there; it was far more than the number of blazes the park’s burn crew had deliberately set on their own. Stephenson realized that, given the vastness of the park and the small number of scientists and firefighters on staff, it would be nearly impossible to recreate the forests that once were. Meanwhile, Stephenson read early predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the international body that distills the best climate science from around the world. Already the IPCC was painting a dire picture: “many important aspects of climate change are effectively irreversible,” the group’s 1995 report said.
“I started to do some real hard visualization of possible futures,” Stephenson recalled. “In all of them—since I’m a forest guy—the forest looked pretty beat up.”
Stephenson first fell into despair. “I imagine if you’re a cancer patient, you go through something similar,” he says, “which is, it’s a complete upheaval of what you were thinking, where you thought you were going. And you probably go through all these emotional struggles and then you finally reach a point where you just say, ‘Okay, what am I going to do about it?’” In 2002, he found one outlet for his feelings: He began giving a series of talks to urge park service managers to consider the ways climate change might upset some of their long-held assumptions. Nature—if such a thing could even be defined—was never going to look like it had in the past, he told colleagues in the region, and they would ultimately have to rethink their goals.
It took a while for official park service policy heads to catch up with Stephenson, but there were others in the agency who had begun to think along these lines. Don Weeks, a park service hydrologist, had a climate change epiphany in 2002, while he and colleague Danny Rosenkrans, a geologist, were flying in a propeller plane over Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in southwest Alaska. The plane received a radio transmission about a flash flood roaring down the Tana River at the center of the park, and Rosenkrans “tells me to get ready to see something that’s going to blow my mind,” Weeks recounted.“It’s a complete upheaval of what you were thinking, where you thought you were going,” Stephenson says as he watched the forest change. (Visual by Thom Halls for Undark)
As they approached the headwaters of the Tana, Weeks gaped at the sight of a 3-mile-wide glacial lake that had split open in one night and dumped its contents downstream. The lake had been stable for about 1,500 years until 1999, when it ruptured for the first time. When Weeks saw the lake collapse, its second occurrence at that point, it was “the most phenomenal thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said.
The whole tableau—the empty lakebed scattered with icebergs the size of houses and the engorged river below full of floating tree trunks ripped from the ground by flash flooding—stunned him. “I mean it was the apex of my field work as far as just seeing that level of change and the danger associated with that, the rawness of it,” he recalled recently. “To top that, I got to be standing at the edge of a volcano while it’s going off, I guess.” It was the most memorable event of his entire career. Suddenly, climate change was real to Weeks in a visceral way, and he was fascinated.
In 2010, he took a temporary post with the park service’s newly created Climate Change Response Program that eventually morphed into a full-time job. Here he encountered a group of scientists who were grappling with problems the park service had never before contemplated. For inspiration, they had turned to a strategy first hatched by the 20th-century futurist Herman Kahn, the man who inspired Stanley Kubrick’s dystopian comic film “Dr. Strangelove,” and who helped the U.S. Armed Services plan for the possible outcomes of global nuclear war. One of Kahn’s tools, “scenario planning,” has since become a popular means for business leaders to anticipate futures that are wildly different from the ones they always assumed lay down the road.
Scenario planning is like a role-playing game. You start with a scenario informed by both science and intelligent conjecture. Then you write speculative narratives about what could happen—akin to science fiction. In a national park, thinking the unthinkable sometimes means envisioning the demise of the very things you are devoted to protecting. It also means reckoning with national and local politics: What happens when the political tide turns away from both the science of climate change and the values of the National Park Service?
In a 2011 scenario planning workshop in Anchorage, Alaska, one group of scientists and park managers wrote a scenario that seemed part-warning, part-gallows-humor, in which a family of Alaska Natives tossed a faded park sign into a campfire and watched “the last letters of ‘Bering Land Bridge National Preserve’ turn black and disappear.”
The story implies a situation so dire that the park either is barely functioning or ceases to exist (though when I contacted Jeff Mow, one of the workshop’s participants and now the superintendent of Glacier National Park, he said that story was a reflection on how locals might regard the park and wasn’t intended to sound its death knell). Such bleakness may speak to the level of anxiety felt across parts of the park service. But the ultimate purpose of writing such scenarios is to avoid the worst case by considering options ahead of time.
In 2012, a group of staff from Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, including Stephenson, gathered at a conference center in the Sierra Nevada foothills with scientists and experts from the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, state agencies, and academia. Armed with maps, large sheets of tracing paper, and a set of colorful markers, they sat down to play the game.
They considered different ecological and social-political scenarios—in which, say, there was more or less rain and snow, the public was on board with their work or illegally stealing water from the park, and federal policymakers either offered little or a great deal of support. The players fleshed out the details of their scenarios—tree die-offs, insect infestations, cuts and boosts to the park budget—then made their moves. Over the course of the game, an imaginary fire rose up from the dry forest below the park and raged through the sequoia groves. The players envisioned what would happen next. What had they won and lost because of climate change, fire, and drought?
It was still early in the life of the drought, and “we didn’t know it was going to be the most severe drought in at least 120 years,” said Koren Nydick, science coordinator for the two parks. “We did not expect some of the things in our scenarios to actually happen so fast.”
As the drought wore on, Stephenson became especially concerned about what would happen to the young sequoias. He periodically patrolled Giant Forest, 1,000 feet above his research plot, looking for signs of damage. He had long thought climate change would hit the sequoia seedlings first, and in the fall of 2014, he crept through the forest on his knees, his hands covered with dust, eye-level with the dainty, baby sequoias sprouting like small Christmas trees at the feet of their behemoth parents. He paused at the base of a massive sinewy trunk, took a breath, and turned his gaze skyward. There in the crown of a full-grown sequoia he saw tufts of brown, dying leaves. “I looked up and went, ‘What the hell is going on?’” he says.
That same season, Stephenson and a field crew from the USGS surveyed the sequoias in several groves, looking for more signs of dead leaves. Park managers braced for bad news. While a number of media outlets ran stories speculating whether the old trees might ultimately keel over, in the end, only about 1 percent of old sequoias lost more than half their leaves. Most of those dropped their brown leaves that season and then greened up the next as if nothing had ever happened.
The next year, after an exceptionally snow-deprived winter, a blaze named the Rough Fire ignited in the desiccated slopes of Sierra National Forest, just west of Kings Canyon National Park. It devoured Kings Canyon Lodge, a rustic wood-frame building that hosted a burger-and-ice-cream restaurant, and ascended into Grant Grove, the dwelling place of another famous assemblage of sequoia trees.
In parts of the grove, the flames burned hot and high, seared the crowns of trees and killed off most of them, including some old sequoias. But when the Rough Fire reached the part of the forest where the park service had carried out prescribed burning over the decades, it quieted, and many of the big trees there were spared. Just as they predicted, drought and wildfire had taken a toll, but their work in the forest had saved some of the trees—and that offered some hope.What happens when the political tide turns away from both the science of climate change and the values of the National Park Service? Here, drought and insect infestation take their toll on California’s Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. (Visual by Thom Halls for Undark)
In the past three years, the Climate Change Response Program has surveyed scientists and managers in the parks about climate change. All over the country, hundreds of units in the National Park Service are facing unusual situations stirred up by climate change—and in some cases, the need to act on these directly contradicts park policy on what is “natural.”
Some parks are even discussing radical interventions in the wild that the agency would never have tried in the past. Glacier National Park, for instance, has experimented with loading bull trout into water containers and carrying them by backpack to lakes at high-elevations, where they might survive if the heat becomes unbearable for them elsewhere in the park—a strategy called “assisted migration.” In-house, the agency jokingly came up with the name “gnarly issues,” from surfer jargon, to describe these situations.
One of the gnarliest issues came up a year later in the Pacific Northwest. In May 2015, during one of the driest springs on record in Olympic National Park, a lightning strike lit a fire in the remote old-growth Queets rainforest. It kept burning through a record-breaking hot summer until September, scorching 2,800 acres. In August, lightning set another 7,000 acres ablaze on the west side of North Cascades National Park. The fire leaped across the Skagit River, jumped a highway, and charged up the mountainsides. It rushed toward the park visitor center, forcing tourists to flee.
Though large fires are common in dry regions like the Sierra Nevada, they rarely occur in wet forests like these. Some trees don’t deal well with fire, and in places like rainforests and alpine forests, pervasive dampness keeps blazes from traveling far. Only when the air is uncommonly dry and hot and the wind steady can a fire grow in size here. It then often kills nearly everything in its path. Fires like this tend to come only every few centuries to patches of forest on the wet, west side of the Cascade Range or Olympic Mountains. But these two fires, the largest west-side burns in either park’s history, had blazed up in the same season. Were they a warning sign of hotter, more fire-prone seasons to come?
On a hot day in August of last year, I donned a heavy black hard hat and followed Karen Kopper, her lead field technician, aptly named Cedar Drake, and a crew of four field researchers into a dusty, blackened section of forest in North Cascades National Park. Kopper, a petite, sandy-haired woman with a serious demeanor, works for North Cascades as a fire ecologist. She’s also writing a history of forest fires of the Pacific Northwest. But until 2015, she’d never seen a blaze burn so large on this side of the park.
We walked into what used to be a lush, dense, old-growth forest: home to centuries-old stringy-barked cedars with sinuous roots, towering Douglas firs, and hemlocks. Before the fire, the ground was a carpet of moss, huckleberry bushes, and sword and bracken ferns, and was usually sodden with rain for about nine months of the year or more.
Image by Visual by Paul Conrad for Undark. Karen Kopper, a fire ecologist in the North Cascades, is writing a history of forest fires of the Pacific Northwest. Until 2015, she’d never seen a fire burn so large on this side of the park. (original image)
Image by Visual by NPS. In May 2015, during one of the driest springs on record in Olympic National Park, a lightning strike lit a fire in the remote old-growth Queets rainforest. It kept burning through a record-breaking hot summer until September, scorching 2,800 acres. (original image)
Image by Visual by Paul Conrad for Undark. New lupine and other forest floor plants are beginning to grow among the remnants of the 2015 fires. But a forest like this can’t grow back if fire returns too often, and Kopper wonders if it will ever be the same. (original image)
That day, the dirt beneath our feet was as loose as beach sand. The fire had eaten up most of the organic matter and left the soil full of ash. The forest floor was nearly bare, except for clumps of charcoal and a few short stems of bracken fern and fireweed, a hot pink flower whose seeds often blow in and germinate just after a conflagration. I spotted a few green branches at the top of a thick-trunked hemlock, but Kopper told me the tree probably wouldn’t make it. Hemlocks don’t like fire. Many of the trees above us were already dead. When we heard a pop from the upper canopy, Kopper and Drake were both startled and exclaimed, nearly in unison, “What was that?” They looked up warily. No one wanted to be in the path of a collapsing dead tree.
Drake and his crew fanned out. They tied strips of pink plastic tape to the trees to flag the edges of a circular research plot with a nearly 100-foot diameter. Then each person stood in a different section of the plot and shouted out an estimate of how much forest was dead and how much was still alive. Drake recorded their figures in a chart. He noted that the soil was almost completely burned through, and the small trees and shrubs were nearly all gone. Over the entire area of the fire, Kopper estimated that more than half of the big and mid-sized trees had died. In some parts of the burn, more than 70 percent of the trees were toast.
Though the park service regularly sets fires in its forests to mimic the natural fires of the past, it hardly ever meddles in the aftermath of a fire like this: to do so would be “unnatural.” Historically, the forest would have grown back slowly on its own, over about 75 to 100 years. But climate change may make these fires more commonplace. A forest like this can’t grow back if fire returns too often. Kopper wonders if this place will ever be the same.
Three years ago, even before these large conflagrations, she suspected west-side fires could become a conundrum for this park and told the agency so in her response to their survey. In 2015, the park service asked her to research this particular gnarly issue (now a semi-official phrase among park service scientists) further.
She and three other scientists have since written up an analysis describing the many quandaries and questions they were wrestling with. Should foresters try to keep the landscape as it would have been before the temperatures warmed—irrigate the forest, set up firebreaks, and aggressively replant moisture-loving trees and plants every time they burn down? Or should they try to revamp the place by transplanting species from, say, the rain-shadow side of the mountains where fires are common? Are any of these things in line with the park service’s long-held ideals about nature, and if not, what would the agency need to do now?
What is truly natural or unnatural anymore?Should foresters try to keep the landscape as it would have been before the temperatures warmed, or should they try to revamp the place by transplanting fire-tested species from elsewhere? (Visual by Paul Conrad for Undark)
After we left his research plots, Stephenson took me to Giant Forest, and we parked the car in the visitor lot. I caught my breath at the sight of the giant sequoias—muscular, poised, and shocking in their scale and beauty. As we walked, he periodically pulled out a monocular, like a mini-telescope, and stared at their upper leaves. The longer we stayed, the giddier he became, like a kid playing in the woods. He delighted at the sight of a woodpecker. “What a cute little bird,” he said and stared for several minutes. Nearby, he spotted a cluster of sugar pines with full, green crowns. “I’m feeling kinda happy,” he said, “It looks like this group hasn’t been hit by beetles yet.” When we descended from a rock outcrop near the visitors’ center, he slid down a stair railing, grinning.
He said he thought the effects of climate change “will come in bursts” like this drought. Things would look fine, then all at once, trees would die, infernos would rage, insects would throng. So far, the sequoias were mostly doing fine. In 2015, Stephenson spotted 11 that had turned brown and died altogether, still standing. Previously, he had only witnessed the death of two standing sequoias in his entire career. Still, “it doesn’t concern me,” he said. Not yet.
But in the long term, “we don’t know that the sequoias will be okay,” he admitted. He had suggested that the managers of Sequoia and Kings Canyon consider planting a few sequoias at a higher elevation above Giant Forest, where they might stay cooler as the climate warms. He knew a decision like that could be contentious. But young sequoias don’t produce seeds for several years, so Stephenson figured the park would have a while to figure out whether it was a big mistake.
“I can see [the park service] being sued for not doing enough in the face of climate change, and then I could see being sued for doing things in the face of climate change,” Stephenson told me. “In the end, I guess, the courts sort it out, but boy, in the meantime what do you do? Do you get paralyzed and not do anything?”
It’s still not entirely clear how President Trump’s rejection of the science of climate change might affect the national parks. Stephenson told me longstanding rules prevented him from talking politics, even when they directly affected his work. Some employees within the park service also turned down my requests for comment. At the moment, there’s no clear, agency-wide decree that would force their silence on such touchy subjects, but from some, I sensed discomfort and even fear that sharing their opinions might be risky.Under Trump, there’s no clear, agency-wide decree that would force scientists to remain silent on touchy subjects like climate policy, but from some, I sensed discomfort and even fear that sharing their opinions might be risky. (Visual by Thom Halls for Undark)
Weeks, the park service hydrologist, suggested that scenario planning might have prepared some parks for the new political regime by prompting them to imagine life with both more and less supportive federal leadership. “So if a park has played through this and kind of rehearsed for this, they’re in a better position, because it looks like we’re changing to a different kind of mindset,” he told me in December.
Eight months later, he felt it was still too early to tell how the administration might deal with climate change in the park service. “I do have some concern,” he said, “but I haven’t seen it play out, and I’m always trying to be optimistic.” Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow said no new political winds had yet blown into his park and affected its immediate management, but he felt that the administration couldn’t forever disregard the impacts of climate change. “There’s things going on around us, like extreme weather events, that can’t be ignored” he said.
For decades, the national parks have been the country’s environmental conscience, the places that reminded us what nature is supposed to look like and who we are by extension. “Certainly, if ever the American psyche survived losing the parks,” the historian Alfred Runte wrote in his book National Parks: The American Experience, “the United States would be a very different country indeed.”
For at least the next three and half years, the problems faced by the park service could get gnarly indeed. Even if the federal government tries to suppress research, education, or public outreach on climate change, there’s no getting around what’s already happening in the parks. Even if they don’t “go rogue,” national park staff will continue to find themselves on the frontlines of a series of ethical dilemmas—about science and the future of nature, which species to save or to relocate, and when and whether to speak out about the changes they are witnessing every day in the American landscape.
In May, Stephenson told me he saw fresh signs of death among the trees while walking through his research plots, even after a wet winter. The White House had just unveiled a budget proposal that would slash the Department of Interior’s funding by 11 percent and lay off more than 1,200 park service employees. Given this, I asked Stephenson if he and his colleagues in this national park and others across the country will be able to keep up with the demands posed by climate change—and the colossal, unprecedented experiment unfolding in front of them as the heat turned up?
He said he couldn’t comment.
Madeline Ostrander is freelance science journalist based in Seattle. Her work also appeared in The New Yorker, Audubon, and The Nation, among other publications.
Black-and-white study print (8x10).
Orig. negative: 8x10, Glass, BW.
For 19-year-old Nathan Blumenthal, reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead for the first time was nothing short of an epiphany. Published several years earlier, in 1943, Blumenthal wrote of finding the book in his memoir, My Years with Ayn Rand. “There are extraordinary experiences in life that remain permanently engraved in memory. Moments, hours, or days after which nothing is ever the same again. Reading this book was such an experience.”
Little could the Canadian teen have imagined that within the next 10 years he would, with Rand’s approval, change his name to Nathaniel Branden; become one of Rand’s most important confidantes—as well as her lover; and lead a group of thinkers on a mission to spread the philosophy of Objectivism far and wide.
At 19, Branden was only a teenager obsessed by the words of this Russian-born writer—until March 1950, when Rand responded to the letter he’d sent and invited him to visit her. That meeting was the start of a partnership that would last for nearly two decades, and the catalyst for the creation a group she dubbed “The Class of ’43,” for the year The Fountainhead was published. Later, they knowingly gave themselves the ironic name “The Collective.” And although 75 years have passed since The Fountainhead was first published, the impact of that book—and the people who gathered around Rand because of it—still play an important role in American political thinking.
Leading Republicans today, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, have spoken publicly of her influence. In 2005, he told members of the Rand-loving Atlas Group that the author’s books were “the reason I got involved in public service, by and large.” Mick Mulvaney, a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus and current director of the Office of Management and Budget, spoke in 2011 of his fondness for Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: “It's almost frightening how accurate a prediction of the future the book was,” he told NPR. Other self-described Rand acolytes who have served in the Trump Administration include former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (“Favorite Book: Atlas Shrugged”) and current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (Atlas Shrugged “really had an impact on me”).
Initially, Branden was responsible for bringing new members into the “Class of ‘43” and mostly recruited family and friends who were equally riveted by The Fountainhead so that they could listen to Rand’s philosophy. Without him, the group may never have formed; as Rand herself said, “I’ve always seen [the Collective] as a kind of comet, with Nathan as the star and the rest as his tail.” Branden brought his soon-to-be-wife, Barbara, as well as siblings and cousins. Soon the core group included psychiatrist Allan Blumenthal, philosopher Leonard Peikoff, art historian Mary Ann Sures and economist Alan Greenspan. Every Saturday evening, during the years in which Rand was engaged writing Atlas Shrugged, the Collective gathered in Rand’s apartment and listened to her expound on the Objectivist philosophy or read the newest pages of her manuscript.
“Even more than her fiction or the chance to befriend a famous author, Rand’s philosophy bound the Collective to her. She struck them all as a genius without compare,” writes historian Jennifer Burns in Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. As for Rand, she “saw nothing unusual in the desire of her students to spend each Saturday night with her, despite being more than twenty years her junior. The collective put Rand in the position of authority she had always craved.”
Rand’s fiction and her philosophy butted up against conservatism of the era (which saw inherent value in the federal government even as it opposed social programs like the New Deal) and then split from it entirely. She was less interested in reshaping her adoptive country’s democratic government than in upending it completely. While politicians of the 1950s were rocked by McCarthyism and a new concern for traditional values and the nuclear family, Rand took it upon herself to forge a new path into libertarianism—a system being developed by various economists of the period that argued against any government influence at all.
According to Rand’s philosophy, as espoused by the characters in her novels, the most ethical purpose for any human is the pursuit of happiness for one’s self. The only social system in which this morality can survive is completely unfettered capitalism, where to be selfish is to be good. Rand believed this so fervently that she extended the philosophy to all aspects of life, instructing her followers on job decisions (including advising Greenspan to become an economic consultant), the proper taste in art (abstract art is “an enormous fraud”), and how they should behave.
Branden built upon Rand’s ideas with his own pop psychology, which he termed “social metaphysics.” The basic principle was that concern over the thoughts and opinions of others was pathological. Or, as Rand more bluntly phrased it while extolling the benefits of competence and selfishness, “I don’t give a damn about kindness, charity, or any of the other so-called virtues.”
These concepts were debated from sunset to sunrise every Saturday at Rand’s apartment, where she lived with her husband, Frank O’Connor. While Rand kept herself going through the use of amphetamines, her followers seemed invigorated merely by her presence. “The Rand circle’s beginnings are reminiscent of Rajneesh’s—informal, exciting, enthusiastic, and a bit chaotic,” writes journalist Jeff Walker in The Ayn Rand Cult.
But if the Saturday salons were exciting, they could also be alienating for outsiders. Economist Murray Rothbard, also responsible for contributing to the ideals of libertarianism, brought several of his students to meet Rand in 1954 and watched in horror as they submitted to vitriol from Rand whenever they said anything that displeased her. The members of the Collective seemed “almost lifeless, devoid of enthusiasm or spark, and almost completely dependent on Ayn for intellectual sustenance,” Rothbard later said. “Their whole manner bears out my thesis that the adoption of her total system is a soul-shattering calamity.”
Branden only fanned the flames by requiring members to subject themselves to psychotherapy sessions with him, despite his lack of training, and took it upon himself to punish anyone who espoused opinions that varied with Rand’s by humiliating them in front of the group. “To disparage feelings was a favorite activity of virtually everyone in our circle, as if that were a means of establishing one’s rationality,” Branden said.
According to journalist Gary Weiss, the author of Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul, all of these elements made the Collective a cult. “It had an unquestioned leader, it demanded absolute loyalty, it intruded into the personal lives of its members, it had its own rote expressions and catchphrases, it expelled transgressors for deviation from accepted norms, and expellees were ‘fair game’ for vicious personal attacks,” Weiss writes.
But Branden wasn’t satisfied with simply parroting Rand’s beliefs to those who were already converted; he wanted to share the message even more clearly than Rand did with her fiction. In 1958, a year after Atlas Shrugged was published (it was a best-seller, but failed to earn Rand the critical acclaim she craved), Branden started the Nathaniel Branden Lectures. In them, he discussed principles of Objectivism and the morality of selfishness. Within three years, he incorporated the lecture series as the Nathaniel Branden Institute (NBI), and by 1964 the taped lectures played regularly in 54 cities across Canada and the United States.
“Rand became a genuine public phenomenon, particularly on college campuses, where in the 1960s she was as much a part of the cultural landscape as Tolkien, Salinger, or Vonnegut,” writes Brian Doherty in Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement. “NBI’s lectures and advice on all aspects of life, as befits the totalistic nature of Objectivism, added to the cult-like atmosphere.”
Meanwhile, as her books sold hundreds of thousands of copies, Rand continued amassing disciples. Fan mail continued to pour in as new readers discovered The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and these letters were sometimes a useful recruiting tool. Writers who seemed particularly well-informed were given assignments to prove themselves before being invited to the group, writes Anne C. Heller in Ayn Rand and the World She Made. “In this way, a Junior Collective grew up.”
The Collective continued as an ever-expanding but tight-knit group until 1968. It was then that Branden, who had already divorced his wife, chose to reveal he was having an affair with a younger woman. Rand responded by excoriating him, his ex-wife Barbara, and the work that Branden had done to expand the reach of Objectivism. While members of the group like Greenspan and Peikoff remained loyal, the Collective was essentially disbanded; the Randians were left to follow their own paths.
Despite the dissolution of the group, Rand had left an indelible mark on her followers and the culture at-large. Greenspan would go on to serve as Chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006, while Branden continued working at his institute, though with a slightly tempered message about Objectivism and without any relationship with Rand. In 1998, Modern Library compiled a readers' list of the 20th century’s greatest 100 books that placed Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead in the first and second spots, respectively; both continue to sell hundreds of thousands of copies.
The irony of her free-thinking followers naming themselves “The Collective” seems similar to the techniques she used in her writing, often reminiscent of Soviet propaganda, says literary critic Gene H. Bell-Villada. “In a perverse way, Rand’s orthodoxies and the Randian personality cult present a mirror image of Soviet dogmas and practices,” Bell-Villada writes. “Her hard-line opposition to all state intervention in the economy is a stance as absolute and unforgiving as was the Stalinist program of government planning and control.”
An island is a special place, often invested by both its residents and outside observers with an identity, a life and a personality. People talk and whisper, defend and attack, brag and condemn an island as if the landmass were a friend, family member or nemesis.
I don't know why islands inspire such personification or generate such strong opinions. Some people, including friends and relatives of mine, have stepped off the shores of Long Island and never again returned. Others leave for several years before coming back. And still others leave, but no matter how young they were when they sailed, they still consider it "down home."
For me, even more than an island or a hometown, Long Island is a family and a heritage. I was born an eighth-generation islander. I am unapologetically proud to say my family built the island community and has helped sustain it for going on 200 years.
The family flourished and failed and feuded on the shores of Long Island. They were keen business operators, tireless workers, layabouts, bandits, alcoholics, church workers, community leaders, detached, mean, congenial and fun-loving along the banks of a harbor that bears the family name and on hillsides that contain the bodies of their forebears.
It is a heritage that to people from other states sometimes inspires a certain amount of intrigue, bewilderment and snobbery. The myths, both positive and negative, about islands—and Maine itself, for that matter—are legion. Residents of both are alternately portrayed as crusty fisherman, sturdy woodsmen, wizened sages or drunken, backward hicks.
Certainly, some spiritual justification exists for all this. An island does seem to possess, and can potentially lose, a unique life force. Some 300 year-round Maine island communities, although many consisted of no more than a few families, have died over the past century or so. Yet, more than 250 years after it first appeared on nautical charts and nearly two centuries after settlers built the first log cabins, Long Island survives. Out "amid the ocean's roar," as one writer put it, Long Island is one of only 15 Maine islands that still support a year-round community. And it is one of the smallest and most remote.
The island itself lies in Blue Hill Bay roughly eight miles southwest of Mount Desert Island, but a world away from the tourist-driven economy of Bar Harbor and the posh estates of Northeast Harbor and Seal Harbor.
The working-class village surrounding Bass Harbor is the closest mainland port and the one most frequently used by Long Islanders. On the run from Bass Harbor to Long Island, three main islands are clustered in the first four miles: Great Gott Island, Placentia Island and Black Island. All three once supported year-round communities, but now Great Gott has summer residents only, Black has one house and Placentia is abandoned.
Because of its spot along the outermost line of Maine islands, Long Island was usually called Outer Long Island and sometimes Lunt's Long Island in the 1800s to distinguish it from a similarly named island closer to Blue Hill. Starting in the 1890s, the village on the island became known as Frenchboro, named after a Tremont lawyer who helped establish the island's first post office.
The community of about 70 year-round residents sits on or near the sloping banks of Lunt Harbor, a long horseshoe-shaped inlet that provides protection from all weather but a northeast wind. The sheltered and accessible harbor is one reason why Long Island has survived while other island communities have died.
Lunt Harbor opens toward Mount Desert Island with the Mount Desert hills looming ghostlike on the horizon. On summer nights, you can sit on a wharf and watch headlights from cars full of tourists as they climb to the peak of Cadillac Mountain, high above Acadia National Park.
The banks make sharply away from Lunt Harbor, providing a perch for mostly modest homes to sit in quiet observance of the daily goings and comings.
Image by Dean Lawrence Lunt. Lobster boats (original image)
Image by Dean Lawrence Lunt. Eastern Beach on Frenchboro, Long Island (original image)
The island has just over one mile of paved road that starts at the ferry pier and runs around the cove to Lunt & Lunt Lobster Co., the island's only full-time business. Along the way, the road passes the Frenchboro Post Office, the Frenchboro Historical Society, Becky's Boutique, the Long Island Congregational Church and the Frenchboro Elementary School. The church and school were built in 1890 and 1907 respectively. There is no general store.
Leaving the harbor, paths and dirt roads wind through sometimes-pristine spruce forests, past bogs, lichen-covered ledges and small mossy patches where evergreen branches have given way to occasional glimpses of sunlight. There is little warning before these paths empty onto the island's granite shores, and suddenly the confining, sometimes claustrophobic woods give way to the mighty Atlantic.
The main trails are actually old logging roads. These dirt roads run to Eastern Beach, the Beaver Pond, Southern Cove and partway to Richs Head, the island's most distinguishing geographic feature and its easternmost point. The roundish Head, connected to the main island by a narrow neck of rocks, is exposed to the open sea.
Settled by William Rich and his family in the 1820s, Richs Head hosted the island's only other village for almost 80 years. It was abandoned by the turn of the century. Only the slight depressions of hand-dug cellars near former farmland suggest that three generations of pioneers lived, worked and raised families there.
I find it strangely sad to read about the historic deaths of the once common island communities, killed by progress and a changing way of life, during the 19th and early 20th century. Many have vanished without a trace. Some days, as I stand in my father's lobster boat and sail past the now deserted Placentia and Black Islands and even the summer colony of Great Gott Island in Blue Hill Bay, I am enveloped by a sense of melancholy.
On Black, I envision the railways that once carried granite from quarries to waiting vessels. I imagine old man Benjamin Dawes, an island pioneer in the early 1800s, ambling across the shore to his fishing boat. Or my great great great grandmother, Lydia Dawes, building castles as a child on the sandy beach along Black Island pool. Knowing a community once existed makes the island seem even older and more lifeless—like the once-bustling house on the corner that stands silent and empty, save for drawn curtains and dusty dishes stacked in cobwebbed cupboards. You just know that life will never return.
I no longer live in Frenchboro; college, work and life have carried me across New England and New York to explore other places for awhile. This exploration has been fun and enlightening and no doubt provided some clarity to island life, something to which I someday will return. Still, for nearly 23 years Long Island fit me like a second skin. I knew its landscape by touch, smell and intuition. From the well-trodden woods behind my house to the deer paths that wound through huckleberry bushes to the Salt Ponds to the tumbled beach rocks of Big Beach, I knew the land. I knew the smell of moss, the hidden brooks, the cracked ledges, the shoreline and the unique trees. I was baptized in the harborside church, educated in the one-room school, consumed by daydreams on Lookout Point and engaged on the sloping granite of Gooseberry Point.
For two months in July and August, Lunt Harbor is filled with yachts, their passengers taking advantage of the relatively easy and scenic walking trails. Or they might just sit and soak in the nighttime quiet broken only by the lapping of water against hull or the occasional clanging of Harbor Island bell.
On such crisp island evenings, which require sweatshirts even in August, you can look up into the clear night sky, and see more stars than you ever knew existed. In fact, they seem so numerous and hang so close it seems you can almost reach out and touch Heaven itself.
This is an adaptation from chapter one, "Long Island Maine," of the book, Hauling by Hand: The Life and Times of a Maine Island by Dean Lawrence Lunt (paperback), Islandport Press, 2007.
What is this distracted, rootless place, where kids eschew stuffed animals in favor of online avatars, buzzing iPhones interrupt family dinners and the workday stretches late into the night?
Dalton Conley, a social sciences professor at New York University, calls it, simply, “elsewhere,” and his new book tracks the social and economic changes of the last three decades that landed us here. Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got From the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, Blackberry Moms, and Economic Anxiety shows how the death of the old ways (auto workers’ unions, coal mines) and the birth of new (air conditioning, tip jars and the three-bathroom home, for starters) have contributed to our present predicament, where no one has the time or presence of mind to concentrate on anything at all, even our children’s voices. Even so, the author took a few moments to speak with us and guide us through this new and lonely landscape:
Where is Elsewhere, USA?
Elsewhere, U.S.A. is, ironically, everywhere. It’s really about a state of mind, (where you are) occupying multiple nonphysical locations at one time, managing data streams not only in your immediate environment, but from a laptop or BlackBerry or iPod, having emails come in and at the same time being on Facebook. All the spheres – home, work, social life – have collapsed into each other. It’s a different texture of life.
How did Mr. 2009, as you dub modern man, and Mrs. 2009 get into this mess?
I don’t think they had much choice. There is, of course, the changing technological landscape: the beeping, buzzing, flashing machines around us, demanding our attention. Those are the obvious things. The other forces include rising economic inequality and the increased labor force participation of women, especially moms.
How will their children cope?
It’s really my generation – I’m about to be 40 – that’s the most discombobulated by all this. People in their 70s are in their pre-techno bubble, doing things they way they’ve always done. The kids have no collective nostalgia or sense things were different once, because this is all they’ve ever known. They’re toggling back and forth between games and talking to friends and they have an enormous amount of overscheduled structured activities. And maybe that’s what they need. That’s what it’s like to be an American today, to be overscheduled, behind on work, and managing multiple data streams. So we are preparing them well, so to speak.
Image by Lisa Ackerman. Dalton Conley is a social sciences professor at New York University and author of Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got From the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, Blackberry Moms, and Economic Anxiety. (original image)
Image by morganl / iStockphoto. New technology, with all of its conveniences, has created a new society called Elsewhere, U.S.A., according to professor Dalton Conley. (original image)
What is an “intravidual,” as opposed to an individual?
It’s the notion that whereas once we had a coherent, private self that we had to discover and then use to guide our choices, values and actions, the intravidual is about learning how to manage multiple selves and respond to multiple data streams in virtual places. The idea is not to find a core of authenticity but to learn to balance.
You talk about the stigma of leisure, and how leisure has become something for the poor.
It used to be as your income rose you bought more leisure – leisure was like a color TV or a car, a good you consumed, time you took off. Now when you earn more money you think about how much more it costs you to take off because you’re worth more. Opportunity cost trumps the desire to take time off. Standing still means falling behind.
What did your field trip to the Google headquarters teach you?
They were really ahead of the curve in terms of making their work environment very homey. They provide everything a 1950s housewife would have provided. Do your laundry. Give you a massage. Great food for free. At first glance it seems like a very expensive strategy, but I think it’s brilliant. People don’t want to go home. There’s a volleyball court and board games around. It feels like a college campus. And Google gets more out of each worker.
You mentioned the urinals at Google.
In English or Irish pubs they pin the sports pages over men’s urinals so you can read while relieving yourself. At Google they put up coding advice. It felt a little 1984.
You discuss “two-rooms,” day care centers-cum-office buildings where parents can watch their children while working. How else will the physical architecture of Elsewhere be changing in the near future?
I might imagine that you’ll find more integration of housing and firms, the return of the 19th century “company town.” A place like Google could start building housing, like dorms, around their campus, for underpaid programmers, rather than have them waste all this time commuting. They could just live there.
How do we return from Elsewhere?
It’s not an option, I’m sorry to say. It’s not going to go in reverse. It could be that we have lower inequality because of the decline of the stock market and so on, but I think that will be a temporary blip. What we’re really going to see is this trend going forward.
Can’t we just turn off our BlackBerrys? What about free will?
I have heard stories of people who sell the business and pack up and move to rural Maine, and I think it’s interesting that people would do something so drastic. I guess that’s what it takes. But for most of us it’s more about managing these flows than turning back the clock.
(Stamped and inscribed on back): Library of Congress / Copy Received 8/16/1912 / Copyright Entry / Class K XXc. No. 45949 / Copy B Delivered to Prints Division / 44503 / Koehler, P.R. / The Inlet.
Laurie Lambert is a runner, always has been, it seems. So when she was snowed in at her remote cabin in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains nine years ago, she strapped on a tiny pair of children’s snowshoes and went out for a long run.
“It was awesome,” she remembers. “I was like, wow, I think I could make a sport out of this. Little did I know it was already a sport.”
As Lambert soon found out, snowshoe racing has become an increasingly popular sport in the United States and abroad, where last January more than 5,000 people competed in the 37th running of La Ciaspolada Snowshoe Race in the Italian Dolomites, a ten-kilometer event won by a former Olympic marathoner from New Zealand. In the United States, this season began with a race in Truckee, California, in December, and ends in March with the National Snowshoe Championships in Cable, Wisconsin.
Mark Elmore, the sports director for the United States Snowshoe Association, was a die-hard endurance runner who started racing on snowshoes in 1989. “It added variety to the winter season,” he says. “And I really liked the people. There was a different mentality than road racing where you’re just trying to beat the other competitors. In snowshoeing, you’re racing against the course and the snow conditions. You’re competing against yourself a little more.”
Most of the enthusiasts are like Lambert – runners, cyclists or triathletes looking for a new challenge and another way to get outside and raise their heart rates. “It’s so much fun,” she says. “It’s fantastic exercise. I’ve run marathons and done all kinds of crazy things and it’s the best workout I’ve ever done.”
The rise of snowshoe racing parallels the rise in popularity of snowshoeing. According to the Outdoor Industry Foundation, 3.4 million Americans traipsed through the winter wonderland on snowshoes in 2009, a 17.4 percent increase over 2008.
Divining when the snowshoe was invented is difficult because the ancient materials used to make them were perishable, but the consensus is they developed in Central Asia about 4000 B.C. Elmore says snowshoes may have facilitated crossing the Bering land bridge. They appear to have developed independently in both North America and Europe, with European snowshoes longer and narrower).
The traditional webbed snowshoe used in racing was created by American Indians. Explorer Samuel de Champlain wrote in his memoirs of them using “a kind of snowshoe that are two to three times larger than those in France, that they tie to their feet, and thus go on the snow, without sinking into it, otherwise they would not be able to hunt or go from one location to the other.”
In the 1830s, painter George Catlin depicted Indian use of snowshoes in paintings such as Snowshoe Dance at the First Snowfall and Buffalo Chase in Winter, Indians on Snowshoes. Tribes each developed their own shoe, differing in shape and size. The bear paw, an oval design, was short and wide and favored in forested areas. The Ojibwa shoe resembled a canoe, and its double toe helped the tribes of Manitoba cross diverse country. The Michigan, a snowhsoe credited to the Huron tribe, featured a long tail and was shaped like a tennis racket, allowing hunters to carry heavy loads of elk and buffalo.
The forerunners of snowshoe-racing associations were the snowshoe recreation clubs that began in Canada and the northeastern United States in the late 18th century. Outings in places including Montreal and northern New England towns were major events. To make the shoes easier to maneuver, the clubs shortened the long teardrop trapper and tracker’s snowshoe to about 40 inches.
Image by Dino Panato / Getty Images. The La Ciaspolada Snowshoe Race in the Italian Dolomites is a ten-kilometer event. (original image)
Image by Dino Panato / Getty Images. Snowshoe racing has become an increasingly popular sport. Last January more than 5,000 people competed in the 37th running of La Ciaspolada Snowshoe Race. (original image)
Image by The Granger Collection, NYC. The forerunners of snowshoe-racing associations were the snowshoe recreation clubs that began in Canada and the northeastern United States in the late 18th century. Outings in places including Montreal and northern New England towns were major town events. (original image)
Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.. In the 1830s, painter George Catlin depicted Indian use of snowshoes in paintings such as Snowshoe Dance at the First Snowfall. (original image)
Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.. Buffalo Chase in Winter, Indians on Snowshoes, by George Catlin. (original image)
Image by From the collection of the Hudson Museum, The University of Maine. Photograph by Stephen Bicknell. Ojibwe Woman, 19th century. The Ojibwa shoe resembled a canoe, and its double toe helped the tribes of Manitoba cross diverse country. (original image)
Beginning in the 1970s, designers of racing snowshoes trimmed them and lightened them even more, using the type of aluminum alloy used in spacecraft. The newest models now weigh as little as 16 ounces a shoe. “The modern racing snowshoe is a marvel that allows you to cover ground on soft snow so much easier,” Elmore says. “If you can walk or jog, you can run on snowshoes. There aren’t any specific skills you have to learn.”
In Europe, where snowshoe racing has been growing for decades, the Snowshoe Cup features six races in five countries from January to March. Organized racing in Europe began earlier than in the United States with the first running of La Ciaspolada in 1972.
In the United States, races are held in most regions of the country, including the Snow or No Snow Race in Flagstaff, Arizona. The courses vary as widely as the snow conditions. Elmore says there’s usually powder out West, where some events require organizers break the trail. In the East, snow conditions tend to be icier and thus the courses tend to follow packed trails, which are faster and require less effort than breaking a trail in powder. Distances are often ten kilometers, but there are also half marathons and even marathons, where the winners post times in the neighborhood of four and a half hours. While records exist for various races, the differences in course conditions make them hard to compare. Big prizes used to be awarded to race winners, but those have faded with the recent economic crises.
Chary Griffin, 62, who lives in Cazenovia, southeast of Syracuse, New York, trains six miles every other day on a packed trail. She stows a box of racing snowshoes in her car to lend to friends so they can come along. Anyone, she says, can run in snowshoes. “It’s my winter sport,” she says. “I’m serious about getting other people hooked into this.”
Scott Gall, 36, of Cedar Falls, Iowa, moved to Wyoming after running distances at Wabash College and fell into snowshoe racing. He found it wasn’t as easy as strapping on snowshoes and taking a jog. “The first ten minutes are killer no matter what you’ve been doing,” he says. “You just have to adjust to it. It’s a lot of work to have things strapped to your feet. But once you’re ten minutes into it, your heart rate settles down.”
Lambert, Griffin and Gall clearly enjoy the competition against others and themselves. (Gall finished second in last year’s national championship.) But they seem to enjoy, just as much, if not more, the bracing air, the diverse landscape, and the joy of being outdoors when most others are huddled inside. As Gall notes, it’s warmer in winter snowshoeing in the woods than running on the roads.
“Going tromping through the woods on a full moon night is awesome,” he says. “It’s not just the competition. It’s getting outside in the fresh air and doing something fun. Somewhere along the way, they told adults you can’t enjoy it when the snow flies.”
Lambert regularly trains above 9,500 feet in New Mexico, below the tree line. But she recalls the stunning beauty of a world cup race she participated in in Austria. “That was way above the trees on the Dachstein Glacier. It felt like we were visitors on some other planet,” she says. “Otherworldly.”
The History of Labor in America, The 17th Century: Colonization (mural study, U. S. Department of Labor)
The owner of the Pine Street Saloon in Paso Robles, California, had a problem and requested that my traveling companions and I drop by to solve it. His security cameras were picking up a presence, but was it a mere illusion or something more ghostly? With that end goal in mind, our six-man entourage embarked on what just may be the most authentic and doable old-school saloon tour on the West Coast: a journey from the damp desires of Cold Spring Tavern in the hills above Santa Barbara to the Prohibition-beating trapdoors of the Elkhorn Bar in San Miguel near the Salinas River roughly 100 miles north, with more ghost legends, dollar bills tacked to ceilings and animal heads on walls than you can point your dowsing rods at.
The Pine Street Saloon wouldn’t be the only place where we’d find a use for those rods¬—lent to me by someone who claimed to have used them to rid his childhood home of ghouls years before—and the “ghost meter” purchased on eBay. Our visits to a handful of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo county’s longest continually ale-slinging establishments would indicate that ghost stories may be as old as the saloons themselves.
The Stagecoach Route
Our apparitional adventure kicked off bright and early Saturday, with a venison and buffalo chili omelet, coffee and perfectly spiced bloody mary at the Cold Spring Tavern, a stagecoach stop since the 1860s located in a shady, spring-fed canyon between downtown Santa Barbara and Santa Ynez Valley wine country. Though the tavern might be most heralded these days for its tri-tip sandwiches and raucous rock ‘n’ roll sessions every weekend, we were drawn to the secluded collection of cabins — from the transplanted Ojai jail to the “Road Gang House” where Chinese laborers slept while carving out the then-treacherous San Marcos Pass, to the creaky-floored main restaurant and roadhouse-style bar.
Following an old stagecoach route, we made a brief stop at Mattei’s Tavern in Los Olivos, only about a 15 minute downhill drive on Highway 154. Built in 1886 by the Swiss-Italian ranchero-turned-hotelier Felix Mattei as an inn and restaurant in anticipation of the coming railroad, today it is home to Brothers Restaurant, owned by cookbook authors and siblings Jeff and Matt Nichols. While spending a few minutes checking out the historic plaques and peering into the windows of the white-walled building, it wasn’t hard to imagine the locally famed Chinese chef Gin Lung Gin whipping up one of his dove pies for the hungry railroaders who’d stop at Mattei’s overnight during trips between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Another stagecoach stop-cum-railroad station is the town of Los Alamos, about 20 minutes by car from Los Olivos up Highway 101. Compared with the rest of California’s increasingly modernized Central Coast, Los Alamos is proudly locked in yesteryear — or as one of my companions noted, “It’s like every other building here has the ‘established’ date posted on it.” That was certainly true for the 1880 Union Hotel, established, of course, in 1880, and today featuring 14 rooms to rent — all appointed with Victorian-era niceties — as well as a bar that was already quite lively by 11 a.m. on a Saturday. On tap was their 1880 Ale, an excellent blond beer (made especially for the hotel by the award-winning folks at Firestone Brewery, which was founded just a few miles away), as well as billiards in the enchantingly — some might say hauntingly — dark back room and shuffleboard in the front bar, where you can also order empanadas stuffed with beef, olives, and egg or bratwurst with sauerkraut from the saloon menu.
Though the friendly bartender said she personally had only heard of ghosts in the place, I was crossing my fingers for a sighting of Michael Jackson, who filmed the video for “Say, Say, Say” here with Paul McCartney back in 1983, or perhaps Johnny Cash, who supposedly played the dining room in the 1950s. No dice on either front, but there was plenty to keep our eyes occupied, from the vintage signs (“check your guns,” of course, but also ads for corsetry shops and gunfighter paintings) and historic maps (showing the old stagecoach routes through the area) to the wacky collection of antiques — from snow skis to cellos — hanging on the walls. Upon reaching the bottom of our pints, we decided to leave our own mark in the saloon style, signing our names upon a dollar bill and employing a long pole to tack the greenback to the high wooden ceiling, where hundreds of other dollars flittered in the breeze.
Though most of my companions had lived in Santa Barbara County for more than a decade, almost none had visited Guadalupe, a small city along the banks of the Santa Maria River near the endless dunes of white sand where Cecil B. De Mille filmed The Ten Commandments and a mystic-minded community known as the Dunites lived in the 1930s and ‘40s. Taking in all the cowboy-hat-wearing Latinos who work the land in this rural northwestern corner of our county, a visitor to Guadalupe can be forgiven for thinking he meandered into a Mexican farming village. Well, at least it used to be that way, as the Guadalupe of 2011 seems almost deserted, no doubt due to the recession, but also because most of the main drag’s buildings are built with brick and have not been reinforced to withstand the next big quake. They sit empty, adorned with black-and-white signs to warn of the dangers of entry, an unfortunate sign that the whole town might slowly be turned over to the ghosts.
Inside the Far Western Tavern, however, there was a lively lunchtime crowd. Founded as the Palace Hotel in 1912, the establishment was taken over in 1958 by Clarence Minetti, who used to end his days of picking hay by chowing down on rib steak and spaghetti at the hotel’s restaurant for 65 cents. With his wife Rosalie and her cousin Richard Maretti, Minetti set about restoring the place’s former luster, keeping such elements as the mahogany bar (which some say came on a ship that sailed around the tip of South America), while changing the name to Far Western Tavern and adding the ranching-life touches (landscape paintings of cowboys working the hills, local cattle brands singed into the bar, etc.) to suit the new name. It’s been in the family ever since, attracting accolades for its Santa Maria-style barbecue from near and far, but even the Far Western is suffering from Guadalupe’s ailing brick bones. We were told over our Firestone Double Barrel ales that after many tears and tough decisions, the tavern will be relocating later this year from its birthplace to Old Town Orcutt, a little neighborhood a few miles to the south where there’s a food, drink and entertainment renaissance underway.
But we weren’t there to cry in our beers, so after snacking on some crispy mountain oysters (fried calf testicles, which were cheap, plentiful and fried-food tasty), we informed our servers of our ghostly mission. “Every time I have to go upstairs alone, I say ‘Jesus loves me,’” responded our bartender immediately, piquing our interest with tales of slamming doors and cold gusts of air when no windows are open. The manager, Barbara Abernethy — who’s the niece of Clarence Minetti and has worked at the restaurant since 1974 — relayed stories of noses being touched and ankles being grabbed, admitting that some “professional” ghost hunters had repeatedly investigated the establishment, finding the ghosts of children and a peg-leg man as well as “negative energy” near the upstairs bathroom. When they showed Abernethy their audio and video recordings, which revealed voices and orbs and other unexplained oddities, “It scared the crap out of me,” she said. “I get the chills now thinking about it.”
Minutes later, my friend was circling the upstairs with his ghost meter in hand, suddenly stumbling upon a spot above a table near the middle of the room where the device began beeping steadily. I snagged the dowsing rods and the metal sticks reacted as they were supposed to upon finding an anomalous energy field, swinging slightly open. There’s a significant amount of user error possible with the rods, so when I followed the instructions on communicating with the ghosts — they swing inward for yes, and outward for no, the lore goes, but you can’t ask about love, money or the future — I did so with a healthy degree of skepticism. But as the rods swang to and fro, something about the situation felt curiously authentic, as if we’d tapped into another world for a brief second. Or maybe the beer was finally starting to get to me.
Image by Brian Hall. Founded in 1858, Pozo Saloon still serves olives in its beer. (original image)
Image by Ryan Grau. Today, Pozo hosts on its back lawn some big-time concerts, from Snoop Doggy Dogg to Willie Nelson. (original image)
Image by Brian Hall. Founded as the Palace Hotel in 1912, the Far Western Tavern has been attracting accolades for its Santa Maria-style barbecue from near and far. (original image)
Image by Brian Hall. The 1880 Union Hotel features 14 rooms to rent—all appointed with Victorian-era niceties—as well as a bar. (original image)
Image by Brian Hall. A wide view of the Pozo Saloon and the dollar bills stuck to its ceiling. (original image)
The second-longest operating bar in all of California is in San Miguel, a tiny town north of Paso Robles of under 2,000 people that popped up following the 1797 founding of Mission San Miguel, where the vineyard-tending padres kicked off the region’s now dominant winemaking industry. Located on the one main drag of Mission Street, the Elkhorn Bar, established during the gold rush year of 1853, is both the predecessor and sole remnant of a once freewheeling strip, where — according to owner Gary Brown — “14 bars and 13 brothels” served the soldiers of the nearby Camp Roberts during the run-up to World War II. “For some of those guys, this was one of the last places they ever were,” said Brown, who bought the bar about five years ago and has set about reminding everyone of its history.
That goes back to even before the days of Jesse James, who came to hide out with his gentlemanly uncle Drury James and soak his robbery-related wounds in the nearby hot springs, and extends through Prohibition, when the Elkhorn’s front was a barbershop and patrons would toss their hooch through the still existing trapdoor into the cellar when the cops arrived. Today, there are antique guns on the walls, framed newspaper clippings from World War II across from the bar, modern day moonshines for sale, and constant ghost tales to entertain ale drinkers between sips.
One patron, without prompting, explained that he’d seen wine glasses fly across the room and crash into the corner, then the bartender relayed a story about a woman who went down into the cellar to find a table full of Old West apparitions playing poker, and then Brown — who showed us the said cellar — explained that many folks had seen a man in olden dress wander across the back room, where the stage is now. And then there were the multiple occasions of phantom grabs of posteriors, as various people have reported being touched down low. “There are always guys pinching ass around here,” said Brown with a laugh, “but those times, there was no one around.” Fittingly freaked out, we fled the otherwise welcoming Elkhorn to our final destination for the evening, and the genesis for this entire trip, the Pine Street Saloon, just off the main square of downtown Paso Robles.
Owner Ron French has been vexed by the “supercharged dust particles” (his words) that his night vision security cameras had been picking up. “To me, I’m not a ghost believer,” he said early on in our correspondence, “but I have no explanation for this.”
First opened by Ron’s mother, Pat French, in 1971, the Pine Street Saloon ditched its old location in 2002 to move into the circa 1865 building next door. That was just in time to avoid the massive Paso Robles earthquake of 2003, which knocked down their old brick building but only tilted their new wooden structure. French, it turns out, might just be the most hospitable saloonkeeper on the planet, having refurbished the upstairs brothel rooms into a boardinghouse of sorts to accommodate overly inebriated guests and purchasing a limousine to drive such patrons home for free, so long as they’re within Paso Robles’ city limits.
After some early experiments with candles and cameras led by French, our crew wasn’t super convinced that there was anything too supernatural going on upstairs at the former brothel, so we explored Paso Robles on foot, eventually taking in pizza and some rounds of bowling before returning to the Pine Street around midnight. The next morning, I managed to yank out the dowsing rods, but we were in a hurry to hit the last three destinations on our tour, so skipped town before finding any answers to Ron’s supercharged dust problem.
Take the Long Way Home
Once a centrally located hub with general store, hotel, blacksmith shops, numerous residences and its own school district along the Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach route — which connected the San Joaquin Valley to the San Luis Obispo County coast — Pozo is now on the road to pretty much nowhere, with just a fire station and saloon left over, making it about as purely Old West as it gets these days. The Pozo Saloon, founded in 1858, still serves olives in its beer, and today hosts on its back lawn some big-time concerts, from Snoop Doggy Dogg to Willie Nelson. On our visit, the owner Rhonda Beanway and her son Levi were busy working the grounds and cooking up delicious blue cheese and mushroom burgers in the kitchen, but chatted it up with us as our group worked its way through a gallon of beer, served in a big jar, and listened to the live three-piece rock band out back. “It’s kind of a hard sell to get people to drive this far,” said Rhonda, who purchased the bar with her husband in 1984 when the previous owners literally handed them the keys on their way out of town. “That’s why we started the concerts. You have to come with a specific purpose and then fall in love with it. But it is one of the last real things like that in San Luis Obispo County for sure.”
Properly back in the saloon saddle, we decided to brave the Pozo Summit road, a pretty easily passable dirt path through the Santa Lucia Mountains and down into the Carizzo Plain National Monument, where tule elk and pronghorn antelope frolic amid Chumash pictographs on a relict landscape that once typified the entire San Joaquin Valley. With clear, unimpeded views as far as the eye can see, the Carrizo is wickedly wondrous any time of year, but catching it in the green winter or the wildflower-popping spring just might change your life by reminding you that silent, solemn places still exist in our cluttered world.
We stuck to our last suds and some tasty cheeseburgers as the hour crept toward dark on this Sunday afternoon, and hit the road with a stunning sunset lighting the way. We pointed our cars home to Santa Barbara, and slipped into bed to enjoy what even the most adventurous Old Westerner also sought: a good night’s rest.
Julie Andrews may have famously sung and spun in the Swiss Alps, but towering 10,600 feet in the air, one of the most famous “hills” in Switzerland is alive with the sound of Bollywood music.
On Mount Titlis, life-size cut outs of Kajol and Shahrukh Khan from the runaway hit Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (more commonly referred to as DDLJ), are displayed in an open-air café fittingly called “Bollywood.” The power couple—posing among the snow-capped scenery—symbolizes the enduring legacy of the Mumbai film industry, which has been doing “cut-to” shots to Switzerland for more than 50 years.
If Bollywood and Alpine landscapes seem like a weird pairing, it may be time to reconsider. It turns out that Bollywood has a long legacy in Switzerland. In the past two decades, more than 200 Bollywood films have been filmed there, and more honeymooners and travelers than ever come from India, as DNA India reports. Many go on packaged tours dedicated to finding the locations where iconic Switzerland shots were filmed. DDLJ, the quintessential Bollywood film with a Swiss connection, is one of the most popular films to be found on the so-called "Bollywood Trail."
The movie, which premiered in 1995, has proved so popular that in one theater in Mumbai, it ran for a record 1,000 weeks straight. The seminal Bollywood masterpiece spoke not to India's wealthy elites, but its growing middle class, Philip Lutgendorf, a professor of Hindi and Modern Indian Studies at the University of Iowa, tells Smithsonian.com.
"If you watch a film like DDLJ, there's a [glorifying] of consumer power of the Indian hero and heroine being able to casually roam around Europe, be waited on in restaurants and stores, and have their needs satisfied by white people," Lutgendorf says. "There’s a message there about disposable income and the freedom of consumer buying power. That makes a place like Switzerland appealing."
The first Bollywood film shot in Switzerland was Sangam in 1964. The film, Raj Kapoor's first color production, started a trend toward tourist destinations in Bollywood film, as the Guardian’s Rachel Dwyer points out.
In the film, the leading couple honeymoons in Switzerland’s Grand Hotel Giessbach high above Lake Brienz, and Sangam captures the castle-like hotel before it was renovated in 1979. The dream-like sequence—in which the main characters are transported from a sound stage to a pastoral Swiss setting—went on to become a Bollywood trope.
“[Switzerland] has beautiful landscapes where you have the pastoral juxtaposed against the snow, which is a very grand thing,” S.E. Pillai, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, tells Smithsonian.com. “You have the mountain and the snow. You have the skiing…and if you go during spring or summer, the flowers run for miles—it is tailor-made for Hindi film song sequences.”
Sangam's popularity made international shots popular, and Shakti Samanta’s 1967 film, An Evening In Paris, the first Bollywood movie to be filmed entirely abroad, quickly followed. Though the plot primarily takes place in the “City of Light,” the scenic Swiss Alps are put to use—watch for shots of the village of Mürren and the Alpine Coaster at Glacier 3000 in Gstaad. And that was before the king of Swiss Bollywood sequences came along.
Director Yash Chopra honeymooned in Switzerland in 1970. Twenty years later, he filmed his first big Switzerland hit, Chandni. The cult classic—which highlighted Switzerland's Lauenensee lakes and the highest railway station in Europe, the Jungfraujoch—not only pushed a return to musical cuts in Mumbai films, but also catapulted Switzerland to the attention of Bollywood filmmakers.
Chopra’s influence is the country is so profound that Lake Lauenen, which is featured in Chandni, is now fondly known by fans as Chopra Lake. A Jungfrau Railways train is named after Chopra, too—not to mention a deluxe suite at the Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel.
"Switzerland has always been my first choice of destination for shooting outside India,” Chopra said when he received the Swiss Ambassador Award in 2010. "It is truly a heaven on earth that has made every angle, every shot and every frame of my movies breathtaking with the scenes vividly etched in people's mind."
But the Switzerland/Bollywood relationship status is complicated, Anuradha Vikram argues in Hyperallergic. In addition to lavish backdrops, she points out, Swiss Bollywood backgrounds deliver a layered post-colonial message.
"What these landscapes represent in the Indian consciousness is complex. They are certainly images of Europe — idealized, continental Europe, not the rainy grey of the British Isles," she writes.
This fantasy image of Europe turns Western film tropes upside-down. Bollywood's Swiss storylines focus on brown-skinned heroes and romances rather than those white people, who only appear in the films as extras. "They’re in the background and saying an odd line here or there providing some visual interest," Lutgendorf says, "but they’re of no importance ot the storyline whatsoever."
Chopra turned his lens toward Switzerland at a time of geopolitical change in India. As the country shifted from socialism to privatization following the official dissolution of the Soviet Union, Bollywood filmed more and more sequences in Switzerland. More mobile Indians meant more financing for film shoots abroad—and more tourists who wanted to visit the film locations themselves. The number of nights that Indian tourists spent in Switzerland grew exponentially, as John Tagliabue wrote in the New York Times in 2010. “After years of seeing the pristine backdrop of Switzerland in Bollywood’s films, generations of middle-class Indians are now earning enough to travel there in search of their dreams," Tagliabue reported.
Political upheaval made Switzerland even more attractive to Bollywood filmmakers. Kashmir, the contested Himalayan alpine destination between India and Pakistan, was once a Bollywood go-to. But by the 1990s, the location had become dangerous for film crews following a prolonged insurgency by Pakistani troops. The use of Swiss footage in Bollywood films reflected "not simply the cachet of international travel but also the practical difficulty of siting and shooting film stories in Kashmir, a state that had now become associated less with romance than with terrorism and insurgency,” Lutgendorf notes in the journal Himalaya.
In the past few years since Chopra's death in 2012, cut-to Switzerland shots have actually declined, Pillai says, as for artistic and financial reasons, other international locations have started to pull Bollywood lens. But that hasn't stopped fans from flocking in increased numbers to Switzerland to see their favorite films come to life.
It was not Chopra, but his oldest son, Aditya Chopra, who directed DDLJ. The famous “DDLJ bridge" scene, which as the blog "Indian Compass" reports, is in Saanen, near to the Saanen Railway Station, is a must-visit spot on the "Bollywood Trail" and it's also the site of one of the film's pivotal moments.
During the scene, the male lead mouths, "Palat... Palat... Palat" or "Turn....Turn....Turn..." imploring the woman he loves to turn around if she returns his affection.
At the last second before she goes to board the train, she turns to him.
Tourism continues to increase because despite the complicated layers that the lush valleys and pristine Alps carry in the collective conscious of Indians, Bollywood fans want to go to hear the hills sing a Bollywood love song. If they're lucky, they just might see the one they love turn their head—or just have their own head turned by the lush landscape that's become a beloved film cliché.
Beginning in the 1960s and through the early 1970s, Consonno—a medieval hamlet located in the province of Lecco, a densely forested area in northern Italy—underwent a planned transformation. The budding resort town was regarded as the ‘Las Vegas of Italy’ and served, throughout its years of phased construction, as an adult playground, of sorts, for people living in Milan and other nearby towns.
Count Mario Bagno, a real estate developer and the project's visionary, hoped to create Italy’s own version of Sin City, dubbing his variation the “City of Toys.” Promising wealth and jobs, Bagnos pushed out the small farming community whose families had inhabited the land for several centuries, and began construction. Over the course of the 1960s, Bagno built a collection of luxurious and eclectically designed buildings, including a grand hotel, a Chinese pagoda, a minaret and a medieval castle, according to a documentary film about the project. Over the years, he continually added a variety of amusements, like a train ride and several nightclubs, and he envisioned one day adding a zoo, runway and racetrack to the mix.
The fun lasted eight years, but in 1976, a landslide wiped out much of the village and the roadway leading to it, inhibiting public access. The venture never recovered and was abandoned to the elements. Today, the village is a ghost town – only the crumbling and graffitied shells of shops, restaurants, hotels and dance halls hint at the entertainment destination's former glory. But for a few days this September (September 8-10), Consonno will pulse with activity once again during the annual Nascondino World Championship—the world’s only large-scale international hide and seek competition.
Image by iStock/AGaeta. At one time Consonno was considered an adult playground, but all that remains today are the shells of former dance halls, shops and restaurants. (original image)
Image by iStock/AGaeta. Consonno is a popular destination thanks to the relics that remain--even decades later--like this locomotive. (original image)
Image by Nascondino World Championship. A sign marking the way to the Nascondino World Championship in Consonno, Italy. (original image)
Image by Nascondino World Championship. Just like the childhood version, the object of the game is to make it to home base without being tagged. (original image)
Image by Nascondino World Championship. Contestants use a variety of barriers to block themselves from view, including hay bales. (original image)
Image by Nascondino World Championship. Some people wear camouflage to blend in with the surroundings. (original image)
Image by Nascondino World Championship. Last year's event drew 80 teams from around the world. (original image)
Now in its eighth year, this year's championship has drawn 80 teams representing nearly a dozen countries from around the world to the eerie remains of Consonno, including the ghost town’s vast outdoor grounds where the gameplay itself occurs. (This is for safety reasons, as the buildings are no longer structurally sound.) Once there, competitors relive their youth by participating in an updated version of the popular childhood game. Players are given 60 seconds to find a hiding place and then must reach home base (a large, specially designed air mattress) before being caught by the seeker or before time runs out. But thanks to the valley’s vastness, which stretches across the foothills of the Alps, the competition is a far cry from the hide and seek games you might remember from your youth.
“The beauty of the event is that adults get to become children again for the weekend,” Giorgio Moratti, an event organizer, tells Smithsonian.com. “It’s a magical thing that happens and it’s amazing to see people play a simple game of hide and seek as adults.”
However, Moratti is quick to point out that the true purpose of the Nascondino World Championship is to let people experience a sliver of Italy’s history, even if all that remains of it are a few deteriorating buildings.
“Consonno and its history are well known throughout Italy, but we want people to come and discover new parts of the village, since it has such an amazing landscape,” Moratti says. “Our goal is to underline the hidden parts of Consonno.”
On Friday and Saturday night, the Nascondino festival will scatter concerts and DJ shows throughout the abandoned village, and additional "Hidden Concerts" will pop-up unannounced around the grounds. For a few nights only, the slogan on the rusting sign declaring "Consonno is always a party" will once again ring true.