An Errant Circumnavigation

Talk given at the Explorers Club in New York City. Sea stories about sailing around the world with Kianui, who was the beauty and did all the work. Prior to leaving, my only experience sailing was in keeping out of the way. Find it...

At home

The chainsaw lies on its side on clean newspaper on the unblemished concrete floor of the neatly organized basement. Bar oil, a scrench, two Stihl manuals uncreased, undog-eared and without oil spots, are lined up alongside the bar. The bar is sheathed in its original protective case. It’s thirty years old, he says. And, I know, well used. Until their recent move, he and his wife lived with a woodstove for decades. It is being given to me and uncharitable thoughts of OCD, anal, nerd clog my mind. Thirty years—in that time, best as I can remember, we’d gone through three saws. A fourth, stripped to its carcass, lies in a box under my kitchen table. At home, it fires in just a handful of pulls. I bought some cleaner thinking I’d have to strip and rebuild the carburetor, but it runs smoothly. When I release the trigger, it idles without stalling and the chain comes to a stop. I had doubted such precision of tuning existed in nature. Two days later, not paying attention, I drop a tree on it smashing the housing.   The tree is a red maple that blew over in a spring gale. The root wad is ten feet high and its crown rests on a family of yellow birch that bow to their knees beneath its weight. Red maples never achieve the majesty of their maple-brethren. Short, often with several trunks you can ring with your hands growing from the same root system, they look like shrubs. This one has three trunks, each larger than the chainsaw is designed for. It will be...

World Navigator Adrift in Central NJ

Suddenly, Siri quits talking to me. I look at my iPhone: temperature alert; it is in danger of frying and has shut down. The Mallard is a north country car: no air conditioning. I toss the phone into the shade under the dash and pull over. I have no idea where I am; no idea where I am going and no idea how to get back. At home an hour earlier, I Googled “NJ hiking”, tapped the Lat/Long of a likely trail into my phone and took off, mindlessly following Siri’s directions. Even if I had a paper map, I wouldn’t know where to go. The phone cools and reboots. I stretch out my arm squinting; my reading glasses, the most powerful Walgreens sells, can’t resolve the text; it is too small and too faint in the bright sunlight. I hustle out of the car and crash thru the brush bordering the highway until I find a leafy tree casting a shadow. Google Maps doesn’t remember where we are headed. I have to hunt for it. I bring up Chrome; it crashes. I bring it up again; it hangs. I click up Safari, grudgingly thankful that Apple makes it impossible to uninstall—I tried. Cars whizz past me, tires on hot pavement, every one of them hogging bandwidth. My phone takes minutes to resolve each page. I don’t remember the name of the website or of the trail. I tap in likely search terms. After some minutes, I find a list of trails that looks familiar and click thru it. Find it. I click on the lat/long to bring up...

Taking Off

Dad faced two chairs knee to knee and offered me one. “You tell me that your problem is being with people.” “Yeah.” If I were a burr and you a wool sock, I wouldn’t stick to you. “And that you are lonely and depressed.” The bleakness of life before Prozac. I was 19. “Isn’t hitchhiking to Alaska to live in the woods running away from your problems?” My father has this rational, reasonable, you-definitely-want-him-to-be-your-brain-surgeon air of competency and authority about him. “Yeah, maybe. Probably.” “Why are you going then?” “I got to.” It was an imperative. My folks dropped me off at the entrance to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It was raining. Mom was crying. I didn’t do hugs; I shouldered my pack and walked to the end of the line of fellow travelers lining the road. It was 1974, hitchhiking still got you places. I stuck out my thumb. That winter there were days it dropped to 55 below. I sat in a chair I’d hammered together out of slabwood from a local mill and a piece of plywood picked out of a dumpster. I sat next to the wood stove, its belly orange red—the draw is terrific with a 120 degree differential. My off-stove side was uncomfortably cool. The weight of the sub-arctic night pressed on the cabin, squirting jets of air between the door and frame misting the moist cabin air. The pressurized gas lantern hissed; my face looked back at me from the blackness pushing into the window. I turned a page, Atlas Shrugged. Twenty-odd years later, Dad and I were hiking under the magisterial Sitka...