Minnesota Misfortune

Picture this: The temperature is zero. I’m sitting in the front passenger side of an SUV parked behind a cement-block, rural, convenience store/gas station. Two women in the back are discussing quilting and viewing photos of same.  The women are oblivious to our guide’s whereabouts.  He is over between two dumpsters on all fours vomiting. * (The husband of one of the women is back at the hotel because he is sick and one of the women was sick later that day.) That was my Minnesota Hawk Owl trip in microcosm.

I did not get sick. I traveled home safely.  Obviously, I wish I had not gone. This was the first time in my life I had engaged in a “chase” for a single bird.  The Northern Hawk Owl is probably the only species for which I would expend so much effort.  I missed it by a single day.

Seven years previous, I had also traveled to Sax-Zim Bog in hopes of seeing one.  Sax-Zim Bog is famous among birders. Located approximately an hour north of Duluth, it is comprised of state and county land with interspersed private parcels.  Birders know it because it can be the best place in the US to see hard-to-find arctic birds such as Northern Hawk Owl, Great-Gray Owl, and Boreal Owl. Snowy Owls, if not found in the bog itself, are regularly found in nearby fields, especially near airports. 

Other species associated with the Arctic can also be found during winter:  Snow Buntings, Bohemian Waxwings, Boreal Chickadees, Common Redpolls and Hoary Redpolls.  Two uncommon woodpeckers occur, the American Three-toed and the rarer Black-backed. Three species of grouse, Ruffed, Spruce and Sharp-tailed, are also present.  Finally, flocks of colorful Pine and Evening Grosbeaks can be abundant.  All these birds attract Northern Goshawks. Duluth Harbor might have Glaucous, Glaucous-winged and Iceland Gulls. So much to see—sounds like Eden to a birder.

But there are drawbacks.  These species are either irruptive, sparsely distributed, or both. The other problem is most are only present in winter and winter in Northern Minnesota is bitterly cold or is supposed to be.

I have extensive history with Northern Hawk Owl or, that is, the promise of one.  When I visited January 9 and 10, 2016, temperatures were as expected: a high of 14 and low of -11 on my first day and a high of -1 and low of -18 on my second.  Those were official temperatures in Duluth, -22 was reported further north where I spent most of my visit.

Birding on the first day, however, was excellent.  I did not perceive until afterward how ridiculously lucky I was.  We drove to Sax-Zim Bog and within thirty minutes, along one of the main roads, was a Great Gray Owl. It was watching and listening over a 10-meter-wide open space between the road and the woods.  We watched its large disc face as it slowly rotated while scanning for the sound of a mouse or vole.  We watched until we had to move on.  No other birders passed.  It was our own Great Gray. 

Great Gray Owl in Sax-Zim-Bog

Living in Colorado with easy access to snowy and cold habitats, other than the owls, most of the birds found in the bog were not of interest.  Indeed, it was humorous when my guide became excited, pointed, and then relaxed. That’s right. you don’t care about a magpie, he said.  Right, I did not care that Northern Minnesota is the eastern edge of the Black-billed Magpie’s range where it is a highly desirable sighting for many.  After a brief visit to the bog’s visitor center, we returned to Duluth, but we were on a mission.

The guide had told me there were two rarities at the lakefront: Gyrfalcon and the near-threatened Ivory Gull.   The Ivory Gull is quite rare in the US, typically only found in the high Arctic, 1,500 miles farther north.  Ivory Gulls are somewhat dependent on Polar Bears, their diet at times consisting of what they can scavenge from a kill after the bear has dined.   Little is known about them.  Never abundant, their long-term survival, considering climate change, is questionable. 

Gyrfalcons are rarely seen in the lower 48.  They are the largest, most powerful, and rarest North American falcon.  Denizens of the Arctic; they hunt over vast expanses of tundra.     

My guide knew I was mostly interested in owls, but he also knew the Ivory Gull and the Gyrfalcon were rarer birds.  He feared one or both might leave, but they had not left yet.  We found the Ivory Gull where it had been for days, and in the company of an Iceland Gull and Glaucous and Glaucous- winged Gulls.  Thirty minutes later we found the Gyrfalcon perching on top of a lakefront grain elevator.  In half of a day, I had already seen four species new to me.  Ironically, the Ivory Gull disappeared the next day and none were seen again in Minnesota for six years. 

As darkness fell, we drove to a shopping mall across the state border into Wisconsin. The shopping mall was adjacent to a large open field, perfect hunting territory for the Snowy Owl perched on one of the light poles in the parking lot.  We were able to drive directly under it for excellent views.  What a great day!  I thought it must always be like this.

Then came the fateful question. What should we do tomorrow?  I had one more day with the guide.  Here is where I erred.  The Northern Hawk Owl was now the only species of owl I had not seen in North America.  What about a Northern Hawk Owl? I asked.  The guide shook his head.  It would be a four-hour drive each way. The chances of seeing it are only about 50-50.  Then he went into a soliloquy about how boring the drive was.  He mentioned how I had not yet seen a Boreal Chickadee. I had also asked about Spruce Grouse, another potentially new species.  My guide enthusiastically talked up the beauty of driving in parts of the Superior National Forest north of the bog.  Surely, we would see both.  I returned to the discussion of the owl.  We can leave at 6AM and have up to four hours to search before we need to return. The weather is frigid, but there are no storms in sight.  Only 50:50, he reminded me while again bringing up the long, boring drive.  He made it clear he did not want to go after a Hawk Owl.  OK, I said, we’ll look for the chickadee and the grouse.

Talk about a long boring day!  We drove through the snowy forest for more than nine hours.  Except for a lunch stop where there were bird feeders, we recorded less than ten birds—not species—total birds!  I did have the briefest glimpse of a Boreal Chickadee, but there were no grouse—nothing but cold, slow driving on back roads. 

What I have omitted is I had another day on my own.  Boreal Chickadees are uncommon and furtive, but as on my most recent trip, were being seen every day at one or more feeders within the bog. I could have, should have, hunted for Boreal Chickadees myself.  Now with a day left and nothing new for me to see at the bog, I followed my guide’s advice to look for an unusual subspecies of Great Horned Owl near Minneapolis.  That quest failed, and I have forever lamented missing the opportunity to search for the Hawk Owl.

Still bereft of a Northern Hawk Owl sighting, it was on my mind when my wife and sister conjured up a family trip to Alaska.  I had never been and suspected I would never return. Consequently, I added on two days to search for Hawk Owls near Fairbanks.

At the same time, one of my birding magazines published an article written by someone from Fairbanks.  I wrote and asked for advice.  He was not going to be in the area but recommended a friend who might be persuaded to help.  After an email exchange, the friend cheerfully offered his assistance and mentioned he would ask another friend to help.  His name I recognized from a recent article in Birding. This was looking good.

I contacted Philip the evening I arrived.  He said he, his wife, and his friend Jeff would pick me up before seven the next morning.  He also had good news.  Other friends had reported two Hawk Owls at a nearby hiking area.  We would go there first.   

The area where the owls had been seen had burned recently.  All around, it was bright pink from fireweed, a primary pioneer plant after a burn.  Hawk Owls prefer recent burns because the now opened area can be easy hunting.  Our hike was interesting. It was new territory for me and there was added drama because my new friends supplied me with bear spray after a brief tutorial on how to use it.  

There were acres of pink Fireweed north of Fairbanks.

The area was busy. Many locals were collecting wild blueberries—everyone watchful for bears.  Singing Alder Flycatchers were a highlight, as were nesting Merlins, but we found no Hawk Owl.

There was nothing to do now but drive.  There are two principal roads north of Fairbanks.  One stops at the village of Circle on the Yukon River.  The other is the famous oil road that crosses the Yukon on its way to Prudhoe Bay on the Beaufort Sea.  Both were good gravel roads.   We drove mile after mile.

If you have not been to Alaska, you might think only of towering mountains and majestic forests. Not so.  Much of the famed Boreal Forest consists of stunted and emaciated Black Spruce.  While my description sounds derogatory, Black Spruce is a survivor, being the only tree that can live in most of its range. 

This terrain is of critical importance for many neotropical species because of the vast quantity of summer insects.   Nonetheless, most of the drive was not scenic.  All four of us the first day, and Jeff and I the second, scanned the treetops as the miles and hours passed. The first day we drove to Circle and back. The second day, Jeff and I crossed over the muddy Yukon for a couple of miles before returning.  

The Northern Hawk-Owl is an apex predator, meaning they usually perch on treetops. They are diurnal.  Finding one is the same as cruising roads wherever you might live looking for hawks.  Unfortunately, many black spruces form a topknot resembling a bird’s shape.  And, of course, the farther away this topknot is observed, the more bird-like it appears.  We scanned these for 16 hours while driving several hundred miles on gravel roads for two days.  No Hawk Owls.  

We saw my first Spruce Grouse, as one ran across the road near Circle.  We found a Sharp-shinned Hawk, which excited Jeff, being much rarer in this country than is a Hawk-Owl.  At the end of the second day, Jeff was shaking his head in wonderment.  Now I am concerned there is a problem with their population, he said.  Oh well.  I had basked in the company of wonderful people who entertained me with amazing stories of their lives in Alaska.  I had seen moose, including a close-by cow and calf, and considerable Alaska landscape, but no Northern Hawk Owl.

Mary arrived late the second day of Hawk Owl driving; the rest of the family members were arriving the following afternoon.  With most of the next day free, there was time for more birding.  The most famous local spot is Creamer’s Fields Migratory Waterfowl Refuge.  Chances of a Hawk Owl were probably non-existent, but I mention the area because it formerly had an expansive boardwalk through a wetland. Not anymore.  The boardwalk was a twisted wreck because melting permafrost caused by rising temperatures has caused so much heaving of the surface soil.  

My friends had advised me to watch the road from Fairbanks to Denali, saying Hawk Owls are often seen.  I inspired my family members with promises of drinks and other rewards if anyone spotted one for me.   We had two vehicles and once the one in front, driven by my brother-in-law, screeched to a stop, and pulled over. Back there, a Hawk Owl, he said. We turned around and there in the distance was a raptor.  Unfortunately, my binoculars proved it to be a Red-tailed Hawk.  It was a good spot, everyone in my car had missed it, but it was not the right bird.  That sighting was the closest I came in and around Denali. I assumed I would never see a Hawk Owl having no plans to return to either Alaska or Minnesota.

But then, two years later, another guide of my acquaintance, announced he and his partner were doing winter trips to Sax-Zim Bog.  This gave me a good contact.  His guided trips were already full.  Check with me in December, he said.  I can let you know if Hawk Owls are being seen.  I checked. There had been a Hawk Owl in the bog.  He suggested I accompany he and his partner for a day while they were scouting prior to their guided trips. 

Chasing a single bird so long, so far, and so expensively is not something I do, but this was a Northern Hawk Owl. And, we had been looking for an excuse to visit family in Illinois.  Why not combine a family trip with a quick side-jaunt to Minnesota for the owl?  Then it became complicated.  Both my sister and brother had planned travel making it difficult to see both and have time for the Minnesota trip. That’s when my guide friend contacted me again, saying there was a last-minute cancellation on his final guided trip of the season. The timing seemed perfect. We could fly to Illinois for family and have enough time before they departed and before I needed to fly to Minnesota.  I wish I had done more homework.

The year 2023 became unseasonably warm on February 8 with a high in Duluth of 46. An all-time daily record of 43 occurred on February 11.  I watched these alarming temperatures from the homes of my relatives hundreds of miles directly south in Illinois.  I arrived in Minnesota on the 13th.  I wore a light jacket.  Rain was in the forecast.  Indeed, it rained for a day before changing to snow. That was enough for the Northern Hawk Owl. 

My guide was confident when we departed Duluth the morning of the 14th. He was genuinely surprised the owl was not on its favorite perch. I was to learn the owl had hunted a small area for approximately two months and was seen every day.  It was tame.  Photographers had beaten down a path by walking under it for closeups.  The last day it was seen was the day I arrived in Duluth, February 13.  

Recall that on my earlier visit, I had easily seen both Great Gray and Snowy Owls, not this year.  Both were present but rarely seen.  In fact, this was my guide’s third group this winter season and the only owl the first two groups had seen was the Hawk Owl. We heard most other guided groups also failed to see Great Gray and Snowy Owls.

What about my group? Well, we found a Snowy Owl—in the pouring rain and were criticized for it.  Rain made looking for other species in the bog too difficult, so we drove onto the Duluth airport property.  From an employee parking area, we found a flock of Snow Buntings and then a Snowy Owl. The problem was, we viewed the owl from a road replete with no parking and no stopping signs.  There was no traffic. We were on a parking lot entry road, but birding etiquette in and near the bog is taken seriously.  Our guide was admonished for reporting the sighting and it was removed from the local list serve.  

Much is made of having proper “etiquette” in and around the bog.  First-time visitors are discouraged from birding alone. One reason is to be courteous to other birders by knowing which side of the road to park on, but the overriding issue is to keep the anti-visitor portion of the populace from reacting.  Residents of the area are anything but homogenous socially and politically.  For example, the birding map for the bog shows a large X in one area where you are asked not to drive. Though the road is public, a landowner is so hostile; it has been deemed best to stay far away.

At another location, the landowners are so welcoming; a port-a-potty has been installed in conjunction with well-maintained feeders. We were warned, however, that when photographing birds at this location, to be sure and not point cameras at the property across the road as those owners sometimes emerge and protest to birders about their loss of privacy.

Once we encountered a flock of Common Redpolls near where there had been a report of the rare Hoary Redpoll.   We were out of our vehicle scanning for birds and photographing one about which we were hopeful.  A large pick-up pulled up and stopped. It was odd because drivers in the area must be accustomed to birders, although we were not at one of the usual birding stops.  A large, bearded man said, what are you up to?  When we told him we were birding, he grimaced, shook his head, and stomped on his accelerator. 

This is a rural area, and the public land is scrambled with private land—plenty of opportunities for certain types of people to become exorcised about strangers who park on the shoulder and look about.  But again, most residents were welcoming.  Most poignant was Augie’s Bog.  Here there is a short boardwalk and a collection of feeders. At the end of the boardwalk is a small box enclosing tiny carved owls.  An explanatory note says the area was set aside to honor Augie, who had died as an infant a few years previously. His grandfather carves the small owls in his honor and requests birders take one as a remembrance.  That was touching, and because I have a collection of owl memorabilia, Augie is commemorated on a shelf in my office.  

As for the Hawk Owl, what about the homework I might have done?  Once home, I looked up Northern Hawk Owls sightings in Sax-Zim Bog.  The steepness of their departure curve was startling.  When present, they are seen until about February 10; a few days later, they are gone. Had I known those details, I either would have found a way to go earlier or canceled.  No Hawk Owl for me!

 *My companions on the “failed” trip were lovely people that I would happily go birding with again. Our guide was conscientious and knowledgeable. I would recommend him to others and hire him again.


I hear a soft scuffle behind me. Holding my breath, I wait.  A Puma?  A Jaguar?  More likely a Tamandua (silky anteater) or an agouti (a large rodent).   A healthy jaguar population exists not far away, but here at Costa Rica’s Las Cruces Biological station, I am too near the village of San Vito.  The scuffle is that of a young jogger–probably a graduate student working with the tropical plants for which the Las Cruces Biological Station is famous.

Light on her feet, she trots by with a smile and a wave. A young woman running in the jungle led me to think of the novel, Green Mansions by W.H. Hudson.  The book, set in the American Neotropics, is a fable about how often the innocent are misunderstood and destroyed. 

One of the book’s main characters is Rima, a young girl living in harmony with the wilderness.  Other inhabitants find her confusing and frightening.  They decide she is the cause of their misfortunes.  Eventually, they capture and kill her. The plot is an apt metaphor for what I observe.  The overwhelming fecundity and beauty of the tropical jungle is easy to romanticize.  Unfortunately, my next realization is how much has been obliterated because it was not understood.

A few decades ago, the jogger would have been dodging either coffee plants or cattle.  Just 70 years prior, however, this area was wilderness.  In the 1950s and 1960s, settlers, including Europeans and North Americans, with encouragement from the Costa Rican government, attempted to convert the area to agriculture.  One of the early settlers, when in his eighties, published two books about their struggles.  He begs forgiveness from future generations.  “We didn’t know what we were doing,” he says.  He explains that if they had understood the soil and the complexity of the natural environment, they would have known their efforts were doomed.  The area was too steep, the soils, as always in the rainforest, were too poor and easily eroded once uncovered.  Agriculture continues, but much of the region consists of exposed and battered soils and shrubby, brushy areas indicative of unwise land use. 

Besides the dense, often impenetrable scrub an invasive vine marches up the steep hillsides to cover failed banana plantations and the remaining native trees.  Fortunately, the nearby highlands were not heavily settled.  Five hundred and seventy thousand hectares in the Talamanca Mountains of Costa Rica and Panama are preserved as part of the La Amistad National Park—a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  At lower elevations, there are still forest remnants, and there are restorations such as the location where I encountered the jogger.

The Las Cruces Biological Station originated on land reclaimed by Robert and Catherine Wilson who had owned a nursery in Florida.  Through their knowledge, arduous work and with financial support from an English patron, the Wilson’s established a world-famous garden. 

In 1973, the garden became part of the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS), a nonprofit consortium of universities and research institutions from the US, Costa Rica, Peru, Mexico, South Africa, and Australia.  Subsequently, the OTS purchased nearby forest remnants such that the location has become well-known for its natural history as well as the experimental plantings.

The OTS does important work studying methods of restoration and educating the next generation of tropical researchers.  It also provides training for teachers and students from all over the world. I have visited all three of the OTS locations in Costa Rica.  I am always encouraged when I encounter researchers and students.  I am delighted these places exist for their benefit and ours. 

The “garden” as the local ex-pats refer to it, has become a favorite place for my wife and me.  We have rented a house less than ten minutes away on nearly ten occasions and, a couple of times, have stayed in the station’s comfortable cabins.

On this trip, we made a mistake.  Not enough time. Sometimes it rains.  I am watching the rain and flooding rivulets from our cabin’s small balcony.  I am thwarted from looking for euphonias–an interesting group of tiny neotropical birds; with the males being colorful, some spectacularly so.  Perhaps their color is why they were originally lumped with tanagers. Now known to be more closely related to finches, there are up to twenty-seven species depending on which taxonomy guide you follow.  I have been fortunate to have spied eighteen. 

We had arrived at mid-day and a birding group was raving about a spectacular invasion of euphonias.  Six species had been seen including the stunning Elegant Euphonia and the often difficult-to-find White-vented.   The former has a deep purple back and face, azure blue cap and nape with a rust-red throat and belly.  The White-vented represents about half of the group by having a deep blue-black back and yellow belly.  Otherwise, this group differs by whether the throat is yellow or by the extent of yellow on the head.

The White-vented had been a target of mine for years until I finally saw a couple nearby the previous year.  I was eager to see one again.  I found the location recommended by the other birders, pulled out my sit-upon and began to watch the trees.  A yellow flash, but not a euphonia…a Common Tody-flycatcher.  For once, the moniker “common” is appropriate; this bird is easy to find in a variety of habitats.  They have a bright yellow iris set off by a jet-black head. Underneath, they are bright yellow. 

Then, another yellowish flash, not so bright this time.  It is not a euphonia either, but a Mistletoe Tyrannulet, another common flycatcher.  Then soft rain.  No matter.  I open my small jungle umbrella, so light I can balance it on my shoulder and still use my binoculars.  Raining harder now, starting to drip off the umbrella.  But ok, although concerning.   Now, too hard!  This is not ok.  I look around.  Not good.  The sky is uniformly dark gray in all directions.  Here it comes, un aguacero tropical muy fuerte—a downpour. 

Fortunately, it is pleasant on our porch.  As the rain roars, a usually dry ravine on the bank below becomes a torrent.   Through the gray curtain to the southeast, four large palms emerge from the forest gloom. There are other species of palms in front of me, mixed in with bamboo, tree ferns and smaller ornamental plantings which are particularly attractive to neotropical migrants. 

Fittingly, I spy a Chestnut-sided Warbler foraging.  In Costa Rica, these are typically dismissed as “just another” but he does not know that. This territory is his world.  He may have defended this shrub for several years.  I hope so. I like to think of his successful travels from Costa Ria to the northern border of the Northeastern United States. This afternoon is not so different than a rainy early-summer day in Southern Ontario from where he has returned after a four-month romantic sojourn.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

I watch an agouti take shelter in the shrubbery below.  They are strange looking, purportedly good to eat—mahogany brown, about the size of a large rabbit.  They have tiny front legs which make them appear to be all hindquarters.

This day goes on to be a complete rainout. I observe only twenty-two bird species and neither of the euphonias I hoped for.  My rainy afternoon, however, is sustained by thinking of past visits.

If you asked what my favorite solo activity is, I would unhesitatingly say it is creeping, walking, sitting in the rainforest.  Perhaps, I have had more such days here at Las Cruces than anywhere else.

One morning, as the sun was rising, I started down the Rio Java Trail.  I was already thinking of Marbled Wood-Quail, knowing others had seen them nearby.  North Americans know about quail. There are the vanishing Northern Bobwhite of the Midwest and South—a bird of pastures and brushy fields.  As a youth, I encountered them commonly in Illinois—being startled as they rose with a flurry of wings and noise.  In the west, are the adaptable Gambel’s Quail; although declining overall, this species can acclimate to subdivisions with large yards and remains abundant wherever minimal habitat remains. 

Wood-Quail are different.  A more appropriate name would be Forest-or Jungle-Quail.  They live in the shady understory and although prone to noisy calling, are challenging to see.  They may not be particularly shy; it is just that they live where no one can see them.  Costa Rica has four species.  On the day of this hike, I had not yet seen any. 

Within minutes I spied the familiar shape of quail beside the trail.  Soon one was joined by another and another.  I inched forward. There were four.  There was a small horizontal limb propped by other vegetation or smaller branches one or two inches off the ground.  Only about ten inches of it were unencumbered by air plants or thick moss. One of the quail climbed on. Then another and another.  The fourth attempted to join them but the space was not wide enough. A bird on the end fell off.  

The lone bird circled back and shoved in between two of its brethren and again, one on the end fell off.  The birds made no sound.  There did not seem to be a dispute, but they continued to calmly jostle for position as if they were certain there was room for four if they only could get it right. But they could not.  Usually, they all faced the same direction, but one finally tried ascending the branch while facing the others. That did not work either.   Was it a game like “musical chairs?”  I could not imagine. I watched and watched.  Ten minutes later they were still doing it.  When I came back hours later, I checked the branch, just in case, but sometime during the day they had departed.

North Americans are also familiar with Swainson’s Thrushes.  Here, the online reference “Birds of the World,” demonstrates a northern bias. The entry describes them as a “secretive denizen of forests and woodlands across the northern portion of the continent.”  That depicts their lives from about mid-May to mid-August. What about the rest of the year?

Even though they nest on property my family owns in Colorado, I may only see them one, two or three times per year, but in Costa Rica they are an abundant passage migrant.  Early another morning, I was starting down the same Rio Java trail at Las Cruces.  Just as the canopy coverage and shade became complete, I noticed birds on the ground. I slowly raised my binoculars.  I counted seven Swainson’s Thrushes—in a single view, and there were more nearby. In the open—on the ground—behavior one would never see in North America.  My checklist for the day listed forty Swainson’s Thrushes with a note that it was likely an underestimate.

Swainson’s Thrushes surprised me another time at Las Cruces.  I was hoping to see a Ruddy Foliage-Gleaner.  Foliage-gleaners are strictly neotropical–mostly brown, and secretive. They spend their lives skulking in the undergrowth searching for insects.  Ruddy Foliage-gleaners, for reasons unknown, have a spotty distribution.  They are nowhere common, but Las Cruces has historically been the best place to see one in Costa Rica.  It was only after several fruitless attempts that I finally saw one.

On that lucky day, I was hoping to find an antswarm because Ruddy Foliage-gleaners will sometimes join army ants.  I heard bird commotion off the trail ahead.  Slowly, I moved closer.  I could see birds flitting about.  It was an antswarm, but these were not antbirds!  There were two Swainson’s thrushes amidst the ants.  They dove for food and then would jump in the air, either for another prey item or to rid themselves of the ants. I did see a Ruddy Foliage-Gleaner and a Black-faced Antthrush, but I was most surprised to see the Swainson’s Thrushes attending the antswarm.   Birds of the World needs to live up to its name and describe the complete history of the Swainson’s Thrush.

The Rio Java trail descends through an area bisected by small streams with steep banks. The exposed soil is a rich orange. Also sporting rich orange is a forest species called Rufous-tailed Jacamar.  These have an appearance of a giant hummingbird because of their long bills.  The purpose of the bill is not to slurp nectar but to catch large insects.  Once I watched one shake and batter a beautiful blue morpho butterfly until the wings fell off and the body could be swallowed.

Jacamars, because they nest in holes in steep banks, are often found near streams.   The trail here consists of steps cut into the orange earth.  As I began to ascend, a portion of a step appeared to move.  I reached down and caught a recently fledged jacamar.  I could not find a parent.  It was well-feathered, vivid auburn and emerald, but when I put it amidst vegetation on the steep bank, it disappeared. I looked again. Still there.  The brilliant orange and green were perfect camouflage for this environment.

Another memorable Las Cruces sighting was my first of a Chiriquí Quail-Dove.  Chiriquí, an indigenous word commonly used in Southern Costa Rica and Northern Panama, refers to a Pre-Colombian civilization that inhabited the area. Like Wood-Quail, Quail-Doves do not respond to recordings and even where common, usually remain unseen.

When Quail-Doves are encountered on a trail, they walk rapidly into the dimness of the undergrowth.  I have learned to move slowly and scan the trail ahead with my binoculars.  Occasionally, my method is successful.  Well ahead, I saw a Chiriquí Quail-Dove.  The bird slowly pirouetted in the sun as it looked toward me. The top of the head, except for the bright red eye, was gray. Below the eye, the head was white.  On the neck were black stripes. The legs were red.  I was fortunate to obtain such an excellent view before it strolled into the darkness.

On another occasion, I heard loud snapping—a sound reminiscent of “cracker balls,” a little firework that pops when thrown at the ground.  I realized I was listening to White-Ruffed Manakins. Manakins fly as if instantly jet-propelled. Sometimes they bounce off one perch to land on another leaving the would-be viewer focusing on a quivering branch while the bird is elsewhere.  These are a species that dance at a lek while snapping their wings. Blue-black with a white throat, the males are handsome as they dash about a horizontal log they have cleared of vegetation.

Often, the forest is deathly silent. Suddenly, the ringing whistles, phureee-phree phuphree, of a Rufous-Breasted Wren burst into the air.  Attractive, with a red-rufous breast, belly, and cap, accentuated by white cheeks with black streaks and spots, this is the most common wren of the Las Cruces Forest.  Although more active early, it may shatter the stillness with its beautiful call at any time. 

Again, I see what I am most desirous of.  One, two, then three and four dark shapes flash across the trail—a few feet off the ground.  An antswarm!  I back up to a tree (quickly checking for spines and insects) both to lean on and break my outline. I wait. I am fortunate. The activity, which can sometimes be frustratingly close, but not close enough, is in full view. Insects are escaping the horde of ravenous ants. They leap into the air and scurry away only to be plucked off by hungry birds.  Here a Black-faced Antthrush. There a Chestnut-Backed Antbird. Next a Ruddy Woodcreeper, and then another. Antswarms are not as species-rich here as in lowland forests, but they still provide excitement.  Then the birds are gone. The jungle stillness returns.

Even when all is still. even on a sweltering afternoon when nothing seems to be happening, I appreciate the jungle. I sit quietly.  Now is when I notice a spider’s web, glistening, illuminated by a shaft of light. A leaf twirls. I perceive striations on leaves and how they collect and funnel any raindrop that manages to fall this far through the canopy.

Light rain is a strange phenomenon until one becomes accustomed. You hear it but you do not feel it.  Up to forty percent of rain is seized before reaching the ground in a rainforest.  The thick canopy of trees, vines, and bromeliads takes an enormous share.  A heavy rain may cease, except not in the jungle. Rainwater continues dripping downward. When hastened by a gust of wind, it sounds and feels as if the storm has resumed.  Entering a clearing will prove otherwise. 

One still afternoon, I was eating lunch by a stream.  Movement! A mere five meters away, a Great Tinamou arrived for a drink.  Gray-brown with an awkward appearing beak and neck, this chicken-sized inhabitant of the understory alternately dipped its beak in the stream and raised it so the water could trickle down. After a few swallows, it ambled off. The Great Tinamou makes one of the signature sounds of the rainforest.  One guidebook describes the call as: …powerful whistled notes…organ-like in their velvety swelling quality…tremulous. The sound is eerie, particularly because Tinamous call most often as night descends.

Great Tinamou

Besides the Rufous-breasted Wren, my other favorite daytime sound at Las Cruces is that of the Black-faced Antthrush. The day I was sitting in the heavy rain on the porch, I heard the familiar “three mellow whistled notes” keep-two-two.  If you do not know the call, search for it on your computer, and listen. Picture yourself on a dark, dank jungle trail when that sound suddenly punctures the silence.  I find it mysterious and compelling. 

One more strange call to describe: chu-choodle-woo; complex and musical but at a low register—the Black-bellied Wren. Deep brown black, but with a bright white throat and upper chest, this wren prowls impenetrable thickets.  It will respond to a recording of its song but may remain within its dark domain yielding a shape as the best possible sighting.

The most alien sound in the jungle is the cacophony of crashing branches and falling leaves produced by a troop of White-faced Monkeys.  Despite the din, they are often difficult to locate.  Or they may pass overhead, being sure to show teeth while giving you an ornery look in the eye. And yet, often, I spend an entire day with no sign of them. Each day is different.

I have described antswarms, but they are rare.  The mixed flocks I encounter most days are also variable.  Sometimes the flock is comprised mostly of neotropical migrants.  Tropical tanagers are predominant in the next, or maybe a mixture of both.  There is usually a woodcreeper, commonly an Olivaceous or a Streak-headed.  Once a mixed flock included the weird Brown-billed Scythebill, aptly named for its two-inch plus decurved bill.

These are all residents of the garden—a garden that is part natural and part ornamental.  It is a stunning place, full of surprises.  From my porch that rainy afternoon I see an interesting mix of colors and shapes—mostly greens—pale green–yellow green. I see big waxy leaves. I note that a tree fern’s green has a brownish cast, but on one limb resides four big yellow-green leaves, a bromeliad, topped by a bright pink flower.

It is all so beautiful, and it is a relic. I consider the birding group I had met. They are having an exciting time, delighted with memorable sightings. Do they recognize what has been lost or are they victims of generational amnesia? Do I wish they would return home and tell everyone how wonderful this place is, or that it is a vestige of what was.

I think of the Wilsons when the Coto Brus area was vastly less populated. When reclamation efforts had hardly begun. They surely looked out, from their big house on the hill while rain fell in their garden. Did they think it was paradise?


Merida has the finest Roman ruins in Spain. It is also has fine restaurants. One serves Cherry Gazpacho with a dollop of Olive Oil Ice Cream.  This dish also contains pork—not surprising in a locale renowned for Iberian Ham, which requires acorn-fed, free-ranging hogs.  The soup was so delicious Mary and I ate at the same restaurant two of our three evenings in Merida.

As friends asked about our trip, we found ourselves always describing the gazpacho.  Yet, we had other excellent dining especially seafood and once, a spectacular mushroom risotto served on the street at lunch.   But mostly we described the gazpacho because it was rare and different. We assumed others would never have heard of it.   

Of course, for me, there was something else about Merida.  The city has the longest surviving ancient bridge with a span of 755 meters.  Better yet, the span crosses some wetlands harboring a species of the rail family—the Western Swamphen.  When I wasn’t enjoying great meals or touring the ancient Roman Coliseum, Circus, and Temple of Diana, I walked out to the bridge and peered into the swamp.  Eventually, I was rewarded with a great view of a Western Swamphen and chick.   I wondered if the ancient Romans noticed them.

Western Swamphen (Merida, Spain-2022)

I enjoy seeking out rare and difficult-to-find birds, many of which reside in wetlands.  Some of these are celebrated in a book on my shelf entitled: Rare and Elusive Birds of North America, by William Burt.  Most of the profiles in this book are about rails, sometimes called crakes.

My desire to study rails supports a frequent comment from my brother that “there’s a nut for everything.”  Rails have been called mice with feathers.  It would be more accurate to call them swamp-mice with feathers because wetlands are their primary habitat.   In addition, they are reluctant to fly, relying on “rail-roads,” that is, trails and tunnels within the thick vegetation. 

My first encounter was with a Black Rail on Galveston Island, Texas in 1980.  I had a business trip to Houston.  Knowing the Texas coast was a birding hotspot, I brought my backpacking tent in an extra suitcase.  It seems remarkable today; I was able to drive down on a spring weekend and easily find a camping spot in the state park. 

I was armed with a A Birder’s Guide to the Texas Coast, one of a series of guides to famous birding areas.  In the days before ebird and the internet, these so-called “Lane-guides” (James A. Lane was a co-author) were highly prized for their specific directions to prime birding locations.  After a windy and rainy night, I was walking toward a marsh and encountered an elderly couple with a large parabolic receiver for recording bird calls. Once recorded, the call could be played back in hopes of enticing the bird to show itself. 

The couple appeared friendly, so I approached. “A Black Rail!” one of them said softly.  At this phase of my birding life, I knew rails as a photo in a book.  They were not species I expected to see or even try to see.  After whispering introductions, I learned that the bird responding from the marsh was both rare and more rarely seen.

By today’s standards, our birding etiquette was cringeworthy—too much playback.  Today, birders are satisfied with a well-documented hearing or recording but we tried hard to spy the bird.  The lady of the pair had a glimpse of the bird’s face, but her husband and I never saw anything although we were within three feet of the rail for 20-30 minutes before giving up. 

Subsequently, the couple told me how lucky I was to have experienced a Black Rail.  Further, they informed me that last night’s wind and rain was the reason they had driven two hours to the coast. That storm had been what was known locally as a “Norther.”  What made it so important is that a wind blowing from the north in late March or early April is in the face of oncoming spring migrants crossing the Gulf of Mexico.  These birds, weary already, work extra hard to make landfall and often pitch into the first tree or shrub they can find.  This being a coastal plain, the few trees might harbor a dozen or more birds.  Although it immediately made sense, this phenomenon had been unknown to me.  “You have to go to the Old House,” they said.  They had already checked small nearby trees before being distracted by the resident Black Rail.

The “Old House,” where an owner had planted shrubs and trees before abandoning, was amazing.  In the same small tree were an Orchard Oriole, a Prothonotary Warbler, a Great Crested Flycatcher, a White-eyed Vireo, a Tennessee Warbler and a Kentucky Warbler.  In the shrubs underneath were a Worm-Eating Warbler and a Swainson’s Warbler. My new friends seemed happier for me than I was.  I did not understand until later what a treasure trove of sightings this was.  Indeed, Swainson’s Warblers as well as Black Rails are profiled in that same book about “Rare and Elusive Birds.”  Seeing one perched in the open was truly fortunate.  Seven of those species were “lifers,” birds I had never seen before, and they were all associated with a single small tree, less than ten feet in diameter. 

That previous night’s heavy rain had filled all the ditches and marshlands such that other birds had been forced to higher ground.  Hence, I spied another rail later that day—the less-reclusive and larger Clapper Rail.  My life with rails had begun!

According to Wikipedia, there are more than 150 species in this family that includes the more-easily seen coots and gallinules.  Twelve from this family are already extinct and others are on the brink of vanishing.  I have seen thirty.  The Black Rail, although not formally protected at the federal level, is threatened or a “species of concern” in most of the states in which it is found. 

It is no wonder. In my work life, I found that many contaminant dumps, landfills, and random disposal areas were in wetlands.   Furthermore, for most of US history, wetlands were so little valued that draining them was referred to as “reclamation.”

Fortunately, the value of wetlands is now recognized.  Coastal wetlands mitigate storm surge thereby limiting hurricane damage.   Interior wetlands are important buffers and sinks for contaminants in industrial and agriculture discharges.  One source suggests that the value of wetlands exceeds $3 billion dollars annually.  I have not reviewed the details of that estimate, but I wonder if it adequately accounts for the recreational value from waterfowl rearing, hunting, and birdwatching. 

Our attack on wetlands has been so relentless that birders are usually intimately familiar with local sewage ponds and landfills because those are where remnant populations of marsh-dwellers can find a place to survive.    Continuing today is a constant battle regarding the definition of a wetland.   A weak definition is desired by developers because federal laws require mitigation.  Climate change exaggerates this problem because historic wetlands are drying up, further squeezing the remaining homelands for rails and their allies.

That day in 1980 remains important to me because it opened my eyes to another window into nature.  I read extensively about these birds and have considered them to be primary quarry in my subsequent travels.   I have been lucky enough to have found others.

My most memorable encounters have occurred in Costa Rica.  There was, for example, the day I set out to find a White-throated Crake.  My wife and I were staying at the Las Cruces Biological Station (aka Wilson Botanical Garden) near San Vito.  We did not have a car, so I hired a taxi driver to take me to the “swamp near the airport,” which was reputed to harbor the crake. 

I asked the taxi driver to pick me up after two hours, but noticed he simply turned off the engine and planned to wait.  My directions said to stop at a house adjacent to the small airstrip and ask for permission.  The inhabitants smiled and waved me on.  Minutes later, I was ankle deep in gluey mud.  I backed up to dry ground and surveyed the area.  It looked too wet for passage and with the thickness of the vegetation and darkness of the water, I had no idea how deep it might be. 

I spied a fence about 100 meters away and thought I would try there.  Surely, if posts were in the ground, there would be an area I could walk.  Being careful, I trusted tussocks of vegetation held in place by the wire and inched my way into the marsh.   After about ten meters, I was satisfied I was far enough and played the call of the White-throated Crake.  There was an immediate response.

It is worth noting that rails are not songsters.  One of my sources describes the vocalization of White-throated Crakes as an abrupt, explosive descending trill or churr.  My own description is a rapid dry rattle.  Another example is the description for the Paint-billed Crake.  As described in Birds of the World: “Song a long, gradually accelerating series of up to 36 staccato somewhat yelping kjek notes. Occasionally followed by 3–4 short churring notes which fall in pitch, the last being a 3-second flat trill. Also, frog-like, guttural, buzzy, single notes rendered qurrrk and auuk and a mellow soft purring. Alarm a sharp twack.”  In other words, I am nutty enough to spend hours in insect-ridden swamps listening for kjek, qurrk, auk and twack.   Reading that sentence makes me reconsider my sanity and confirms my brother’s statement about a “nut for everything.”  (Why do I think he always means me when he says it?) 

Anyway, the San Vito airstrip White-throated Crake answered and was nearby.  As with my Black Rail encounter, it often is not difficult to be near a rail—it is the seeing of them that is a challenge.  In this case, I was determined. Again, I confess to overuse of playback.  In my defense, this was twenty-five years ago. Most birders are judicious these days regarding disturbing the birds they are trying to see.

I had an old-fashioned tape player. I would play the call, then hit rewind, find the call, and play it again. It was awkward and inconvenient.  I had the tape recorder in one hand, and I was both playing the call and trying not to drop the player in the marsh.  I had binoculars and an expensive camera about my neck, also needing to stay dry.  My footing was precarious.  I am glad no one was filming my fumbling efforts to use my equipment and remain balanced.

Repeatedly, I played the call, and the bird would answer so close I could not imagine why I could not see it.  I continued to shift about. Eventually, I realized the vegetation was so thick that the bird was underneath. I was not heavy enough to compress the thick mat of marshy vegetation to disrupt the rail’s passageways.   My next thought was to move slightly away in hopes that the bird would again approach the call.  I reached out with one foot—seemed solid—then the other—also seemed solid.  I slowly edged away.  Once settled, now about three meters from where the crake had been underneath, I shifted my weight to play the call but lost my balance and barely avoided falling.

Everything below me was sinking and wobbling. I was teetering on top of floating vegetation!  It was thick enough to bear my weight, but this section had separated from the rest of the heavy mat.  I was flailing — throwing around my arms and legs to stay up.  It was like balancing on a six-foot diameter piece of floating plywood.  I did not last long.   I slid into the marsh reflexively raising my arms to hold my electronics and optics above the water…but now I was waist deep in water and muck.  

Waves of emotions hit me—frustration and embarrassment foremost.  I looked to see if anyone was watching.  No one was visible at the nearby house and the taxi driver was too far away.  Quickly, discomfort seeped in along with the water.  It was hot. I was in full sun on a hot afternoon.  Half of me was ensconced in wet and sticky water and mud.  Although well-covered in repellent, insects were swarming. A few were crawling on me.   I was done. “The crake wins,” I thought.

I carefully shuffled my feet and slowly inched toward higher ground. I was fortunate to emerge without stumbling.  I slogged defeated, dripping, and smelly back to the taxi.  It was an old car so maybe the driver did not mind, but my wife did when I returned to our room.  The old tennis shoes I was wearing went to the outside trash, myself, and my other clothing to the shower to remedy as best I could.  I decided I would never see a White-throated Crake.

This was early in my Costa Rican birding experiences, and I have since, seen White-throated Crakes eleven times.   They are so common, that any birder spending enough time will finally spy one walking in the open and that eventually happened. 

In fact, on a recent trip (June 2022), I saw White-throated Crakes so easily, we were annoyed because we were after the much rarer Paint-billed and Gray-breasted Crakes.  Eventually, we saw the other two.   What is different today?  In a word…Bluetooth.   Also necessary is knowing the right person.  

With all my years of experience in Cost Rica I have made many friends among the excellent guiding community.  One of these, Daniel, lives not too far from the Panamanian border.   Sadly, this area is devastated by oil palm plantations* and rice fields.   Plowing, ditching and drainage have eliminated most of the swamplands.   The oil palm areas are dark, pesticide-laden monocultures.   Rice fields, while monocultures, at least must remain wet and still provide habitat.  Adjacent ditches and strips between these fields remain rich with marsh species.   

Daniel has an impressive ability to hear and triangulate on the various frog and insect like calls emitted by the resident crakes.  Residing nearby, he has learned where the remaining local crakes live.   I wanted to see a Paint-billed Crake.

The online resource Birds of the World refers to them as “a mysterious bird, even for a rail, a family full of mysterious species.  Nowhere easy to find…status unclear in Central America, could be accidental, migrant, or rare resident, perhaps overlooked.” Paint-billed Crakes and another rare, nearly identical species are the only members of their genus.

Besides the mystery of their status, unlike most others of their family, Paint-billed Crakes are handsome. They are mostly indigo blue with bright orange legs.  Their bright beaks are red at the base and bright yellow green at the tip.  A few months previously, I was successful having one respond to its call, but much like the White-throated Crake experience, I could not see one.  

I met up with Daniel early one morning.  This was our second outing.  On the first, some months earlier we had tried and failed to hear or see a Yellow-breasted Crake.  We had tried hard.  It is difficult for both birder and guide when such a quest fails.  Daniel had been regularly finding the bird, quite rare in this part of the country. Yet, that evening, it would not cooperate.   Daniel knew I had made an unpleasant drive over poorly marked unpaved roads and would have to return after dark.   I began thinking what a nice afternoon and evening it would have been at the beach.  I considered myself stupid for abandoning my wife for six or seven hours and complicating our dinner plans.  Instead of a relaxing evening I had a harrowing return drive almost colliding with a couple of bike riders on the obscure, dusty back roads.   I certainly did not blame Daniel, but we had parted feeling exasperated.   

Now I was back, and we had heard Paint-billed Crakes in two locations, far out in the swamp.  Daniel shrugged and said something like, “the only way to see one would be to go in there with them.”  I responded, “Let’s go.”  He looked up, surprised. “Really?”  “I’m prepared,” I said.  I had worn a pair of old canvas shoes that I could abandon if necessary.  I had a walking stick for balance.  

Daniel removed his shoes and waded in barefoot.  I followed, our feet slurping and slipping as we moved along.   This was a shallow swamp.  A misstep would not cause a plunge into deep water, but a mucky face plant was still probable. More likely was to lose a shoe in the sticky muck.

After a few minutes, Daniel pointed to a small, narrow ditch dug by one of the big tires of the rice field tractors after having been mired and then digging itself out.  Here is where Bluetooth came in.   Daniel set a small speaker on one side of the ditch, and we positioned ourselves to have an unobstructed view if an approaching crake crossed to find its presumed rival.

It was easy.   These crakes are rarely disturbed.  Hence, they respond readily.   Birding groups do not try for them because it would be impossible for more than two or three people to be in position to see.   Being in the swamp amidst them, even I could hear the crakes.  Two approached and within minutes I had obtained great binocular views.   The lighting angle, the narrow ditch and rapidly running crakes precluded photography but I was, as they say, “a happy camper.”

Driving back, I asked Daniel about Gray-breasted Crakes.  These are detected by their calls now and then, but this species is the rail most difficult to see in Costa Rica.  Detections, most of which are “heard-only birds,” number less than 1000 according to the ebird online database.  In contrast, White-throated Crake detections are nearly 15,000. I had asked other guides about them.  They rolled their eyes and shook their heads. Daniel simply said they were “really hard.”  The fact that he had not shut off the idea, however, clung in my brain.

Back in his part of the country on a family trip six months later, I contacted Daniel.  “What about trying for a Gray-breasted Crake?” I asked.  “We can try,” he responded.

I do not know which part was luck, skill, or prior scouting/preparedness, but a Gray-breasted Crake responded at the first location we tried.   My son in law, Ryan, was accompanying us.  We had borrowed rubber knee boots.  There was also a wide bare spot in the mud for good viewing and the sun was behind us.   Daniel placed the speaker about ten foot distant and across the open space from where the crake had responded.  We did not have to wait long.   The crake did not dash across but sauntered.  I obtained great photos.  This crake is a close cousin of the Black Rail I had listened to so many years ago in Texas; the primary difference being lime green on the lower mandible as opposed to the bill of the Black Rail which is black.  

Gray-breasted Crake (June 2022)

This had happened so fast, I suggested we try again for a Paint billed crake.   Maybe Ryan could see one. Maybe I could obtain a photo.  Initially, we tried near where we had seen them six months ago. No luck.  We drove to another location nearby.   We waded into the shallow marsh.  Here, we had success. A Paint-billed Crake was calling.  We set up as before–the speaker in an excellent location for viewing the bird. We spied movement.  Here it came. But!  It was a White-throated Crake.   Three times the same or another White-throated Crake came into view—the only times I have been disappointed to see a crake.  At last, two Paint-billed Crakes arrived. 

Paint-billed Crake (June 2022)

After three or four brief appearances as they jumped over the bare area, one moved stealthily through the reeds.  The yellow and orange-red beak reminded me of Easter’s candy corn.  The large orange-red feet matched the beak and the color of Cherry Gazpacho!

*Palm Oil is responsible for a tremendous loss of habitat throughout the world. Its production also exacerbates climate change and causes other environmental damage. Here is a site where you can learn how to minimize your own usage of palm oil products: https://rspo.org/



The attractive, mini-skirted, young lady pointed at the thigh-high boots. “I’d like to try on a pair,” she said.  When I returned with the box, she asked, “Just how much help do you give customers when they try these on?” “As much as I can,” I replied. We were laughing because she obviously had no intention of letting me help.

Being good with customers was a skill I learned early at my dad’s shoe store. Dad had the ability to talk with people and listen to them without expressing his own feelings. He let them have their say without agreeing or disagreeing. They found him friendly, not judgmental. Watching him was a great lesson.

He was cognizant of the reputation required to have a successful store in a small town. He reminded me often that “the customer is always right.” Now and then, I would suspect him of suppressing frustration when someone demanded a refund for a pair of shoes that were obviously abused. Fortunately, that was a rare occurrence.

My hometown was composed mostly of people who were hard-working and honest. Most of our customers were farmers. They would “come to town” on Friday night; the only night the stores were open in those days. Those evenings were often quite busy. We would have customers standing two and three deep behind the chairs. Often it would be a family—the parents and some number of children—all needing shoes—except the wife; dad stocked few women’s shoes. We did not have room for the inventory. Besides, Dad’s shoe “department” was a rented space inside of “Hugs Men and Boys Wear.” Our lack of women’s shoes was natural.

Growing up in the shoe business is how I found a part-time job at a shoe store while in college. Lest I give the wrong impression, that was a full-service shoe store. The thigh-high boots, of which they only had a few pair, were a novelty only in stock to demonstrate the comprehensiveness of the merchandise.

I was probably 12 when I sold my first pair of shoes. By the time I was 14 and in high school, I was expected to work whenever needed, which meant every Friday night and Saturday. I had organized stock at the store for a few years by then. Dad would have me unload boxes and put shoes in order on the shelves. It was a fortunate circumstance because whenever I needed a few dollars, I could go to the store and Dad would give me a few hours of work. I became familiar with the stock and easily slipped into being a salesclerk when I was old enough.

I enjoyed the work. When busy with customers, the hours seemed to fly by. Dad always said, “I never minded getting up and going to work.” I could understand this, but eventually, I noticed the restrictions caused by owning a retail business. Working every Friday night and every Saturday does not seem as restrictive these days when stores are open Sundays and every night. But Dad always had to be at the store, more than 60 hours per week. His only help most of the time, was my mother and I, and we were there when it was so busy that more sales help was needed, not to give Dad time off.

Similarly, with no other help, Dad had no vacation. The only time he had two days in a row away from the store was when a public holiday fell on a Saturday or Monday. This was before some of the holidays had been collected on Mondays. For that reason, we loved Labor Day because it was always on Monday.

Dad never complained. This was an easier life than the farm he had grown up on. In addition, many of our customers were dairy farmers. Their cows needed to be milked every day—twice. I think Dad looked around and was grateful he had it so good.

That store served our family well. There was always enough. Dad was lucky to sell out before the onslaught of Walmarts and Footlockers made stores such as his obsolete. He earned enough to invest wisely and then subsequently, to work mostly part-time selling real estate. But, that initial 24 years had plenty of shortcomings. It wasn’t just the lack of vacations; it was also the events missed because Friday night and Saturday were never free.

For example, I received my school’s Scholar Athlete award. The St Louis Post Dispatch had each area school select an awardee to attend a banquet. Speakers and other attendees included the well-known sports personalities of the St Louis area including baseball players and announcers. A couple of the other awardees, already locally famous, went on to professional careers. Only awardees and parents could attend. It was a Friday night and a very busy time at the store. Dad could not go. It was a great event. He would have loved it.  I would have loved sharing it with him. Mom came with me. She was proud of me but had little interest in the rest of the proceedings.

I did not like the hours of my part-time job in college either. I wanted to go to a football game or Saturday afternoon basketball game—not if your job is retail. I was never interested in that life.

The summer I was 13, my mom decided I should not be at home at all but should be working. There was not nearly enough work at the store to keep me busy, so I had to find something else. What many of us did, was work on farms. “Making hay,” we called it. I learned a great deal from participating in this world.

Farmers would wait for what they hoped was a dry and warm period and cut and rake hay, usually alfalfa, but sometimes clover. The hay would be left to dry, then raked into rows and baled. The baling system consisted of a tractor pulling a baler that operated off the PTO (power take-off)) on the tractor. Attached to the baler would be a wagon. On the wagon would be a boy like me, hay hook in hand, ready to snag each bale expelled by the baler. I would pull the bale onto the wagon and then slide or carry it to the back and stack it.

Once the wagon was full, it would be unhitched, attached to another tractor, and pulled to the barn where the bales would be put on what we called an elevator—just a simple conveyer that carried the bales up to the loft. Usually, boys such as me would be in the barn to do the final stacking. I loved working the wagon. I liked being outside. I could hear the occasional calls of Bobwhite quail and Eastern Meadowlarks.  Sometimes a Red-tailed Hawk would soar overhead.

The job was often enlivened by the baling of a snake. I would turn from stacking the previous bale and be shocked from my reverie to face half of a snake swinging menacingly; the rest of its body trapped within the bale. I do not know what the farmers thought of this besides the aggravation of having to stop and dispatch the snake. All those I remember baling were beneficial varieties that helped rid the farm of mice and rats.

Working in the loft sometimes permitted more rest, but the loft was often nasty work. Sometimes, the only window was the one in which the elevator was inserted. The light was dim, ventilation almost non-existent. This was mid-summer Illinois. Days of 90 and 90, temperature and humidity, were common. That’s the way it was. We never thought twice about it. Well, with clover, I did. Clover has a lot of chaff—small particles falling off. An hour of stacking clover bales in a hot barn would have my eyes and nose full of dust and chaff. Worse was that it permeated my clothing. Combined with sweat, there seemed to be nothing else as itchy.

The only farming task that was worse was when I was put in a small shed with only a tiny opening for the “hopper” that was to dump recently harvested wheat. My job was to shovel the wheat away from the wall by the hopper so that the shed could be filled. I had to shovel quickly as I braced myself on my knees on top of the ever-growing pile of wheat. What a dirty job. My eyes, my ears, my mouth were all full of dirt. I spit mud when I emerged. The farmer laughed. He was in his 70s then. This was a once per year job. He had probably done it 50 times.

Typically, however, I liked the work. Most of the farmers were friendly and appreciative that I worked hard.

On my first job, I was almost sent home when the farmer learned I was only 13, but I was able to keep up and after that was never questioned.

I never received instruction on how to work for others, other than my mother reminding me I was getting paid and needed to earn it. I will never forget how on one of my first jobs, I was rapidly unloading bales when the farmer came over and said “s__t-g__damn boy, Rome wasn’t built in a day.” He had decided we needed a rest and a drink. He went over to a well and pumped. Hanging from the handle was a rusty tin can. He filled it and gave me a drink. Rust and all, it quenched my thirst. I never thought twice about it.

My education included the variety of people I worked for. There was one farmer who always hired four of us. One would work behind the baler. One would drive the wagon of bales back and forth and put them on the elevator. The other two would stack the bales in the barn. Bales were fed quickly into the barn, and many were simply put aside to be stacked properly while the next wagon was fetched.

We would get a lot of hay baled and stacked in a hurry. There was little idle time. What I noticed is that the first time I worked on the wagon, the farmer said, “now only stack those bales three-high. That way, the timing should be about right to run wagons back and forth and keep those other boys busy.” This worked well and we usually completed his fields in a single day—at most two.

In contrast, I worked for another man who either by choice or economic circumstances approached the job differently. He let it be known that he was uncomfortable hiring help. He said he couldn’t afford it. He even paid me somewhat less than the other farmers, but I was his only worker, so I received a lot more hours.

I would load the wagon, and then stack in the barn while the farmer loaded the elevator. His instructions were different. “Stack the wagon as high as you can so we don’t have to make so many trips.” This meant a wagon of “seven” or “eight-high,” meaning I would have to terrace the bales so I could climb up and stack them. As the stack grew, the farmer would watch and slow down so that I could get back to the baler before the next one fell off. Although we managed a big wagon load, we probably stacked bales on the wagon at about half the rate as the man who had me do them “three-high.”

Efficiency was not very good back at the barn either. Unloading the wagon meant carefully undoing the big load. The high load inevitably meant a few bales would fall off the wagon while unloading. The farmer had to jump to the ground, put the bales back on, then climb back on the wagon to put them on the elevator. I had no problem keeping up in the loft and would be idle for several seconds in between bales.  All of this meant several days were required to complete the project and a much greater risk of a rainstorm spoiling the hay.

The ultimate inefficiency of this effort occurred early one hot afternoon. I was climbing to the back of the wagon and hoisting a bale to the top of the stack. All the weight at the back of the wagon, which had probably been occurring for many years, was finally too much for the wagon’s running gear. It broke. The wagon bed, now free, flipped vertical throwing me and the bales into the field. I was unhurt. I had scrambled atop the bales as they tumbled and suffered no more than a few scratches. The wagon, however, was now bent and broken. The farmer, always taciturn, looked at the mess and expressionless, said, “yup, can’t use that wagon no more.” Back at the barn, there was an ancient wagon with iron wheels. We had to use it the rest of the time, even though it did not hold even a fourth of the bales.

Eating at the various farms was also an experience. Some farmers I worked for were deeply religious. We were asked to hold hands and grace would be said before every meal. There was another who had stacks of naturist magazines. They were just lying around. He and his wife treated them as if they were the latest issue of Time or the newspaper. This was the mid-1960s! None of us teenagers had ever seen anything like those. As I said, it was an education.

The wife of the efficient farmer I described above, was a great cook. She would serve an enormous and satisfying meal at the end of the workday. But, the wife of the farmer who only owned one wagon, served such a variety of food, breads and desserts; it was incomprehensible. And she would serve such a meal at lunch and again at supper. I always wondered what breakfast was like. 

Meals with the farmer with the naturist magazines were much simpler. There was plenty of food, but it was always the same. His wife would place a big bowl of boiled hot dogs in the middle of the table. Another bowl was filled with potato chips.  There would be a plate of summer sausage and bread and jam but always hot dogs. Is that what they ate when there were no workers?

These farm meals introduced me to roasted cow tongue, head cheese, and blood sausage. Tongue was ok, the rest not!

This was a stoic and taciturn German community. Houses were neat and rows were plowed straight.  Once, I was asked whether I could remain and do some work after dark. This was strange, but they were nice people, and I needed the money, so I agreed. Once it was dark, out came the hay mower. The farmer explained how he had a couple of fields in what was then the equivalent of today’s Conservation Reserve Program. He was receiving federal payments to fallow some acreage for the purpose of protecting wildlife. He couldn’t stand it. “Those fields make my farm look sloppy. I’m going to mow it after dark so no one can see what I’m doing.” My job was to hold a light so he could see well enough to do the mowing.

Most of the farmers treated us well, but there were exceptions. Once I was enlisted to work on a farm owned by a relative of my mother’s. It was inconvenient getting there as I was not yet old enough to drive. On our drive out, mom admonished me to work hard because the father in this family had passed away and now the wife and sons were running the farm.

The eldest son, probably in his early 20s was surly. When introduced, I said the usual, “How’s it going?” He replied, “I don’t know yet.” He put me on the wagon at 11AM. His mother came and got the wagons as they were filled, and younger siblings stacked the hay in the barn. We quit after 7. There had not been a break—not even for a drink of water. Whether the young farmer had water with him, I don’t remember. I just remember how angry my mom was when I told her. She called the farm that night and told them I wouldn’t be back.

Making hay did not take up the entire summer so it was that my mom found other work for me. For a couple of summers, I worked for the County Fair Board which conducted the Madison County Fair. There were several odd jobs suitable for a teenager.

Before the fair started, I was assigned to the man in charge of the concession stand in the exhibition building. His name was Pat. He had me do some clean up and arranging of a few chairs and tables. Then came time to prepare the food. I do not recall anything about permits or inspections. For the most part, we sold fountain drinks and packaged snacks that were consumed in paper cups and with plastic utensils. We also sold chili dogs. The “dogs” went into a device designed for them. No problem there—except those remaining from one night were still on top the next morning. What appalled me was the chili.
The day before the fair, Pat told me it was time to prepare the chili. There were some large commercial-sized cans. These were to be opened and dumped in large pots as needed. “Where are the pots?” I asked. “Hop in the car,” Pat said. “We’ll get them now.” Our town still had an old “locker” or ice plant. Lockers were rented to store frozen food until needed. My family often purchased a “quarter of a beef,” and stored it at the locker. Every so often we would stop by and retrieve whatever of our stored meat we wanted. The Fair Board had a locker and in it were two large pots—probably 30 inches tall and 18 inches in diameter. Each was approximately half full of the two types of chili for the chili dogs. I questioned the source of the chili. “Oh, I bring these back each year. That way I don’t have to buy as much,” said Pat. That’s right. The pots were never washed. They were never emptied.

I never ate any chili dogs and advised my friends against it as well.

Pat’s parsimony with the chili was also reflected by what he told me about selling the fountain soft drinks. He told me to size up the young children and to give them mostly ice with just enough of the soda to color the water. “They won’t know the difference” said Pat.

My other remembrance from the concession stand was that every two hours, it was my job to check and clean the bathrooms. This was the county fair. Those bathrooms were sometimes abused. Once, a woman came in, looked at me cleaning up and said something about being “behind a door” and used the facilities. That was ok, but when I emerged and went directly to the food counter, she was not happy. I had washed my hands, of course, but no one had given me any other instruction. She reproached me for not wearing gloves and for not having different clothing for cleaning bathrooms versus serving food. Later when I told Pat about this, he merely shrugged. “She’ll get over it,” he said.

The worst job, probably the worst one I ever had, was after the fair. This was a farming community. Lots of farm animals had been shown. That meant lots of manure. I worked with two other people. One, Duane, was mentally deficient. He was pleasant but not much of a worker. He had a penchant for doing things he was not supposed to. An example was using the lawn mower which was electric. Duane would inevitably start mowing and then run over the extension cord.

The other worker, to my teenage eyes, was an ancient, wiry, bad-tempered old man. He let me know he was experienced at this work. “Man, the s__t, I’ve shoveled,” he would remind me. All day, we would shovel. Now and then, Pat would come by and hitch up one of the wagons we were filling and haul it off. It was a long three weeks, enlivened only once—when Duane set fire to a pile of tires and the rolling black smoke led to an emergency call from a nearby resident and the subsequent arrival of the volunteer fire department.

The downside of these jobs was that none of them paid well, and except for 4-5 weeks encompassing the county fair, none were consistent. When I started college, I hoped for something better. So did my mother.

After my freshman year of college, I was awarded an “Undergraduate Research Participation Grant” by the National Science Foundation.  This kept me busy at St Louis University where I was attending. There was little pay, and the professor I worked for was a terrible communicator. My summer was one long series of simple lab experiments. Mix A with B and see what happens. If you don’t like the results, try heating it, then try cooling it. Change the proportions. Try a different reactant. Nothing worked, but I did learn a lot about laboratory techniques and the experience guided my intentions to not be any sort of synthetic chemist once I graduated.  I jokingly called my efforts: “Synthesis of crud in high yield.”

The following summer brought serious problems. I was now attending the University of Illinois which ended its semester in June. It was too late to participate in the farm work—which mostly went to those younger than me anyway. I applied for a lot of jobs and worked at the store Friday night and Saturday, but this left me at home far too much for my mother.

I still believe her constant disapproval was unfair. She was angry to have me about the house. She was particularly unhappy if I stayed out late with friends being sure I would not have done so if I had a job.

She must have complained mightily to her father. He had worked for the State of Illinois repairing roads and signs. Surely, he would have connections. One night he picked me up and took me to someone’s home in the nearby village of Millersburg. This man, I realized was one of Grandpa’s drinking buddies, but he knew the secretary of a local construction union.  The three of us went to this man’s house and explained how I needed work. The man said they hired workers from a pool every morning. I should go and sign-up.

I was to be there every morning by 6:30. By 7, they would know how many men were needed and would call the next ones on the list. Then everyone else would go home. A problem was that the office where the morning assignments were given was 50 miles away. I did not have use of a car.  I no longer recall how it was that a classmate of mine was dragooned into the same morass. He had use of a car and I could pay him to take me along. Dutifully, every morning, we awoke at 5:30, drove the 50 miles, waited, and went home. I think we did this for three weeks. There were a few other men, much older, who waited with us. There were no jobs. I think the older men were there to fulfill requirements to receive unemployment pay. It was a waste of time. My mother, however, was pleased. She told everyone what I was doing, and the fact that I could not sleep late seemed to solve most of her problem with me.

Eventually, my grandfather’s political connections got me a job with the state highway department cutting weeds. I had my own scythe! Day after day, we were dropped off along a state highway to cut locations inaccessible to tractors. This was a lot like making hay. I liked being outside and the pay was better. Nearly all the full-time workers, mostly tractor drivers, were local farmers. I already knew several of them. They worked hard. One of my college-age compatriots had long hair and the farmers were merciless with ribald comments toward him. However, the only real drama that stemmed from this job occurred the following December during my winter holiday from college.

Our part of Illinois was hit with a huge ice storm followed by heavy snowfall. This meant lots of roads to plow. The snowplow drivers, some of the same farmers I had worked with in the summer, had already worked long hours. Another big storm struck. It was about 7:00 in the evening and I was visiting a girlfriend when her phone rang. It was my supervisor from the previous summer. It had been deemed unsafe for the drivers to be out that night alone. They needed riders. Regulations did not permit me to drive. I was assigned to the “efficient” farmer I have described above. He would be good company. Because it was night, I was to be paid double-time. By 8:30, we were rolling.  The storm raged all night. My job, besides keeping Wib awake, was to pull a lever to strew salt on the road at intersections. Conditions were horrific. The snow piled up all night long. There was no way to keep up with it.

We would drive our route, and then return to the shed for more gravel and more salt. Wib had already driven the truck all day. By early the next morning, he and some of the other drivers had worked 27 hours without a break. Sandwiches had been handed into the cab when the trucks were re-loaded at the shed.

The storm broke about 9 that morning. The skies, while not clear, had lifted such that visibility was good. I was already on the clock for more hours than the state had allotted. A radio message went out that all the drivers should take a break. A centrally located cafe at a highway intersection was selected. We all met up and ordered breakfast. It was a beleaguered group.

Perhaps you can guess what happened next. Someone drove by on the still icy and snow-packed roads and spied five state trucks equipped with plows in a cafe parking lot at ten o’clock in the morning. The epithets and curses hurled at the lazy state workers wasting his tax money were as bad as you can imagine. I said that the farmers in my hometown were taciturn. This group was also tired. With a disdainful shake of their heads, they just kept on eating breakfast. Our oppressor took the hint and left. I have thought of that incident a lot. Not all public workers are always lazy. They might even be heroic.

The following year, I hoped again to work for the State. The weed-cutting job was not available and, instead, I was assigned to a road and sign crew. Here, I received more education.

These jobs were mostly patronage, meaning that the party in power, the one that had won the governorship, this time the republicans, did the hiring. Because governors came and went (mostly to jail in Illinois!), no one with a real career wanted these jobs. That is why the weed crew, which operated out of a “shed” near my small hometown, was mostly populated by farmers supplementing their income.

The sign and road crew operated from a shed in East St Louis. This was different. Most of the workers were required to have some skill or experience.

The foreman was a former brewery supervisor. He had the most prodigious beer belly I have ever seen. No shirt could cover the bottom of his stomach. He would walk about, a chewed-up cigar stuffed in the corner of his mouth, pointing that bare belly and navel at everyone he approached. Besides his looks, he was not a nice man.

The workers in this group, which I now remember were 100% white in an area that was predominantly black, were not industrious farmers. There were exceptions, but most were people who could not get any other job. Several were alcoholics. A few had been retired and no longer capable or interested in any real work. It was mostly a travesty. (It is important for me to note: few who read this will know who I am talking about, but there was an adult worker from my hometown who was a good man and a solid worker. He was an exception.)

The problem was compounded by recent changes in the patronage rules. The foreman was hired originally because he was a democrat. Now, his workers were hired because they were republicans. Several times that summer, he assigned two volatile workers who hated each other to a shared task. He was delighted the time the morning paper had a photo of two state workers (republicans obviously) having a fistfight on the job. On the other hand, the foreman was careful about the political days at the State Fair. The idea was that the crowd on Republican Day must be bigger than Democrat Day and vice versa. One way to do this was to require, surreptitiously, that all state patronage workers attend Republican Day.  Our foreman, although a democrat, had to look out for himself and his own attendance on Democrat Day.  Plus, he did not want to be blamed for blatant absenteeism.  What he did was forbid three reliable drivers from attending the State Fair. I was assigned to one as his rider.  The foreman had interviewed all the workers, learning where they habitually stopped for coffee and lunch.  He made up routes for the non-attendees and we drove the district all day being sure to stop at every known worker hang-out. I ate lunch twice and drank a lot of soft drinks.

Much of that summer, my job was to fix the delimiters, the reflectors on metal posts that line exit ramps and portions of highways. My driver was too old and decrepit to perform the labor, but he was a passable driver.

About once a week, the foreman would have me load some of the metal posts into his state-provided pickup. “In case you need extras someday, you can call me,” he said. We called him once and he angrily told us to “Do your job and bring enough next time.” Later we drove by his son’s used car lot. There were those posts, supporting the wire fence around the lot.

One of the painters was an especially noteworthy alcoholic. A friend of his would go by a tavern each morning and pick him up already drunk. Once, I was assigned to work with this man. I should not have accepted. His hands shook so badly that I feared for my life as he drove. At our job site, he opened his lunch box and inside was a bottle of Ten-high—a cheap whiskey.

One of the tasks of this “shed” was to paint stripes and edges on the highway. The drivers of the primary equipment were not patronage, but full-time workers. Most of them consistently performed their jobs. Once, however, there was an exception. The crew with the edger did not return to the shed. Eventually, the foreman called the State Police. The workers were found in back rooms at a combination roadhouse/whorehouse. At least in that case, they were fired.

Because much of the equipment was relatively unique, the area assigned to the East St Louis shed was large. This meant some of the projects were “stay-outs,” meaning the crew would work longer days, stay at motels during the week, return Thursday evenings, and have Friday off. I did not feel I was paid enough not to go home at night, but there was a week at the end of the summer when it suited me to be home on Friday. I volunteered for that week’s stay-out. My job was easy. I rode in the back of the truck that did the center striping. I had to keep a box of “beads” full to mix with the paint. These “beads” are the small particles that make center and edge stripes reflective. One incident from that week is forever imprinted in my memory.

One night we stayed in a small village in far Southern Illinois. The area was impoverished. There was nowhere to eat. That evening a couple of us had a stale sandwich at a tiny bowling alley. Now it was time for breakfast. There was another college student on the crew, and we went in search of a cafe. The one we found appeared very rundown, but we entered. A woman approached with menus. We gawked. Whatever your picture of a “hag” is, she was it and more. She seemed old, but who could tell? Her hair was comprised of a white and gray mixture of unkempt tufts.  She was missing some front teeth.

We shuddered and shook our heads but prepared to order. The woman began approaching with two glasses of water. Just then, one of the large black German cockroaches famous in that part of the US skittered across the floor. The woman spied it and with a quickness we did not expect, stomped it.  She looked at us and cackled.  Then she proceeded to put the waters on the table and turn back toward the kitchen. The smashed carcass of the big cockroach lay there for inspection, next to our table. Without a word we arose and left. Our breakfast that day consisted of cheap powdered donuts from a gas station. I have traveled many places and eaten at a few I would describe as “sketchy,” but the worst place I ever saw was this one, less than a hundred miles from my hometown.

I think back on that summer now with amazement. Much was about to happen.  In a few days I was to begin my senior year at the University of Illinois. A year later, I could call myself a chemist and would be living in Arizona with a wife I had not yet met.  I never had to perform jobs such as these again, but I will always be grateful for the many lessons I learned.

That’s Dumb Fred!

The shout echoed in the mountain stillness. Debbie’s southern accent drew out the word “duuumuumb!” 

Later, Fred complained.  He already knew what he was doing was ill-advised…and dangerous. By the time his wife was shouting at him, he was frightened. 

Fred was inching along the top of a cirque.  There was a vertical wall above.  Below was an incline steeper than the angle of repose.  He was moving delicately along a sloping ledge of ice and loose rock.  A slip and he would tumble hundreds of feet into a field of large boulders. 

We had just completed the steep ascent of Red Dirt Pass.  The rest of us had descended through talus and boulders to the bottom of the cirque. Fred had been loath to give up that much elevation. He knew our destination, Peggy Lake, was over the ridge. If he could traverse the cirque up high, he would not have to climb back up from below.   He made it safely, but his route did not save him time and the elevation avoided, he admitted, had not been worth the risk.

Peggy Lake is actually two lakes. The larger is a typical cirque-lake, appearing to emanate from the steep slope from where the glacier carved the basin. This lake drains into a channel that cuts through a ridge into a second, much-smaller lake. Here in Northern Colorado’s Mt. Zirkel Wilderness, Peggy Lake resides at 11,300 ft, just above timberline.

The lakes are surrounded by willow and krummholz, the latter defined as “stunted, deformed vegetation encountered in … subalpine tree line landscapes, shaped by continual exposure to fierce, freezing winds.” I had never seen anything like this before.

It was 1974. Mary and I were on our first multi-day backpacking trip—six nights in the wilderness. We were in a group of thirteen on a trip sponsored by the Wilderness Society (TWS).  TWS led “Way to the Wilderness” trips as a means of publicizing the Wilderness Act in hopes that more acreage would be added. After only a few seasons, the program was abandoned. TWS realized that wilderness areas did not need publicity. Many areas quickly suffered from too many visitors. Indeed, our own group was too large for such a fragile area.

Nonetheless, for us, the trip was special. We had moved from Illinois to Tucson a few days after our wedding three years earlier. Mary’s family had no interest in the outdoors beyond views from scenic overlooks or through a windshield. My family never had time or money to go anywhere. I had never seen a mountain. Our first few months in Tucson, we visited local parks and began hiking. Hiking led to an interest in backpacking. We had no experience and no mentors. Even though we accomplished two or three successful overnight trips near Tucson, a week-long trip in Colorado, mostly above timberline, was daunting. That’s why we signed up to go with the Wilderness Society.

When Mary and I decided to marry, we had little idea where we would live and no idea how important outdoor activities would become. As I think of it now, what attracted us to each other was that nothing we said seemed to have nuance. What I mean is that any shading of definition Mary might have used in a word, was the same for me. We communicated as if we had one of Spock’s “mind-melds” from the old Star Trek series. We had constant, honest, and comprehensive communication. We still have it. How lucky for us that we found each other.  

Mary and my values regarding the world at large and how people should be treated were congruent, but leisure activities were a blank slate. I would have said my favorites were watching baseball and basketball, playing golf, and hunting. In contrast, Mary had been sickly as a young child having missed months of school due to various ailments. Her mother was over-protective. I was shocked when, just prior to graduation, we went to a city park and Mary said she did not think she had ever been in the sun two consecutive hours in her life. In fact, on that occasion, she burned her fair skin so badly I was unable to touch her the rest of the weekend.

Both of us planned to go to graduate school in Chemistry. Apropos of our compatibility, before we met, we had each dutifully applied to three schools, and two were the same: Michigan State and Arizona. (I have related elsewhere why we chose Arizona, GERMANS SUCK! – Birds and More). Arizona was exotic for me. I had never been west of Central Missouri.

I expected graduate school to lead to a career, although I had nothing specific in mind. Mary, who already was a certified teacher, was primarily interested in seeing another part of the country, not being ready to “settle down.” She was particularly motivated not to end up back in her hometown with her parents, their church, and their friends.

We did not meet until October of our senior year at the University of Illinois in Urbana. Both of us had come from long term relationships with high school sweethearts. Hers ended in a failed marriage, mine just……ended. I had few dates in college. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Chemistry certified by the American Chemical Society. There were several lesser degrees in Chemistry. The certified B.S. was the most difficult.  Long class hours were required.  In addition, for portions of two years I had a part-time job. I had no time for a social life.  When I saw other students paired up—even couples studying together, I was envious. I finally was able to have that experience but only for the latter two months of my senior year’s first semester. In January, Mary moved to Chicago where she would complete her requirements for teaching.

Consequently, I was anticipating graduate school not for what I was to learn, but as a time to be a happy young couple. Tucson has an adjacent National Park (then a Monument) and the famous Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. We visited those immediately and noticed signs for hiking trails.

I had hiked as an Illinois Boy Scout, but those were trails on roads. Here, trails went into the mountains. I bought maps. I was shocked that there were so many canyons. Of course, I had heard of the Grand Canyon. Going through Texas on the move to Arizona, there had been a sign for Palo Duro Canyon, but now learning that there were hundreds of named canyons in the mountains surrounding Tucson was a revelation. I wanted to visit all of them.

Everything was discovery in those days. The exotic plants amazed us. It was a few weeks before someone corrected our pronunciations and we stopped saying o-co-til-lo and sa-gwar-o for two of the common desert plants.

We wanted to hike. I asked my dad (SHOEMAN: HOW MY DAD TAUGHT ME TO BE A BIRDER – Birds and More) to order Mary a pair of hiking boots and we set off. There was, however, the problem of how little outdoor activity Mary had done. Although interested, she was tentative.

Most would agree that among my personality flaws is impatience. What was fortunate was that Southern Arizona was so new to me that anything I was able to do was exciting. Accordingly, I was mostly satisfied with our slow start. At first, we only hiked short distances, maybe two miles out and two back.  Mary’s reward was a stop at an A&W Root Beer stand after a successful hike. We had so little money, an A&W was a fancy treat.

Then I suggested camping and backpacking. My camping experience consisted of sleeping in big Army surplus wall tents as a Boy Scout. Otherwise, I had done a week-long canoe trip when a friend and I slept on sand bars, but that was it. I read books and we visited stores, finally buying a second-hand backpacking tent and sleeping bags. The tent was tiny—barely room for both of our medium frames. The first time we went camping, all we brought were thin foam pads. We slept poorly, but we had such an enjoyable time during the day that we tried again.

Finally, it was time for an overnight pack trip. We hiked to an area called Sycamore Flats in the Coronado National Forest. I mostly remember that I was apprehensive. I did not sleep well. What was important, however, was that now “I was a backpacker.” It was a label I dearly wanted. It was the same for Mary.

We did more overnight trips. On one, my anxiety coupled with the poor sleeping conditions resulted in a headache and severe nausea. Once home, I slept soundly and felt fine.

Another time, we became spooked by the heat and decided to turn around. I always worried too much about Mary, so I decided to carry her pack.  I hugged hers in front, with mine on my back as we returned to the car. The hot day and all that exertion caused my fingers and hands to swell. That frightened me enough that I called a doctor that night. Because I did not have a fever, he told me to go to bed.  I was fine the next morning. I realized later that we had walked more miles that day than if we had gone on to our designated camp.  It is a wonder that we continued.

We began to take along a friend of mine from graduate school. He had such poor eyesight; he was unable to drive a car. Having someone else along gave us comfort. Still, on a trip with him, my lack of sleep once again led to nausea. We had an extremely hot hike out and Dave carried extra water and poured it over me whenever we rested. Even with such problems, we had seen enough and experienced enough of the backcountry that we wanted more, but we were still fearful. That is why we signed up for the Wilderness Society group trip.

I began our trip to Peggy Lake, as usual, not sleeping and developing a severe headache which, in the past, had led to nausea and the need to go home. These trips always had a participating doctor—a fact that had comforted us. The doctor was Fred. I went to Fred confident he would give me something for the headache. All he said was, “that happens sometimes, I suggest you just lay still.” Others went fishing that afternoon, but I laid still. I did not want to burden the others nor be embarrassed by my weakness. It worked. Without the tossing and turning, the headache subsided. I slept well that night and thoroughly relaxed into the trip. It wasn’t that I never again had sleepless nights while backpacking, but I no longer feared the headache and never had that sort of nausea again.

It was two days later, now totally absorbed within the trip, that I saw Peggy Lake for the first time. The lake shimmered in its basin. The view was particularly rewarding because of the effort.  High above on the east side was a T-shaped snow field. The setting sun illuminated it to a deep orange. The skies were beautiful. I was thrilled with the exhilaration of being above timberline.

Snow field above Peggy Lake (August1974).

That night…the wind blew. It blew hard. Our tent heaved and sagged against us, but I was so relaxed I awoke refreshed. Upon emerging from the tent, we saw others had not fared so well. The wind had snapped a tent pole in one instance. Two other tents had collapsed when the wind pulled tent pegs from the ground. Most people were exhausted.

The morning was bright and clear. Mary and I walked below camp and down the outlet stream. We observed that we were in the middle of two cirques. The glacier had probably dug the lake below us first and then receded over a short plateau before gouging Peggy Lake.  We reached a cliff and gazed far below into the deep indigo waters of aptly named Blue Lake. Here the stream had cut through deep snow and carved a cave. We could peer through the cave as the water plunged into a series of cascades. It was breathtaking—and all new.

As part of my backpacker/wilderness fantasy, I wanted to catch some trout. Where I grew up, there were no native trout. It was all bass and catfish. The streams were muddy. Being able to catch trout from a “clear, blue mountain lake,” well, that was something I had to do. I had visited several stores to buy just the right fishing gear and lures for this trip. But the fish did not cooperate. Others had caught fish the previous days—especially the three guides. The voluble Fred had been successful, proclaiming that having a fish on the line was “better than an orgasm!” A comment that brought a disdainful look from his wife.

Our second camp had been adjacent to a small stream. To me, it was perfect fly-fishing water. The guides went off with their spinning gear and soon returned with a mess of fish. I had fished but had not even seen any. After failing with flies, I tried my spinning gear too and never understood how the guides succeeded.

Thus, at Peggy Lake I was determined. The wind was still whipping the lake into whitecaps, but I kept casting.  Suddenly, the wind subsided. I cast. There was a tug on my line. I set the hook and soon landed a beautiful cutthroat trout of 2-3 pounds. A few casts later, I caught another. I was the only successful angler that day and “my” fish were a nice complement to dinner that night.

That second dinner at Peggy Lake, however, almost did not happen. This trip of thirteen was mostly compatible. There was, however, one couple that struggled, Stan and Jan. Stan was ok, it was the “couple” that struggled.

Jan apparently had expected less strenuous hiking and guides strumming a guitar and leading sing-a-longs by the fire. Instead, we had some long tough hiking days and guides who either spent the evenings fishing or recounting their hunting adventures. Peggy Lake, itself, was not on a trail. That is how Fred found himself traversing a cliff on an icy slope. The rest of us, while in safer conditions had not found it easy. We had to scramble though boulders and talus. Once through those, the remaining incline was steeper than any section one would find on a constructed trail. We staggered over the ridge. Then, that night’s howling winds disturbed nearly everyone’s sleep.  Stan and Jan’s tent did not break, but the wind had pulled out some stakes requiring a middle of the night resettlement.

Jan had been sarcastic and unhappy the entire trip, but she really let loose at breakfast. She let us know how miserable she was and how much she hated the place. This was to be our only lay-over day so most of us scattered as Jan continued to browbeat her husband and anyone else nearby.

When we returned for lunch, Jan was still griping at Stan. Finally, I noticed him talking with the guides.  Subsequently, he came over and announced that we needed to meet. We sat in a circle as Stan told us there was sufficient time to pack up and move down to Blue Lake. There were trees down there. We would be sheltered from the wind. We would have fewer miles to walk the next day making that part of the trip easier. Jan, he said, was unhappy and wanted to leave. The guides were willing to do whatever the group wanted. We should vote. Stan voted first—to leave.

I do not remember exactly how we were ordered, but Jan was something like the 8th or 9th person in the circle. One by one, everyone after her husband had voted to stay, most remarking on the beauty of the place or the fact that while still breezy, it was now less so. When it was Jan’s turn, she said, “Well, if everybody else is voting to stay, then I’ll vote to stay too.” If looks could kill, Stan would have been guilty of justifiable homicide. We never heard of them again, but I would be surprised if their marriage persisted.

The wind ceased by evening. It was cold enough that there were no insects. We had a pleasant time talking around our small fire.  The guides were locals. Jim, the leader, was a high school teacher. The other two were friends of his, mostly along to go fishing, we suspected. One of them worked as a ranch-hand, and the other worked in construction but only to support his hunting habit. They had a lot of stories and jokes, most of them not worthy of repeating but funny at the time.

Jim was a rafting guide in the summer. He said the previous year, he was guiding a family and in the middle of the trip the husband stood up, waved at the scenery, and said, “Damn my folks for raising me in Ohio! I’m moving out here.” Jim related that within three months, the family, which included a couple of children, had sold what they could and packed what was left and moved to Laramie. The husband had found construction work and now had access to all the hunting and fishing he desired. I have thought of that story often. Mary and I had moved west with the idea that it was temporary, but soon realized we were not moving back.

I never slept better than I did that night and the cold, clear tundra morning was unforgettable. The hike to Blue Lake and beyond was slower and more difficult than Stan had been led to believe when he tried to convince us to depart the day before.  We had several more hours to contemplate the scenery as we descended. If I had never returned, Peggy Lake’s basin would have remained etched in my memory. 

We did return, but not for 28 years. By this time, our now-adult children, Ann, and Adam, not even contemplated on that first trip, accompanied us. We followed the same route.

We made the same steep trek over the ridge that contained the cirque. Peggy Lake sat there as beautiful as ever. The fishing was better. I caught and released many and kept enough for us to have a nice meal of the deep pink flesh of a natively spawned and fed trout.

The next afternoon, Ann and I climbed Table Mountain, the higher ridge to the east. On top, the area lived up to its name. It was flat with scattered rocks and grasses. Many alpine flowers were blooming, especially gentian as this was late summer. From scattered boulders American Pipits perched and called out.  It was wonderful being there with Ann.  We enjoyed and discussed the spectacular views, while we reminisced about our previous backpacking trips when she was a child.  It was a special time.

Peggy Lake from Table Mountain (August 2002).

We walked north and had a beautiful view of Blue Lake below and Twin Lakes to the Northeast. Then we headed south toward Gold Creek basin which we had traversed the day before. Soon we were overlooking Red Dirt Pass. I recognized that it would be a relatively short scramble from the pass to where we were standing. Then one could descend the steep mountainside to Peggy Lake.  This route would avoid both the dangerous traverse Fred had used as well as the steep descent down from the pass and the scramble through boulders and talus and the steep climb we had done both other trips. I was determined to return soon and try the route.

That evening, we walked over to the western ridge because there was an expansive view of Frying Pan Basin below. There was a bear! We had seen one at a distance the day before on the other side of the pass. This one was much closer although we were located several hundred feet above. The bear was in a lush, green meadow. A small stream meandered through it and there were a few small tarns in between.

We lost sight of the bear as it moved off into shrubs and boulders on the south side of the meadow. We continued to watch. In the fading bright light, the small streams and tarns turned to liquid silver.  The surrounding peaks were orange with alpenglow, but we became distracted from the colors as more than twenty elk–mostly cows with calves emerged from the trees. There were also two large bulls with magnificent racks.

At first, the elk fed slowly as they tentatively entered the meadow.  Suddenly, the calves began to play and gambol as if they were lambs. One would race and with a leap, splash its front feet into a tarn, then it would wheel and chase one of its herd mates. The cows tolerated it, but one of the bulls angrily shook its antlers at one of the calves and they gave him a wide berth afterwards.

It was elk recess! The calves had to bed down quietly and hide during the day. Now, here in the twilight, they were free to run and jump and chase. It was a beautiful quiet evening on that ridge. We had seen a bear and now elk playing. The setting was primordial.

Two years later, I was back. This time was different. Three weeks before, I had stumbled while crossing a beaver dam and twisted my knee. The meniscus was torn, and surgery was scheduled. I could not run, but I could walk. The surgeon had told me hiking would not cause additional damage.

My sister had told me that her son, Danny, wanted to go backpacking. My brother’s son, Matt, also wanted to go.  I suggested they fly to Denver. I could drive over from Grand Junction, and we could pick up our son Adam in Ft Collins and go to the Mt Zirkel Wilderness Area.  We planned to follow our original route except we would climb into Peggy Lake Basin from Red Dirt Pass without doing the wicked descent and subsequent steep climb as on our previous trips. 

This time, we also climbed Mt Zirkel on the way. My physical conditioning was excellent. I had been running and participating in races prior to the knee injury. After the injury, I could still use our elliptical machine.

My knee was holding up. I was taking ibuprofen—”vitamin I” as many call it, but it hurt quite a bit descending the steeper portions from Mt Zirkel. At least we had dropped our packs at Red Dirt Pass, so I was not managing extra weight on the descent.

The climb from Red Dirt Pass to Table Mountain, followed by the direct descent to the lake proved easier than I expected. It removed most of a day from the trip. I realized I no longer needed 4 or 5 nights to visit Peggy Lake. Our original route, because of the talus and the steep slope below Red Dirt Pass, never seemed desirable to retrace, hence we had always descended via Blue Lake Basin.  Now, I knew we could go in and out on the same trails. Hiking out from Peggy Lake, being mostly downhill on easy trail, could be accomplished in a single, long, day.

That layover day at Peggy Lake was pleasant. All of us caught fish and we had a few to eat. That evening at dinner, we had a great sight.  A rare Short-eared Owl was hunting the tundra.

The next day we did the steep descent to Blue Lake. Having done it a couple of times, I knew we needed to traverse most of the basin up high, thereby limiting the length of the steep portion. What was important to me is that Adam suggested he do the steepest section while carrying my pack. He had a hiking pole and good balance and did not think it would be too difficult. He knew my knee was much less painful if I descended with reduced weight.

I was relieved for the help. As I watched Adam striding confidently down that steep slope, other images flooded my mind. For fifteen years, we had backpacked together. Where was the little boy I had cajoled with stories and snacks to keep him trudging along? Where was the little boy who cried so heartily when I made him release some frogs, he had caught one night in the canyon country?  For years, I had supported him. Initially, I carried his tent and sleeping bag and all the food. Eventually, he carried more and more until he was going on his own. Now, I was grateful for his assistance—exceedingly grateful to be at Peggy Lake one more time. We had come full circle. I was tired and hurting. I was also overflowing with the area’s beauty. Enjoying my personal thoughts and the experience I was giving my Illinois nephews; I wiped the tears from my eyes and followed.

Then, four years later came THE accident. I have written about this elsewhere.  A backpacking accident in the Grand Canyon nearly took my life (Amazon.com: On Foot: Grand Canyon Backpacking Stories) . My body endured three days of surgery immediately following the accident and afterwards I had more than ten additional surgeries. I spent a month in the hospital and another month in a hospital bed at home.  More than a decade later, I know that my recovery was remarkable. I owe much of that revival to exceptional physical therapists trained at the Institute for Physical Art (IPA) in Steamboat Springs.

I became particularly reliant on Steve, one of the therapists.  By happenstance, IPA was holding a class in Grand Junction while I was in the hospital.  Steve was one of the instructors. It had been a dreary day. It was early November. I had been hurt on a bright day in October and now a winter gloom was settling both outside and in my mind. It was a Saturday. I probably had a therapy session and a visit from Mary, but most of the activity occurred on weekdays. I had spent most of the day alone. There is little on TV that I watch. I was reading. I remember the room being dark and feeling lonely. I heard my name in the hallway and then Steve entered.

He explained that he had to go to dinner with the other instructors and could not stay long but had wanted to stop by. A day or so before, I had met the local surgeon who was going to follow my case and eventually perform a couple of surgeries. He had looked down at me and said, “What devastating injuries. I have never seen anyone recover from this.” I related this to Steve. He shook his head. “You’ll recover. I worked at an orthopedic hospital in Maryland and saw people in worse shape. You’ll run again.” I will never forget his optimism.  It was also a commitment because he knew he was going to be intimately involved in my rehabilitation. Those reassuring words on that dark night were a vital step in my recovery.

The following summer, still with several surgeries to go, I had already done a brief, solo overnight backpack.  In my many sessions with Steve, I learned he was a fly fisherman but because of his work and study schedule, he had not had time to explore the area near Steamboat Springs, which includes the Zirkel Wilderness. “Why don’t we go to Peggy Lake,” I suggested. Accompanied once again by Adam, we left early one morning.

Once again, the weather was perfect, as was the fishing. More than that, my body performed splendidly. Not only was I back at Peggy Lake, but I was back!  Although I had new limitations and was facing more surgeries, that trip was a momentous milestone in my post-accident life.  

I am a happy wilderness fisherman, one year after my accident (August 2009).

I returned to Peggy Lake once more. I had regaled friends of mine with stories of the fishing. One desperately wanted to visit for that reason. My other backpacking friend said he wanted to accompany us but let us know that “I don’t like to fish. I don’t eat fish. I don’t like to watch people fish.” I explained that the hike was long enough, the area big enough, and beautiful enough that he need not worry. We were on the trail at noon, and at Peggy Lake the next afternoon again climbing Mt Zirkel on the way. Weather was good, fishing was great.  My non-fishing friend found plenty of area to explore. 

On our departure, we had a magnificent hike out over Table Mountain.  The tundra was sparkling with dew that accentuated the brilliance of the wildflowers.  The morning was windless. The skies blue with distant fluffy clouds.  It occurred to me, that I was nearing seventy.  I might not be coming back.  I made sure to revel in the magnificence.


I recall a first-grade assignment when I was to print a few words about my family. This was back in the day with super thick pencils and paper with an inch or more space between the lines. After I asked my mom what my dad’s job was, I carefully printed SHOEMAN. That seemed ok to my 6-year-old mind. I had a book about firemen.  We had a mailman to deliver the mail. I even remember milk delivered by the milkman and there was an ice plant with an iceman. My dad worked with shoes so naturally he was a shoeman.  Later, I changed my dad’s job title to the more respectable, or so I thought, shoe-retailer.

It was decades later before I knew anyone else had called Dad a shoeman. Here are excerpts from a column that appeared in the area newspaper, approximately 15 years after my dad sold his business. The author said he was prompted to write after taking his son to the mall where a disinterested clerk handed him several boxes of shoes with a “Here, try these on.” The column, describing his childhood experience, appeared in 1997*:
…when I needed shoes, I’d take a couple of steps across the aisle to Korte’s Shoe Store. Mr. Korte himself would greet me and Mom, sit us down in his comfortable trying-on-shoes chairs and begin the royal treatment.
   While asking how Pop and other members of the family were doing, Mr. Korte would nimbly untie the double knot in my dusty high-top tennis shoes. I had put a lot of miles on them since the last time I’d been in. …. Mr. Korte would check my arches, just to make sure I did not develop flat feet like my brother and need extra support. I did not. Size 5D, he would guess. Then he would slide my foot into a metal contraption that would tell him he guessed right.
  Red Ball Jets… he’d say, “high tops, white, right?” Right, Right, Right.
His store was tiny, so he did not have many shoes on display. But the back room must have been about the size of Mascoutah. No matter what you wanted, he had it in the back room.
  “I’ll be right back, “he would say, and he’d disappear into the back room. He would come back carrying four or five boxes of Red Ball Jets, from a 5B to a 6 ½ D.
  Mr. Korte would lace up each new pair all the way to the top and gently ease my foot into the shoe with the help of the shoehorn he kept in his shirt pocket. He always insisted I try on both left and right.
“Now take them for a test drive,” he would say. He did not mean take a step or two. He meant walk around the store, down around the sport coats, past the BVDs, over by the ties and back.  If the coast was clear, he’d even let me take a run down the aisle. “Go ahead and Jump” he’d say. “that’s what you’re going to be doing in them anyway.”
   I’d jump.
“How does that feel? A little tight? He’d push his thumb around my toes. “Yeah, looks like you could use a little more room.” So, he’d try on another pair and another. Until it was just right.
We’d leave the store, I’d have the new Jets on my feet, ready to go. And the old ones would be tucked into the box in the crinkly paper Mr. Korte had tucked around them. The shoehorn that was in his shirt pocket came home with the shoes, too.
   Now that’s a shoe man.

Despite a few exaggerations (Dad would not have needed to bring out such a range of sizes.), the column accurately conveys my dad’s work ethic. Dad taught me that to be successful, be scrupulously honest and work hard.

Dad always reminded me with kids’ shoes, frequently, those Red Ball Jets, “always fit them a half-size too big so they can grow into them. We want them to last all year.” Even if there was slight slippage in the heel, dad would tell the parent, “After he wears them a bit, the heel will conform to the foot as he grows. They’ll be fine.” No wonder we often had people tell us our shoes “wore longer.” We fit them that way.

Moreover, Dad’s mark-up was low. We would marvel at how much the same shoes cost in nearby St Louis. There were reasons for that. Dad’s overhead was low. He never had full-time help. Most of his part-time help was Mom or me. He did not even own the area that contained his store, which he called Korte’s Shoe Department because it was rented space in what was mostly a clothing store.

The columnist marveled at how much stock my Dad had saying there must have been a “back room the size of Mascoutah.” [Mascoutah is a nearby small town.]. Little did he know. Dad rented a ramshackle little building down the alley and across the street. He also kept shoes at our home in the garage. It might be 10 degrees in January, or raining, but after determining what our customer might need, we often would run out the back door, down the alley, across the street and into the “other building” as we called it—unless we had to jump in the car and race home.

At one point, another shoe store opened. It was part of a chain. That worried us because they carried the same brands. Would those brands keep selling to us? With only one store, our volume could not match a chain. I remember one of our suppliers telling me after the other store folded, “I told them they were up against a hard-working man.”

Dad was from a large farming family. They were not well-off. In comparison, working at his store six-days and one evening a week was easy. There were no animals to care for. No outside chores on frigid days. He even had an entire day off.  It did not seem to matter that he never had a vacation. The only time he had two days off in succession was when national holidays such as Christmas fell on Saturday or Monday.

Dad’s early life must have been hard. He seldom spoke of it. I remember him saying once that he didn’t know if they (meaning his parents) “knew he was around most of the time or not.” He was in the middle of nine children and his father had a problem with alcohol. It would be easy to “get lost” as he put it. When pressed for stories, I did not receive many. I recall him telling me one Christmas there were no presents and he cried, but then his mother gave him part of a pencil she broke in half and sharpened.

Another time he talked of his dad “renting some ground,” (a piece of land was always referred to as “ground”) in Shoal Creek bottom, and how he had to take a wagon over there and cut weeds out of the corn and sleep and eat there for a few days. I have been to insect-laden locations from the tropics to Alaska and I am not sure anywhere is as bad as Shoal Creek bottom in the summer. It must have been miserable.

In addition, Dad was drafted to fight in World War II early in 1943 when he turned eighteen. Dad never wanted to talk about the War, only referring to it as a “big waste.” The only time I saw him animated when talking about military service was when I suggested there be a rule that only those older than fifty had to fight. “That’s a great idea,” he said.   “That would stop it!” We eventually gleaned that Dad had seen stacks of bodies on the beach at Normandy, that he’d been adjacent to a man shot by a sniper in a mess line, and that he’d been pressed into service as a medic during the Battle of the Bulge because so many had been killed.

Later in life, he seemed nonplussed at the attention veterans received. He had the experience of being included in an “Honor Flight,” where surviving veterans were feted with a trip to Washington DC. He marveled at all the young people “thanking him for his service.” “I did what I was told,” was his response.

I am sure he did. Our Mom deserves credit for this as well, but my siblings and I grew up instilled with a sense of responsibility, integrity, and an expectation that one does a job correctly or not at all.

In looking back, I also learned a great lesson from Dad’s approach to sports—or any contest.  Dad and I could compete in golf, pool, or ping-pong and try as hard as if it were the World Series but winning did not seem that important. It was the fun of trying hard and competing. It was a good lesson for me, because it seemed as if every team, I was part of lost most of its games.

Friendly competition was a primary family trait.  It was strange for me to learn later that in most families, holiday get-togethers consisted of sitting around and talking. That was not something Dad enjoyed. He would stand up and suggest shooting pool, playing cards, or a board game.

Gene Korte, 1978

He particularly enjoyed learning the intricacies of bridge.  Often on Fridays, he would receive a ride from his Assisted Living Complex to a local community center where he would play bridge. In our hometown, few contests existed without money on the line. It would not be much, but it was part of the fun. The last time I talked to him it was a Monday morning.  I asked if he had played bridge the Friday previous. “I did,” he said. “And I won. I brought home a couple of bucks.” At lunch that day he aspirated some food into his lungs.  He succumbed to the resulting pneumonia later that week.**

As for non-competitive outdoor activities, a suggestion of a walk for the sake of walking often received the comment, “I got enough exercise in service!”  Dad enjoyed seeing ducks on his pond and birds at his feeders but never cared to learn about them. On the golf course, we would frequently see Killdeers, and no matter how often I named them, the next time, he would again say, “There goes a snipe!” Driving past swamplands on the way to St Louis, Dad would spy the herons and egrets and, no matter how often I had reminded him, he would remark about all the cranes.

At his bird feeder, to him there were three species: Cardinals, sparrows, and not-sparrows. When I was in Illinois to visit, I would point out the difference between the non-native House Sparrows on the feeder, and the native White-throated Sparrows feeding underneath. He would nod appreciatively but would have forgotten by my next visit.

How could this man have taught me to watch birds?

My hometown of Highland, population four thousand at the time, housed a few commuters to St Louis, but was essentially a Southern Illinois farming community. For most of my growing-up-years, Dad had the only shoe store. Like most of my peers, I wanted to go hunting whenever I could. I was gifted a 12-gauge shotgun for Christmas during my eighth-grade year. My favorite hunting partner was my dad, but he had almost no opportunity to go. My mom and two younger siblings also deserved his time. Sunday morning was for weekly mass leaving little or no time for Dad to go hunting with me. (Saturday evening mass as a substitute for Sunday morning, did not begin until I had left home.)

We did manage an occasional hunt for rabbits after church on Sunday morning. Unfortunately, my favorite hunting was for squirrels which is best if you are in position pre-dawn. Not only are squirrels more active at that time, but most days become breezy about 8:30 or 9 when seeing a squirrel moving in the trees becomes more difficult. Between church on Sunday and the store opening at 8 or 8:30 AM every other day, squirrel hunting the way I wanted to do it, was not possible for Dad.

We went squirrel hunting once. It was an August morning before I left for my second or third year of college. I do not recall if Dad opened late that day or, more likely, Mom opened the store and my brother watched our sister for a couple of hours.

I had often hunted squirrels with friends, and a couple of times with one of Dad’s younger brothers. I was going to show Dad that I really knew what I was doing. Even if he had hunted squirrels growing up, it had been more than 20 years by now.

There were no patches of forest or woodlots near my hometown.  Instead, any place with trees was a “timber.” We went to a location within the “Grantfork timber” that I knew well—or thought I did.

With squirrel hunting, usually you hunt separately, as we did. I carefully described the woods to Dad, telling him where he ought to try. We entered the woods and I suggested we meet back at the same place at a pre-determined time, probably about 9:00.

Here is what I remember: I was excited to be hunting with my Dad and determined to be successful. Squirrel hunting requires stealth with little movement. I knew that, but I had a tough time sitting because after a few minutes of seeing nothing, I would begin to believe that the clump of hickory nut trees fifty yards away was better. I would move. I would see no squirrels and begin to think that the oaks over the hill were better, and I would move again.

I kept in mind the locations I had told Dad to hunt so I did not move toward him. After a while I heard a shot. I only have one good ear so I cannot tell direction of distant sounds. I assumed it was a hunter on an adjacent property.

I kept moving from place-to-place. I never saw a squirrel. Eventually, I heard another shot. The idea that Dad might have taken these shots did not occur to me. My conviction was that on this morning, in these woods, the squirrels were not moving, or they had been hunted too hard and thinned out or were too wary.

I was frustrated and anxious and a little late to our meeting location. I walked there and looked for Dad. I saw him sitting—just where we had split up. I said, “Sorry, have you been waiting long?” He said, “No, I’ve just been sitting here.” “Lousy hunting, wasn’t it?” I said. To my amazement, he picked up two squirrels.

How could this be? I was the mighty hunter who knew these woods. I quizzed him, “Where?” “How?” He said, “Right here.” “Here?” I said in disbelief. It did not look a good place to me. I had told him where to find the Oaks and Hickories where the squirrels feed. There were mature trees all around, but no nut trees. Dad replied, “Well, this was a nice place to sit, and a nice morning, I liked just sitting and looking around. After a while, I saw a squirrel move. It came close enough.  I shot it. I was comfortable, so I sat back down and after a while, another squirrel came into view.  I shot that one too.”

I had worn myself out trying every “great” place in the woods and had found only frustration. I had not had a particularly enjoyable time. Dad clearly did not care if he saw or bagged a squirrel. Free time in the woods on a beautiful morning was a rare thing for him, and his priority was to enjoy being there. I have never forgotten the lesson of that hunt. Sometimes when I am watching or looking for birds, I become anxious, thinking the day may be a failure, or that I should be somewhere else. Often, I think of Dad and that squirrel hunt. I realize, I need to slow down. Sit down. Maybe this is not the best location but sit down anyway. Something might happen. I have had some of my best bird and wildlife encounters that way. Thanks Dad!

*Excerpts from “Its comforting to be solemates with a shoe man,” Patrick Kuhl, Belleville News Democrat, June 6, 1997. 

**Dad died October 28, 2015. He was 91.


Mary cried all Wednesday–the day before our first trip to the interior of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula.  Upon arrival at the colonial city of Mérida and finding our small hotel, we walked to Santa Ana Square, planning to eat dinner. We quickly learned Thursday is fiesta night.

There were street vendors, live music, and dancing. The restaurant we had chosen was packed. We were relieved to find two inside seats next to a noisy bar at an adjacent establishment.

The waiter took our order, began to turn, shook his head, leaned back toward us and in perfect English, said, “Why?” “I have to ask. Why?” He had recognized we were from the US. This was the Thursday after Donald Trump had been elected President.

A year later, at the small ruin of Becán near the village of Xujpil, a man sweeping some ancient steps, tested our Spanish by asking if we were from the US. When we responded affirmatively, he humbly asked if we thought people in Mexico were bad. He wanted to know if all Americans thought the way our President did. What about us? How did we find the people we were encountering? Did we believe what our president said about Mexicans? We assured him we were ashamed and embarrassed as were many North Americans.  Indeed, we were proud to tell him this was our second trip in 13 months to small villages and ruins in the Yucatán, and everyone we met had been “muy amable.”

In truth, before the first trip, we had trepidation. Mexico’s reputation for corruption and violence worried us. I tracked down an ex-pat—a birder who had lived for a decade in Progreso on Yucatán’s northern coast. I called her. We spoke at length. Two comments from her stood out. She said the only murder she could remember in 10 years was between two Canadians. Second, she advised that when driving in rural areas while birding, “if you see a side road you want to try, go ahead and do it. It will be safe.”

Sadly, violence has spread to the eastern coast of the Yucatán. There are too many people and too much money flowing through Cancun and the Riviera Maya not to attract the drug cartels. We had no intention of going near that area. We knew it from trips to Isla Cozumel in the 1980s. To those familiar with the area today: imagine—my 1984 journal entry describes arriving at Playa del Carman on a small ferry and noting only one person, “a nearly naked girl,” sunbathing on the beach. Now there are numerous hotels, even casinos, and people everywhere.

We also visited Tulum in the early 1980s. There were no hotels. There was no entrance fee. No restaurants. There were a couple of local vendors selling handicrafts and a handful of tourists. A quick internet search now yields dozens of hotels. The area is also known for gourmet dining.

We snorkeled at Xel Há. We were the only visitors. The pool was at the end of a potholed, unpaved road. Now, it is part of a major resort with a daily entry fee exceeding $100. The same was true of Akumal. Then, a couple of small palapas served a simple lunch of fish, vegetables, and a beer. Now, besides massive hotels, there is a major residential development with high rises and time shares. Fortunately, as my ex-pat contact had informed me, the interior of the Yucatán has not yet succumbed to the tourism juggernaut.

We rented a car from a local garage in Mérida. They did not require any paperwork beyond what we had provided by email. A man met us at the airport, handed us keys and told us to call when we needed the car picked up. He was walking away. I asked, “Don’t you need to be paid?” “Pay me when you return,” he said over his shoulder. The thought that we had been handed a stolen car did cross our minds, but this business had great reviews. Two years later, we confidently rented from them again.

That first night we arrived hungry, several hours after dark. Our small hotel in Mérida was 5 or 6 blocks from Santa Ana square. “Can you call a taxi; we asked the proprietor?” “It is faster if you walk,” he said. “It is safe.” That was the first of many nighttime walks on those streets during our two visits to Mérida. The streetlights are dim, the buildings tall and mostly dark. Occasionally, some locals would pass us, but mostly there was no one else. Were we lucky? Were we naive? In many US cities, I would have felt less secure. The next year we stayed in Campeche City, on the west coast of the peninsula, and had the same experience.

It is risky to generalize because Mérida shares the same problems with any large city. Nonetheless, it was notable when, two years later, at a small cafe, we talked to the owner-chefs who had recently moved after more than a decade of living in Miami. He was French. She was originally from Mexico City. They had two teenaged sons. They related how they had visited Mérida and decided it was a much better place to raise their sons than in the US.

Our comfort with the people and the countryside only increased as we traveled. On that first trip, we spent most of a day with two young men who had a three-wheeled scooter with which they could carry two passengers in the back. We hired them from a street corner in the village of Homún to take us to some cenotes. They enjoyed it as much as we did, bouncing down the dirt roads, then swimming, telling jokes, all with much laughter.

Some cenotes have concrete steps, some have steel ladders. These boys took us to one with a rickety ladder fashioned from tree limbs. Though shaky, it seemed stout enough. Mary and I gingerly began our descent. One of the young men, impatient with our slow progress, scooted out on a large vine and flipped into the water. We had each of these locations to ourselves.  We had agreed on a price but had not discussed how many cenotes we would visit. After swimming in three, it was late; we had to leave.  Both of our hosts were visibly disappointed. They had planned to take us to one more.

Another time, at the small ruin of Xlapak, where afternoon birding had been enticing, I asked the guard if it was possible to enter at 6AM, two hours before opening. The gate could easily be stepped over and I promised to pay him as I left. “I’ll meet you,” he said.  And he was there at 6AM. Later, the Canadian woman who owned the cabin where we were staying said, “I hope you gave him a big tip!”  She enjoyed the local people, she said. Her workers were invariably dependable and honest. As for the guard at the ruin, she said, “They are not paid nearly enough for what they do.” This was true. We had observed how clean and well-kept were these minor ruins. I suppose the guards had little else to do. We usually had to sign a register. Sometimes it had been a week since the previous visitor. Nonetheless, the jungle grows aggressively. Leaves fall throughout the year. There would always be maintenance to perform, besides ensuring that no looting or vandalism occurred.

In the beginning, our exploration of ruins had been the usual. The first one we visited from Mérida was Chichén Itzá. It is magnificent. I had wanted to visit because of its history and a sense of sex and mystery I remembered from an old movie: Against All Odds.

Wary of the expected crowds (~two million annually, pre-covid), we arrived before opening and were through the gate before most tourist buses unloaded. We were able to spend a peaceful half-hour at the famous cenote as I endeavored to listen for the difference in the vocalizations of the nearly identical Tropical and Couch’s Kingbirds.

Vendors were everywhere. There were hundreds. We marveled at how many there were and how so many sold the same wares. How did any of them earn a useful amount of money? As bus after bus unloaded, some portions of the ruins became packed shoulder to shoulder. We were happy to have visited, but also ready to leave.

Next, we visited Uxmal, nearly as famous as Chichén Itzá and deservedly known as the major ruin with the most intricate decoration.   Believed to be completed near the zenith of Mayan civilization, the buildings such as The House of Turtles and the House of the Magician have ornate friezes and carvings.  The setting, because there are some hills, allows one to comprehend the totality of the site, something inhibited at Chichén Itzá because climbing on pyramids at these sites is now prohibited.

During our trips, we visited several large ruins. For example, Edzna, near Campeche City and Ek Balam near Vallodolid are major ruins even if visitation is sparse.  At the latter, a guard at the entrance asked if we were from the US. He said, “no one ever comes here from the US.” In fact, after each of these trips, Mary and I questioned whether we had heard any English spoken so long as we were at a location not frequented by tour buses from the Riviera Maya.

We discovered minor ruins by accident. We had an unexpected free afternoon during our initial visit to Mérida. We were already on the Northwest side of the city having visited a wetland to look for birds. I noted a ruin on our map, Sihunchen, that was only a few miles outside the city. Our gps unit recognized a hamlet, San Antonio Chel, close by the ruin, so we decided to see what we could find.

Once out of Mérida, we found ourselves off pavement driving through tropical dry forest. Road conditions required slow driving and we were rewarded with a perfect view of a Lesser Roadrunner.  It obligingly stopped for inspection and a photo before darting into the bush.

Arriving at San Antonio Chel, we saw a small church on a public square but no one on the street. A road from the square seemed to head in the correct direction so we continued, hoping there would be a sign at the ruin. After a few miles, we saw a sign for rental cabins, but otherwise only more dry jungle.

A few minutes later, we chanced upon some men repairing a bridge. We were able to communicate sufficiently to understand that the location with the cabins was our destination. Upon return, we found the gate locked. I was bold enough to climb over the fence. Almost immediately, I spied a workman raking leaves. He waved me back, gesturing that he would open the gate for us.

Once inside, the man pointed at a small interpretive sign and returned to his work. We had a wonderful afternoon. There were a few cabins that appeared in good condition. Possibly these were used at other times of the year or maybe reserved for groups.

Now, however, we had encountered Sihunchen as our first minor ruin available for solo exploration. The trails among the small building sites were clear. There were helpful interpretive signs that we could read with our basic Spanish.

Site Description at Sihunchen

There was limited restoration.  We climbed one small pyramid that only had enough vegetation removed for a single path to the top. How amazing to have this place to ourselves.

Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of wildlife. I was excited to see my first flock of Ocellated Turkeys. Considering their riotous colors, this bird may be the Americas closest contender to peacocks. We saw hummingbirds, mixed flocks with up to seven species of neotropical warblers, and many flycatchers including, appropriately, the endemic Yucatán Flycatcher.

It is no longer easy to have such a sense of discovery when traveling. The visit to Sihunchen was a rare example—climbing a fence, having a gate unlocked, and a ruin to ourselves. On a later trip, although entrance to the site was open, the guard opened the fabulous stucco frieze at Balamku.  The frieze, depicting Mayan rulers and a sacred mountain is 16.8 m (55 ft) long and 1.75 m (5.7 ft) high.

Our interest in the Mayans had begun with those early trips to Cozumel in the 1980s. I had read John L. Stephens’ famous books (Incidents of Travel in Yucatán, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán) describing his explorations with illustrator Frederick Catherwood in the 1840s.  I had acquired and read translations of books written near the time of the Conquest and several by more recent explorers.

Recent decades have been rich with new discoveries. Mary and I read articles and watched documentaries as they appeared. Indeed, between our early visits in the 1980s and our recent trips, a young researcher proved that the glyphs on Mayan stellae (large rock slabs) and on buildings were language, a history, not simply names and dates as had been assumed.

It was remarkable to learn that the young researcher who had deciphered these writings was spurned until the old guard of Mayan researchers passed away. I have always believed we should listen more to younger voices; here was another example.

All this explains why, on our third trip, we were descending into Aktun Usil with Lourdes. We had met Lourdes at Oxkintok—a small ruin southwest of Mérida. We were fortunate to have good directions. The road was an obscure track. The small sign for the ruin, unattached on one side and hanging sideways from the other, was not visible from the highway.

As with most small Mayan ruins, Oxkintok had a small guard house where a fee was collected. Then, we were free to explore.

For a ruin such as Oxkintok, archaeologists and anthropologists had, of course, been there before us. Thus, from the internet, we could find maps and explanations. From our studies, we understood the differences in the various Mayan periods and could compare architectural styles from site to site.  Often some stabilization and restoration had been accomplished, but unlike the highly-publicized and well-known locations such as Chichén Itzá , at minor ruins such as Oxkintok, we could climb the small pyramids and enter most of the buildings.

Most of the locations were safe enough.

Becán has larger pyramids than most of the small ruins but they are so steep that thick ropes are suspended to use for safety. Climbing those was exhilarating. From the top, in the far distance, the great pyramids at Calakmul were visible.

The only time I was fearful was at the ruins of Xpujil.  I climbed interior steps to the top of one of the structures.  The steps were of such great age and use that they were worn into a downward slant.   They were also thick with dust. The ascent was not too bad, but coming down, the fine dust filled my eyes in the already dim stairway. The slippery and thick layer of dust combined with the angle of the steps was precarious.  The tunnel was just wide enough that I could not brace myself against the sides. There were no handholds.  I was unnerved.  If I had slipped, I would have tumbled all the way to the bottom. I was relieved to emerge safely. It was fascinating to wander these sites on our own, giving us both a sense of discovery as well as wonder at the sophistication in construction exhibited by the Maya. 

Lourdes, a young lady with strongly Mayan features, had been at Oxkintok’s entry displaying photos of paintings. We believed she was offering to guide us through Oxkintok, so we declined. However, on departure, we realized we had seen nothing like her photos. She was talking to the guard, so we approached and asked where the paintings were. How had we missed them? Finally, we understood they were at a nearby site, in a cave actually. Showing that site was her guiding gig. “Why not?” We thought.

Lourdes had a bicycle but gestured that she needed to board our car. We cleared space for her, and she directed us back down the road about a mile and onto a little-used dirt track. Plants and brush were rubbing against the undercarriage and then we emerged onto a limestone slab.  I looked quizzically at Mary, not wanting to blow a tire on the sharp rock and wondering how far we had to go.

Abruptly, Lourdes told us to stop. We followed her through the brush toward a small hill below which was an opening to a cavern.

Mary and Lourdes Entering the Cavern

Ultimately, we learned the site, Aktun Usil, had been featured in an article in National Geographic. With a strong flashlight, we could see carvings and paintings on the ceiling and walls. It became apparent, and as explained to us by Lourdes, this cavern, now dry, had once been a cenote and water source. As we wandered the cave, Lourdes showed us small carved shrines and recent offerings because the cave was still sacred to some of the locals. Certainly, others have seen Aktun Usil, but our unexpected, private tour was a treat.

Large Stone Face Carved into the Cavern Wall

As we returned Lourdes to her bicycle, we told her we were going to Chacmultun the following day after spending the night in Santa Elena. She suggested we not return to the highway but continue on the road past Oxkintok. We could bisect an area of jungle we would otherwise have had to circumnavigate.

The map on our gps showed no road but depicted the little dot representing our car as passing through a green expanse. A few times, vegetation scraped both sides of our car. Meeting another vehicle would have been problematic. Luckily, we encountered no one and emerged onto the highway, saving considerable driving time.

Chacmultun, in contrast to Oxkintok, was not a collection of buildings on a plain, but several groups of structures including one upon a rare steep hill. Having more natural relief here, building on the heights yielded the advantage of a pyramid without the need to construct one. We spent most of a day exploring and climbing on the buildings. Birding here was excellent and we saw no one else.

Our favorite large ruin was Calakmul. Current studies are revealing both how large the site is and that Calakmul was likely more important than Chichén Itzá, Uxmal and the other more well-known locations.  Calakmul is also a Biosphere Reserve; the largest intact forest in the Americas besides what remains of the Amazon. Located on the border with Belize and Guatemala, the site is two hours from a main road and 1 1/2 hours from a hotel.  Thus, there are no souvenir vendors nor many visitors.  Because so much is unexcavated and unrestored, combined with its remote location, Calakmul combines the sense of discovery of the minor sites with feelings of mystery and magnificence because of its size and complexity.
The tallest pyramid at Calakmul is an impressive 55m, nearly twice as tall as the Pyramid of Kukulkan (30m) at Chichén Itzá.  And this pyramid could be climbed. The views were magnificent: a vast expanse of dark, green jungle broken by an occasional mound—signifying another ancient site.

View from Calakmul’s Largest Pyramid

Wildlife was abundant: Ocellated Turkeys, Great Curassows, deer, foxes, agoutis, spider and howler monkeys. I also enjoyed an excellent view of a Black-throated Blue Warbler—a species which nests mostly along the US-Canadian border.

Visiting such a variety of sites allowed us to observe how the architecture became more intricate and then declined in conjunction with the progress and decline of the Mayan civilization. The so-called pre-Classic period began about 250CE. Their civilization reached its zenith about 900CE and then declined precipitously. The collapse occurred before the Conquest resulting in much scholarship to understand why. Overpopulation, overexploitation of the shallow soil and drought have all been blamed and collectively these provide a lesson for hubristic societies today.

Besides the quantity and richness of the lesser-known ruins, we had under-appreciated the Yucatán’s wildlife and birding. Near the small town of Chuburná, we visited wetlands replete with a variety of herons, shorebirds, and large flocks of American Flamingoes. South of Campeche, we found a tiny beach area where, while swimming, we saw an endangered West Indian Manatee.

Jungle birding was excellent. I realized virtually any species found in Belize, a popular destination for birders, is found in this area of Mexico.  Examples are near endemic rarities such as Rose-throated Tanager and the poorly named Gray-throated Chat (It has a bright red belly).  I found the latter by recognizing the correct habitat off of a side-road near the ruin of Dzibilchaltún. 

This area is also the primary wintering grounds for many neotropical migrants such as Magnolia Warblers and Least Flycatchers which were abundant.  Besides these, there are also several endemics—species found nowhere else. Many have names beginning, appropriately enough with Yucatán: Yucatán Flycatcher, Yucatán Jay, Yucatán Nightjar and more.

Our most extraordinary wildlife experience, however, was the “bat volcano,” located 1 ½ hours east of Escarcega, almost to the village of Xpujil.  More than three million bats emerge each evening.  The bats reside in caverns at the base of a steep cylindrical sinkhole approximately 50m deep and an equal distance in diameter. Near dusk, bats pour out of the fissures that surround the bottom of the deep hole. There are so many bats the breeze caused by their wings is felt on the bodies of on-lookers and rustles the leaves in the trees.

As usual, however, it was birding, the elusive Rose-throated Tanager, which led to our memorable visit to the small village of Xocen.   Via Facebook, I messaged the “Yucatán Jay Birders Club.” I had noted interesting birds listed by the club posted on eBird.   The “Club” was born when some young men from the village recognized there were unusual birds on their lands. They realized birders like me would pay for access and for help finding the birds. The young men from the village were all busy but fortunately, Joel, a young guide from Mérida, worked with the group and was available.

Once Joel and I had agreed upon dates and fees, I asked whether there would be anything of interest to occupy Mary while I was birding.  Entertaining non-birders was part of the plan, it seemed. Joel said Mary should certainly come along.

We arrived at the village early one morning and followed Joel to a small traditional hut. As with elsewhere in the Yucatán, traditional Mayan villages are disappearing. Modern buildings already had a significant presence and had lined the entrance road. The little compound we were led to had several traditional huts made of sticks packed with mud and thatched with palm fronds. Mary was introduced to a couple of ladies in traditional Mayan clothing. Joel and I went birding.

The birding was everything I hoped for. We quickly found a female Rose-throated Tanager. I was excited to see the rare bird, even though females are a dull yellow brown. We found many other species, mostly wintering neotropical migrants such as Hooded and Worm-eating Warblers. As noon approached, I was beginning to think that was all we would find.  Fortunately, in quick succession we found a male Rose-throated Tanager and my other major target, Gray-collared Becard. I was elated!

As we returned for lunch, I wondered how Mary’s morning had been. She was happy but said she had felt awkward.  The ladies showed her crafts and she had bought a few, but mostly, she observed as they performed their normal routines.  She learned how the village ladies had pooled scarce finances and purchased their own grinder for corn. Corn tortillas are the dietary staple and each morning, a bag of previously par-boiled corn is ground into masa for use in tortillas. Mary also observed the slaughtering and cleaning of the chicken that went into a pot for our lunch.  Mary said she felt warmly welcomed, but that it was embarrassing to have a part in turning an ordinary day of a fading culture into a “show.”    In fact, the corn-to-tortillas process was something we were privileged to observe. Although these tasks are performed throughout Central and South America, and have been for centuries, they are disappearing.

There was a small griddle set at an angle over a wood fire. Here is where the grandmother sat on a small stool most of the day.  She would grab some of the coarse masa dough and deftly form a golf ball sized piece and pat it down with her fingertips to form a flat thin disk from the center out. The tortilla was then tossed on the griddle as she reached for another handful of masa. With timing learned over generations, she would reach for the tortilla at just the right time and flip it to cook the other side as she prepared the next. When finished, she removed the tortilla from the griddle and tossed it on a pile.

We ate first and were provided with forks. I noticed the family simply used their tortillas as both food and utensil. Although still common throughout Mexico and Central America, it was exciting to participate in the real thing, sitting with the family, watching the tortillas made and eating a stewed chicken as they had done for generations.

How long will these practices persist? How long until it becomes solely a reenactment performed for tourists? Already, one of the younger generation in this family had constructed a separate dwelling—out of concrete blocks and including electric lights.

Others had left for school or for jobs that morning on their motorcycles. What will happen when the grandmother passes away? Will the younger generation simply buy mass-produced tortillas at the local OXXO store that we had passed on the entrance road? Will they buy their chicken there too?

I had seen their milpas, patches of corn, while birding. Among the housing and cooking structures, were herbs and food plants in small pots. But, we also saw encroachment of modernity. Traditionally, bones and inedible trash are thrown in the jungle. Native creatures soon made this human detritus vanish. Unfortunately, now that products wrapped in plastic and foil have found their way into the village, these now fluttered from nearby bushes. While birding, I had observed unsightly piles of garbage dumped randomly. Will the younger generation realize in time how much such practices threaten their future?

That afternoon, Joel took us to meet the head of the village, an elderly man. I should note here that I asked Joel if a tip was expected and he replied, “No, we are just visiting.” As we toured the village, we never saw a hint of anything but pride in their culture and pleasure that we had come for a visit.

The village elder and his family had a compound separate from the rest of the village and town. There were several traditional thatched huts and covered outside basins for doing laundry and cooking. There were a few animals inside of fences constructed of the same native wood as the huts.  It was important to our host that we see the cemetery where his ancestors were buried. The “Day of the Dead,” would arrive in a couple of weeks, and here the family would decorate these graves and spend the night celebrating their deceased family members. 

The beekeeping was also fascinating. The native bees (Melipona beecheii) are not as productive as are our non-native bees. They reside in a log with small holes.  They are endangered, probably because of loss of habitat and changes in flora in the jungle. We may have seen one of the last people obtaining honey in this manner.

Traditional Beekeeping in the Yucatán

What is most important about Xocen, however, is the belief that it is the Center of the World—a conviction honored by The Church of the Three Crosses.  The three crosses are central to the cult of the Speaking Cross. The Speaking Cross cult developed during the Caste War* when the Mayans attempted to evict their Spanish opressors. Early in the war, the Mayans might have successfully driven out the Spanish, but they ceased engagement when it was time to return home to do their planting.

The Church of the Three Crosses

Skirmishes continued for more than 50 years (1847 into the early 1900s). Near what is now Filipe Carrillo Puerto, a Maya man found a cross at the base of a tree next to a cenote. The cross spoke to him, giving him instructions on how to battle the Spanish. Over the years, people gave offerings to the cross and eventually a religion grew from it.

Joel introduced us to the priest whose demeaner was grave and respectful. We were welcomed into the small church with only the admonition that photography was prohibited. On the altar, were three crosses–one of stone, one wood, and one painted green. All three were covered with traditional Mayan dresses. and adornments. The altar was filled with disparate objects: plants, clothing, even toys such as a doll. These must have been offerings. On tables in front were lighted candles, apparently serving the same purpose as they do in Christian churches

Afterwards, in front of the church, we bowed our heads as the priest blessed us with fronds of a sacred plant that had been dipped in the nearby spring. We felt solemn and blessed ourselves. After all, we were at Xocen, the “Center of the World.”

*The Caste War was a major conflict.  That its occurrence is unknown throughout most of the Americas is unconscionable.  Overall, it is a story of native people rebelling against colonialism. Sadly, US business interests played a significant role in the death and destruction.  The best single history is: The Caste War of Yucatan, by Neslon Reed, Stanford University Press.


With me along some Strip of Herbage strown

That just divides the desert from the sown,

Where name of Slave and Sultán scarce is known,

And pity Sultán Máhmúd on his Throne.

[Verse X from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (E. Fitzgerald, translator)]

I think of Sultán Máhmúd” while I spit another watermelon seed at the scurrying hermit crabs.  They whisk the seeds away to eat later. 

Melon juice drips on my bare chest.  I am sitting on the edge of the wooden porch.  I do not want a sticky surface to walk on.  A sticky body?  No worries.  The ocean is a mere 30 meters away.   In a few moments, as the waves cleanse my body, I’ll watch Magnificent Frigatebirds sail gracefully overhead. They will likely be joined by Black and Turkey Vultures and Brown Pelicans. 

The hot sun will soon assert itself.  I will leave the ocean, rinse off the salt water at the outdoor shower, return to the porch and resume reading. My book is interesting.  Nevertheless, reading for long periods eventually makes me drowsy.  But, after a snack, a swim and a cooling shower, reading will, again, be peaceful and natural. 

Poor “Sultán Máhmúd”

The world is full of Sultán Máhmúds.  Always wanting more money or more power or a bigger house.  They are a mystery to me.  In much of business, and particularly in politics, they vie for the various thrones even though they could “buy and sell” me many times over.  I do not understand why. 

I have seen them on vacation. They fly into the airport in Liberia and are whisked by a driver to the Hilton or the Hyatt or a clone of such. A bracelet is put on their arms. A wave, and waiters race to do their bidding.  Evenings require a decision of which theme restaurant to attend. 

I worked for a man once who drove a Porsche, stayed only at the finest places, and ate at the best restaurants.  He loved passing a $50 bill to the maître-d to ensure we were treated royally.  He was always thinking about work. His marriage failed.  He would have hated this place.  

Here, on occasion, dinner consists of bean tostadas.  Other days, we knock on a door to let the cook at a local restaurant know there are clients for dinner.  On go the lights.  We take one of the three or four tables and order. 

We bring our own coffee and other staples purchased on the long drive from San Jose.  Two days a week, the fruit and vegetable truck arrives. We buy a papaya, a few more mangoes and a melon.

There really is so much wrong here.  After all, the name of this beach is Zancudo—the word for mosquito in Spanish.  How did it get that name?  We sleep under a mosquito net.

Larger creatures can enter too. Once, I had to catch a bat and put it back outside.  Another time I shared the shower with a small bird.

The cabin is a single room with a small bathroom/shower. The kitchen is a hot plate next to the sink.  The village’s only road, unpaved, is next to our cabin. Most mornings a motorcycle or two rattles by at 4 or 4:30, and then a truck loudly rumbles along bouncing through the potholes.

The beach is rarely cleaned. At the margin of high tide, there is every sort of plastic trash.  It is unsightly unless one finds beauty in the bright blue of a discarded flip-flop or the day-glo green of an old bleach bottle.  If barefoot, one steps carefully through the plastic and other flotsam, mostly coconut shells, to enter the ocean. 

There’s no beachcombing here either.  Shells are almost absent because the beach has such a long, slight slope.  The plastic mess, however, can be convenient.  One time we needed plastic utensils and found them easily after only a few moments of searching. 

There are no rules for the beach so randomly a 4-wheeler or a motorbike noisily passes by.

And the sand! Its brown, not brilliant white.  The water isn’t Caribbean or Hawaiian Blue either.  Not that its roily or dirty, but the soft sandy bottom, despite the gentle wave action, prevents the clarity loved by divers and snorkelers.  Waves and surfing can be found an hour or so farther down the coast at Pavones.

I am a birder.  That must explain why I am here.  The bird list as of February 2022 is 242 species–poor by Costa Rican standards.  Less than two hours to the northwest is Esquinas Rainforest lodge with a list of 398 – or drive northeast for a similar distance, up the hill to San Vito, and there is the Las Cruces Biological station run by the Organization for Tropical Studies.  The list at Las Cruces is 460.

I do go birding here.  There’s an old dock which allows access to the midst of some mangroves.  To find it, I look for the mound where the village piles its garbage and turn toward the river/estuary.  The old dock is broken.  In the middle, I hang on to a rusty railing to keep from sliding off the broken concrete and lower myself to the shattered pieces lying in the mud—if the water isn’t too high to preclude passage.  Then, I pull myself up the slanted slab on the other side and continue.

Behind our cabin and across the road are more mangroves.  This area seems to be the alternate dump site for the village inhabitants. There are crabs scurrying about consuming the detritus.  The mud slurps at my shoes, but I can work my way inside for about 3 meters and see what birds might be present.

As I write, my next visit to this place, the 13th, is already planned.  If I come here so often, it must be because it is inexpensive.  

Indeed, I would like to claim that adherence to one of my favorite quotes from Thoreau, “my greatest skill has been to want but little,” explains why I am here.  I have been fortunate to care little what someone else has.    I retired earlier than many of my contemporaries.  I felt like the overarching goal of my career was to obtain time, not money. This is one of my favorite places to spend that time.

I am here because I like it.

Clearly, I need to start again.  Yes, Zancudo means mosquito. I suspect the name may deter more visitors than do the insects.  They are no worse here than anywhere else in the lowland tropics.  Something I like, however, is that this is a beach where you can’t buy a t-shirt with its name on it. 

The cabin, while small, is spotless.  Everything works.  The time for walking to the beach is measured in seconds. 

The people are friendly.  The little restaurants serve excellent food. 

We avoid holidays. The rest of the time the beach is nearly deserted.  We have many photos taken first to the north and then to the south, showing 200m or more of the beach, and there are no other people.  If others are present, it is usually one or two and not close by. 

Those early morning noisy vehicles? There are only two or three.  We always arise about 5 anyway.  That way I can be in the water and watch the Brown Pelicans as they travel from the west end of the beach, where they spend the night, to the east where the foraging must be better.

The pelicans sail along the crest of the near-shore waves employing “wave-slope soaring.”  They take advantage of the lift provided by “localized updrafts caused by traveling ocean surface gravity waves”–an explanation, taken from a scientific paper, that makes it sound like Quantum Mechanics. 

I keep only enough of my head above water to breathe. I want the pelicans to think I am a floating coconut so they will pass overhead.  They are not fooled.  They move over a meter or two, but I still hear the whoosh of air from their wings.  

I watch the sun as it rises through the beachside palm trees, eventually shining brightly on me and the water.  Soon enough it will be time for coffee and fresh fruit on the shady porch. 

While it is necessary to step over trash on the way to the water, when the tide is out there might be 30-40 meters of soft, clean sand to cross before meeting the placid surf.  Then you might walk another 30 or 40 meters, only sloshed slightly by gentle waves, until the water reaches your chin.  It can be a warm, calm swimming pool. 

After dark, preferably on a moonless night, the bioluminescence of phytoplankton brightens your swim.   Then, when you exit the ocean, if the tide is out, the entire night sky, star-by-star, may be reflected on the beach. 

 A small motorbike or 4-wheeler may go flying by at any time—but there probably won’t be another for an hour or two.

That dirt road with the noisy motorcyles is all that separates the cabin from the mangroves. The trash is unpleasant, but most of the creatures one expects in that habitat are present.  Consequently, within 10-20 meters of the cabin, I have seen Cocoa Woodcreepers and Common Black Hawks.  Most days, a Bright-rumped Attila reminds us to eat it-eat it- eat it nooww.  Often there is a Black-hooded Antshrike, whose call has been described as an “accelerating chuckle.”   

Red-lored Parrots and Orange-chinned Parakeets regularly perch in the taller trees.  Even better, the obligate dwellers of the mangroves are also present: Mangrove Yellow Warbler, Boat-billed Heron, Panama Flycatcher and the endemic Mangrove Hummingbird.  

And the bird I shared the shower with? It was a Northern Waterthrush.  Where I live in Western Colorado, a Northern Waterthrush sighting is much sought-after.  Here, in the right season, one is often underfoot anytime we walk to the beach.  Sitting on the porch, we see them scurrying about under the shrubs like mice.

Because we only visit annually, it is difficult to assess the abundance of mammals, but we have seen Squirrel Monkeys, White-faced Monkeys and Mantled Howler Monkeys from the cabin.   The latter sometimes join the occasional motorcycle as our alarm clock. 

On my last visit, near the broken-down dock, I spied a local teenage girl. She waved determinedly at me. At first, I wondered if I was being admonished for trespassing.  Instead, she pointed upwards to show me a Brown-throated Sloth.   Her name was Katia.  In return for her favor, I showed her some birds. 

When I tire of the mangroves and the beach, I drive ten minutes to adjacent rice fields. I decry recent ditching and draining that have eliminated the final vestiges of what were once large wetlands.  But, when the rice fields are being plowed and many insects are exposed, the bird life is dramatic. Black and Turkey vultures are the most visible and common, but Swainson’s and Common Black Hawks also soar over the fields.   Wood storks and a variety of other waders are present: Great, Snowy and Cattle Egrets, Great Blue, Green, and Little Blue Herons, and Bare-throated Tiger Herons. 

Although Zancudo’s bird list is not stunning, there are Costa Rican rarities.  My only sightings of Sapphire-throated Hummingbird and Veraguan Mango are here.  Other Panamanian species that might be seen include Savannah and Gray-lined Hawks, Pearl Kite and Red-breasted Meadowlark.

My only meaningful complaints are the coming changes.  Quiet locations such as this are vanishing. Since we have been coming a one-lane bridge has replaced a ferry.  Much of the road has been paved. The last 40 kilometers formerly required two hours.  Now, we complete the drive in half the time.   The owner of the last sizable forest tract has divided it into lots. None have sold–yet.  Don’t buy one!



Isn’t the title a non-sequitur?  Birders do not have bad days.  Sure, some days are better than others, but even if target birds are not found, searching for wildlife is always fun.  Nonetheless, if you asked me if there ever was a bad day, well, yes there was. 

Imagine this. You are outside. The sky is dull gray.  Above you, way up in the sky, is an enormous swimming pool. Hold that thought.  

It began when our guide and driver picked us up in the pre-dawn from our little hotel in Cuzco, Peru.  I could see our young guide, Ellie, was distressed the moment she saw me.  You are a birder, she said.  

Later she lamented, As soon as I saw those big binoculars, I knew.  Through some mix-up, her company had not provided a birding guide. I later suspected they sent her because no one else wanted the assignment.  She was a young guide, new to the company. It was just my wife Mary and I, so tips would not be what they could be with a larger group. It was early April–the off-season.  Bad weather was a possibility.

Fortunately, Ellie had an engaging personality, was good company, and was eager to please.  Our ultimate destination was famous among birders, Manu Jungle Lodge, reachable only by boat. Ellie told us she had contacted the staff that morning.  There had been a huge storm.  The lodge was damaged, but we could still come.

The Madre de Dios river was at such a high stage, however, that we had to cancel some birding and leave earlier in order to spend extra time fighting the current and avoiding obstacles in the small boat. Moreover, stopping for bird and wildlife viewing enroute was also off the agenda because of the flood.

Despite the setbacks, this was Peruvian Amazonia! We were exhilarated by the constant flyovers of macaws and the expansive view of massive thunderheads rising above the sea of green jungle.    We enjoyed waving to the riverside inhabitants.  Often, they were bouncing along in much smaller boats with their tiny motors, known as peke-pekes because of their sound. 

Madre de Dios River in Flood

Ellie explained that some were trying to scavenge the large logs floating by.  Logging itself was illegal but salvaging a downed tree might provide enough income for months.   We were feeling satisfied, even if we had already missed many birding opportunities.  Perhaps, because of fighting so much current and dodging so much flotsam; we needed a fuel stop at the only small village on this part of the river, Boca Manu. From here we would leave the Madre de Dios and head upstream on the Manu River. 

Remarkably, the proprietor of the small riverside fuel station could not be bothered to fuel the boat during his lunch break.  Or, maybe it was our boatman who conspired with him to lengthen the interval with some food and drinks before we were once again headed upriver.  There was no birding.  We waited in the village bar and marveled at the moldy pool table covered only by a thatched roof.   While the day slipped away, a pet parrot added to my consternation by perching on the back of my chair and persistently nibbling on my hat.    

Birding at Boca Manu

Although Manu National Park is truly trackless wilderness, there was a park entrance pass that was needed and a park ranger to be found.  We slowly motored upstream past our lodge to find the small, thatched roof structure that served as park headquarters.  They already had our names on a list. No money was exchanged—that was probably taken care of in Cuzco.  The only reason I could fathom for the check-in was to waste another couple of hours.  

At last, in the proverbial gathering darkness, we reached our destination.   The lodge was, perhaps, 200 meters from the river. The boat “dock” consisted of a mudbank that required scrambling up two to three meters  

Birds and wildlife were everywhere.  There must have been 100 Squirrel Monkeys overhead almost immediately.  I managed brief looks at interesting birds—a Purplish Jay and a Yellow-rumped Cacique.  I only wished there had been more daylight.  Being so near the equator, sunset passes quickly and we were soon in the dark at the lodge, but not until we reviewed the damage. 

The storm had brought down many trees. Luckily, the sleeping quarters, kitchen, and dining area were not damaged, but the separate bathroom/shower building had suffered a direct hit wiping out one-quarter of it.  An outdoor cooking area and some storage buildings were demolished.  Most of the trail system associated with the lodge was so badly-damaged, it was impassable.  The lodge workers, most of them life-long residents of the area, said it was the worst storm in anyone’s memory. They had gone out during the storm to hang on to the concrete pilings that supported the lodge, fearing a tree would crush them if they stayed inside.  

We were the only guests, which was good because rooms were small cubicles with partial walls.  Guests were not allowed outside after dark.  Both Fer-de-lance and Bushmasters, two of the world’s most dangerous snakes, were present, as were caimans.  (The Black Caiman is the most abundant native crocodilian and supposedly there was a 15-footer in the lake.)  

As for nature calls during the night, we were handed a bucket.  But there was beer and wine, and the food was good.  Ellie had apologized about her lack of knowledge of birds, but she had already proven to be a good spotter and a hard worker.  We planned a morning bird walk for 5:15AM.  I went to bed expecting a great day.

Just before dawn the rain began.  I will go birding in almost any weather. But this rain went beyond “almost.”  I asked that you imagine standing outside under a swimming pool.  Now imagine the bottom of the pool suddenly vanishes.  No wind. It was not a pounding rain.  It was a heavy, thick onslaught of water, a vertical flood.  We did not even bother to find Ellie to discuss our options. We stayed in bed. 

Near mid-day, the rain decreased, and we had some time in the forest.  The trails were gone.  Where blown-down trees did not block the way, the path was underwater.  We sloshed rather than hiked.   Birding itself consisted of Ellie spotting the bird which I would attempt to identify. This limited the number of species checked off, but they were all new to me and I had a fine time.  I remember lifting a glass of wine to my wife that evening as I perused a guidebook on Peruvian birds and saying, What could be better than this?

But that night, the roaring rain returned, and so, came THE DAY.  Anyone with tropical birding knowledge would recognize the area we were in, Manu National Park, as one of the most biodiverse locations in the world.  How could it be possible on my second day in the park to find only three species of birds new to me and identify just a handful in an entire day outside? Here’s how.

A crucial objective of our visit was to see Giant Otters, an endangered species found only on oxbow lakes in Amazonia.  Indeed, my non-birding wife was especially desirous of seeing them. This trip, for once, had a wildlife viewing objective as important to her as seeing birds were to me.

Oxbow lakes also harbor wonderful exotic birds with beautiful and intriguing names such as Hoatzin, Rufescent Tiger-Heron and Black-capped Donocobius.  We had seen these the evening before from our lodge’s small, jungle catamaran–a platform balanced between two dugout canoes.  Sadly, we did not see the resident Giant Otters.  The lodge workers speculated that the otters had moved out because the high water had breached one end of the lake.  An oxbow lake, a few hours upriver, was now considered the most likely location for viewing. 

Otters are active in the early morning, so we needed to leave just as it was light enough to see.  I remember Ellie telling us that she and the boatman had discussed whether it was safe to go, and decided it was. We should have taken that as a cue after hearing roaring rain again that night.

The trail to the dock was now under a few inches of water. I heard birds calling all about but had to ignore them to watch my feet and not be tripped by submerged roots and fallen limbs.   We had been instructed not to reach for nearby shrubs and branches for balance as we splashed along because every insect, spider, and snake would have climbed out of the water.  My stomach was churning as much as the river as we rushed our way past a tantalizing mixed flock.  I noticed that Mary was simply silent.

Later, when I asked, Mary said she had decided to be silent because if she openly acknowledged her fear; she would have insisted we return.   Her desire to see the otters was also a motivation. 

When we reached the “dock,” which you recall was a mudbank, we were shocked to see that the river had risen more than a meter. Instead of having to scramble down a 2-3 meter bank, we had to one-by-one stand on the edge of the bank and step down into the boat.  The boatman held the boat in place by gunning the engine against the current.

Mary and I stepped in.  Then came Ellie.  I can still see the crack forming in the top of the bank as she walked to the edge.  The bank collapsed.  She fell into the river. 

Fortunately, she was able to grab the side of the boat or it would have been a dangerous rescue situation.  The swift water would have quickly carried Ellie downriver with few places to reach shore.  

With the boatman’s help, Ellie dragged herself into the boat.  She threw back and wrung out her long, black hair to shake off the water and then turned on her camera.  She smiled, regaining her composure, looked over to me and said, It’s ok.  But I had noticed something else.  What about your binoculars? I asked.  She jumped up feeling all around. She had already told us that guides have to supply their own gear and that her binoculars were her biggest expense.  (Binoculars that can stand up to the tropics, typically cost much more than a “good-enough” camera.)   Now, they were gone.  There was no hope of looking for them.  Nothing to do now but head for the oxbow lake and the otters.  

Ellie sat glumly in the back of the boat, wet and cold in the early morning. I understood enough Spanish to hear her tell the boatman she would not make enough money from this trip to replace the binoculars.  

I had been eagerly looking forward to this boat ride because the boatmen are adept at spotting wildlife, especially birds, and then maneuvering the boat so clients can have easy views. Not this time. The river was in such major flood and there was so much flotsam that all attention had to be focused on navigation.  Several times there was a loud “thump” as we hit a submerged log. The wild-eyed terror in my wife’s eyes did not help.  I too could visualize hitting something big enough to overturn the boat or break the propeller.  The going was slow, but eventually, to our relief, we reached the “short” trail to the oxbow lake. The boatman, after tying off the boat, motioned for us to stay seated. He went off for a few minutes and returned to tell us that parts of the trail were three to four feet underwater.  

The boatman and Ellie conferred.  We understood later they debated whether to return to the lodge or to try another trail.  We wished we had been able to vote to return, but we were not asked.  

More bumping upstream in the boat found us at a different trail, which we now learned was known as the “long” trail.  This trail had only a foot or two of water. We had to move with great care to avoid falling and because of the extra effort of lifting water-laden boots over the many obstacles.  Not wanting to soak my binoculars and camera, I had been anxious on the boat.  That anxiety was now replaced by desperation at the bird shapes I detected with my peripheral vision and the sounds I could not even acknowledge as we slogged and splashed.   I realized we were probably too late in the day if the otters followed their normal behavior pattern. At least, I thought, the birding will be sensational.

Our conveyance at the lake, just as at our lodge, was a platform balanced by a dugout canoe on each side.  Both dugouts, however, were overflowing with water. 

Imagine my frustration.  It was now almost noon.  The best time for birding was over.  I was thinking, If we had stayed at the lodge, I would have seen 50 species by now.  I had only seen a couple on the perilous boat ride. 

The boatman handed me a half-broken old milk jug for bailing.  It promptly shattered.  I was desperate to get into the lake to see some birds!  Wasn’t that why we had come? The boatman looked at my as if I was crazy as I bailed frantically with my bare hands. He and Ellie calmly splashed water from the other side with the small paddles. Finally, the boat floated, after a fashion.  It was clumsy and slow anyway—more so now because it was so waterlogged.  

Slowly, we turned the boat around and with the boatman in one of the dugouts and Ellie paddling in the other, we headed into the lake.  Almost immediately, Ellie began to describe a bird we had not seen. Where? I said. There! she said, as she jumped up and pointed, just as she had pointed out wildlife last night on the lake at our lodge. Except, our lodge’s catamaran lacked the 2×4 frame over the dugouts– the one into which she had just rammed her head. 

Now Ellie lay, crumpled on the platform. We tried to help her up. We tried to commiserate.  She just kept her head down, covered by her arm, waving her other hand to tell us to stay away.  The night before she had described her guide training, and how she was a recent graduate.  Now I was thinking, she’s been taught, you must never cry in front of clients.  After several minutes and several futile tries to help her, all of which elicited her waving response, she sat up, blinking back tears. She pointed the boatman onward. I said, I’ll paddle. She only nodded and sat forlornly on the platform.

You guessed the rest.  We paddled all about the lake. I could not paddle and look for birds at the same time, and although a few flew by, no one was in any mood other than to see the damn otters and get out of here.  But there were no otters to be seen.  We were too late in the day. Hot and sweaty, we returned to the trail and trudged back to the boat.

Ellie revived and pointed out a few plants, but mostly all we wanted was for the perilous boat ride to be over.  Our return was enlivened by the loss of the so-called dock, and the river having risen another meter. The boatman had to run the boat up near the edge, and with the motor revved, he could hold it in place for a few seconds.  One passenger would jump into the arms of one of the waiting workmen. Then another circuit was made, and then a third until we were all out. The boatman waved good-bye and motored off.  Slogging back to the lodge in the near darkness, I was taunted, maybe haunted, by the cries of unfamiliar birds whose silhouettes I could barely make out against the darkening sky. 

Fortunately, this “bad” day was part of a much longer trip which encompassed many wonderful experiences.  We had spent two days at Manu Cloud Forest Lodge where we watched eight Cock-of-the-Rocks displaying simultaneously.  That sight was worth the entire trip.   And, even on the bad day, here is what I wrote in my journal about the last minutes of sunlight: Back at the lodge, I walked out and sat on the dock. As the sun set, a capped heron flew by in the golden light with its plumes seemingly on fire. A small leafless bush emerging from the flooded lake had a white-winged swallow on every branch. A social flycatcher screamed—there was a faint rainbow to be seen in the gathering mist—maybe this hadn’t been what we wanted, but it was quite a memorable day.  


Unfortunately, our adventure was not over.  Typically, egress from Manu Lodge is via a 4hr boat ride followed by a 4 hr drive ending up in Puerto Maldonado from where we would fly to Lima and home.  The rains, however, had flooded some roads such that we had to go by boat for more than 200 miles and ten hours.  Because of the trip’s length, we had to leave at first light.  There was so much water, the lodge workers used a dugout to ferry our luggage to where the small riverboat would pick us up. We had to wade in the dark through water up to our waists in some places—again, being careful not to touch any surrounding branches.  Fortunately, no one fell.

Wading to the Boat Dock

Having to do the long boat ride, was more bad luck because the ordinary route to Puerto Maldonado offered some birding. We were warned that this river trip was going to be a mad dash with no wildlife or other stops because of the distance and the need to avoid hitting flotsam. Moreover, as we were to learn, with the river in flood, there were no banks to approach.  At mid-day, when a bath room stop was becoming critical, there were no safe places to land because the river was out of its banks.  All of us were “up to our eyeballs” by the time we could make a landing.

Our destination was within the Laberinto district, Tambopata Province. Reviewing the map today, I believe it was at the small town of Fortuna—a very rough looking place.  This was the supply center and access point for an illegal gold mining boom. All the nasty elements associated with a “gold rush” were evident. The river had been full of dredges blowing river sand all over. None of these activities are legal. They are destroying the river and the jungle. The surrounding countryside was devastated.

The village was full of rough looking people including obvious prostitutes.  Although it wasn’t apparent what might have changed, Ellie told us it would not have been safe for us to be in that village even a couple of years earlier. She related having seen boatloads of prostitutes being taken to the dredging camps when she had embarked from here as part of her guide training a few years previous.  

A couple of unkempt men walked to about 3 meters from us and stood and stared–one for at least 15 minutes.  Was he deciding whether to rob us or was he lamenting the loss of the previous lawlessness when he would not have had to decide? It was unnerving.  

Ellie said we should not wander about. I did enter a store to buy soft drinks and had to endure boring stares of the others inside.  Outside, there were numerous men with bicycle taxis waiting for fares that never came.  There was a long line of “peke-peke’s” at the dock, run-down, cobbled together buildings, and stray dogs.  The place was sad both in terms of what is happening to the environment and that any humans should have to live like this.  

It also struck me how we gringos are so at the mercy of our hired help in such situations.  We had Ellie, a diminutive young woman and our boatman who, at least, was a native of the area.  He mostly spoke his native language, knowing only rudimentary Spanish and no English at all. He left to find us a ride to Puerto Maldonado as we sat feeling very conspicuous.  

Finally, after what seemed a long time with no sign of our boatman, he returned and indicated a car would be coming.   We were relieved until we saw the car.  I do not recall now, the make and year, but it was something like an early 1960s Ford Falcon—ancient, small, beat-up and rusty.  We piled in.

Ellie told us the drive would be about two hours.  The dirt road was in reasonable condition considering the recent rain but I mouthed the word “lunatic” to Mary, referring to the driver, as we bounced along much too fast for the conditions.  We kept a hand up to keep our heads from being bashed against the roof as we bounced mostly through jungle scrub.  I continued to be chagrined as unfamiliar birds flew up from the roadside bushes or passed overhead. And then, abruptly, after one particularly jarring jolt, the car stopped.

The sun was now at the horizon. It would be dark soon.  When discussing the incident later, Mary and I had the same thought, this is where we get assaulted.  The car had stopped inexplicably. We were, in our minds, in the middle of nowhere. We had seen no other vehicles.  We had no defense. There were no cellphones here.  We looked around to see where the driver’s accomplices might be hiding.

The driver mumbled and gestured.  He raised the hood, pulled wires off, and replaced them.  Then he slammed the hood and attempted to start the car.  The starter was grinding away, but the engine was apparently not getting any gas.  I am no mechanic, but there seemed to be no reason or plan for what the driver did under the hood.  The fact that there had not been any obvious repair had made me suspicious.

Was he waiting for someone? Or, if this is innocent, are we going to spend the night out here?

 It was as if he thought banging on various engine parts would cause the engine to have a change of heart and start.   Miraculously, after at least 20 minutes and several more excursions under the hood, the car, as inexplicably as it died, suddenly started.  Later, in our hotel room in Puerto Maldonado, we breathed a great sigh of relief. I hope to go back to Manu someday, but in the dry season!


¡Anonnas, Zapotes, Maracuyas, Carambolas, Guanabanas!  Estaban en una mesa en la pequeña sala de estar, un regalo de bienvenida de Don Tino.  Más tarde, Raquel nos dijo que su padre había estado en una reunión recaudando dinero para una sinfonía.  Antes de llegar a casa, se había desviado al mercado para comprar frutas tropicales que sospechaba que nunca habíamos probado.  Eso fue en abril de 1989, nuestra primera visita a Costa Rica.  

Mi esposa, mis hijos y yo habíamos estado en el país menos de dos horas.  Una hora antes, cuando salíamos de Inmigración, nos preguntamos.  ¿Alguien se reunieron con nosotros?  ¿Se entendieron los arreglos?  Todo lo que teníamos que seguir era una conversación telefónica incómoda.  Incluso ahora que nuestro español es mucho mejor, las llamadas telefónicas, debido a la falta de comunicación no verbal, siguen siendo difíciles.  Raquel, esperando con su hermano Alfredo y su hermana Margarita, su marido y sus tres hijos, nos dijo que también se había preguntado si llegaríamos.

Conocimos a Raquel en septiembre de 1988.  Raquel era una Profesora y Asesora de Estudios Sociales del Ministerio de Educación Pública de Costa Rica.  Ella era parte del grupo de 20 Directoras lideres de Escuelas Publicas de Costa Rica, becadas por la Agencia Internacional para el Desarrollo (AID) de los Estados Unidos de América.  Teníamos interés en Costa Rica.  Había leído que era seguro visitarlo y tenía vistas maravillosas, incluyendo aves maravillosas.  Reconociendo esto como una oportunidad para aprender más sobre el país, nos ofrecimos como voluntarios para ser una familia anfitriona y proporcionar algunas comidas y una habitación.  A menudo hemos dicho que ser asignada a Raquel de ese gran grupo de damas fue la forma en que ganamos la lotería.

Estábamos sentados tranquilamente en nuestro porche una noche.  Hasta ahora, la visita de Raquel había consistido en comidas educadas con breves pero inútiles intentos de comunicación autoconscientes.  Me volví hacia Raquel y le dije ¿Cerveza?  Oh Sí, dijo con una gran sonrisa.  Compartir esa cerveza provocó risas mientras nos relajábamos y aprendíamos lo bien que se podía lograr la comprensión mutua con una combinación de “Spanglish” y gestos con las manos.  Nos enamoramos de la calidez desinhibida de Raquel y de la aceptación inmediata de todos.  Décadas más tarde, miramos hacia atrás a los amigos y familiares que hemos traído con nosotros a Costa Rica.  Siempre les aconsejamos que deben estar preparados para conocer a su nuevo mejor amigo.  Así es como siempre va.   

Una de esas tardes mientras charlaba en el porche, Raquel, soltera en ese momento, describió a su gran familia y a las sobrinas y sobrinos que tenían las mismas edades que nuestros hijos Ann y Adam.  Ella nos animó a visitarnos e insistió en que traemos a nuestros hijos.  Esa fue la génesis de nuestra primera velada costarricense y la mesa de frutas extrañas.

El padre de Raquel, Constantino Bolaños Valerio, o Don Tino nos recibió amablemente cuando llegamos a su casa.  La mayoría de la familia inmediata estaba presente, al igual que dos de las mejores amigas de Raquel, Saida e Hilda, dos maravillosas damas cuya compañía hemos disfrutado muchas veces desde entonces.  

De hecho, como Raquel generosamente nos mostró su país, conocimos más amigos y generalmente estábamos acompañados por uno o más de los hermanos de Raquel y sus hijos, así como por su madre, la encantadora Doña Corina.  Corina fue muy divertida, siempre exhibiendo una sonrisa expansiva, una risa exuberante y abrazos para todos.  Don Tino era reservado, pero cuando entraba en una habitación, siempre era una presencia.  Todos eran deferente para el patriarca.  

¡Corina abrazando a Adam con Don Tino mirando! 

Esa primera noche descendió al caos.  Además de nuestros dos hijos, Ann y Adam, había seis más de diez años o menos (Mario Federico, Marco, Ana Sofía, Mauricio, Natalia, Patricia).  Recuerdo a una niña pequeña que se acercó a mí durante el bedlam de esa primera noche y con fuerza y conspicuamente haciendo sonidos de galimatías en mi cara.  Era su forma de expresar cómo le sonaban las palabras que salían de nuestras bocas.  (Cuatro años más tarde, cuando la visitamos, nos saludó con “Hi, How are you?”  Raquel nos dijo antes de esa visita, que la niña, ahora de siete años, había preguntado cuantas palabras ella necesitaba hablar con nosotros.  Esta joven es ahora abogada, y de acuerdo con sus hermanos y primos, habla un inglés excelente).  De los trece adultos, solo dos, el hermano de Raquel, Alfredo, y su esposa Viviana, hablaban ambos idiomas.

Sin embargo, hubo una cantidad significativa de cerveza que redujo las inhibiciones lo suficiente como para facilitar los intentos frecuentes de comunicación, muchos de los cuales resultaron en un ciclo de retroalimentación de más intentos y risas más fuertes.  Esa noche creó un sentido indeleble de solidaridad intercultural.  Después, Mary y yo nos maravillamos de nuestra buena fortuna.

Cuando hizo ruido, Don Tino se retiró a su habitación.  No lo vimos hasta la mañana siguiente.  Nos despertamos y lo encontramos haciendo tortillas.  Fueron devorados tan codiciosamente por Ann y Adam, que hubo que hacer extras.  Don Tino estaba tan contento, las lágrimas brotaban en sus ojos.  Se acercó a mí y me dijo en un inglés con mucho acento: I am sorry.  I do not speak English.  I wish I could converse with you.  ¡Qué sentimiento tan extraordinario!  Éramos los extraños que llegamos a su país e invadimos su casa sin saber el idioma.  Traté de decirle lo agradecidos que estábamos por su generosidad.  Mi español era terrible, esperaba que supiera lo que intentaba decir.

Además de las tortillas de esa primera mañana, Don Tino disfrutó haciendo una variedad de dulces tradicionales.  Recuerdo pomelo confitado o azucarado y una mezcla de coco con leche y azúcar.  Raquel se divirtió diciendo que por lo general no cocinaba nada, pero le dimos una excusa para que también pudiera comer ‘las dulces‘.

Mary y mis antecedentes familiares estaban reservados.  En mi familia inmediata, la compañía era rara.  No recuerdo una sola vez que un visitante pasara la noche.  En consecuencia, nos preocupaba ser una imposición y habíamos planeado salir a la mañana siguiente para visitar la Reserva del Bosque Nuboso de Monteverde.  Fue una aventura tanto alquilar el vehículo como navegar por el campo.  Raquel nos llevó a la carretera para evitar que nos perdiéramos.  

No en vano, siendo esto antes de Google Maps y Waze, cuando volvimos a Heredia, nos confundimos en el laberinto de calles.  En ese momento, los ticos (como los costarricenses se refieren a sí mismos) se burlaban de la idea de direcciones, números de casas y rutas de carreteras.  Todas las direcciones se basaron en puntos de referencia.  Afortunadamente, pudimos explicarnos a alguien en una gasolinera y él marcó el número de Raquel y nos explicó dónde estábamos.  Raquel apareció con un carro llena de gente.  Todavía puedo ver el vehículo lleno con todos riendo.  Encontraron nuestra difícil situación hilarante.  Los seguimos de regreso a la casa a otra fiesta, esta vez con una comida de ceviche y Olla de Carne.  Este último es una sabrosa sopa o guiso con trozos de carne y una variedad de verduras que incluyen yuca y maíz en la mazorca.  Reconocimos que estábamos siendo honrados con una comida tradicional navideña cuando escuchamos a los demás en broma deseándose Feliz Navidad y Feliz Año Nuevo.  

Al día siguiente fue el cumpleaños de Mary.  La hermana menor de Raquel, Marta, había conspirado con nuestra hija, Ann, para hacer un pastel.  Luego, la mayoría de nosotros fuimos a El Castillo, un club con piscina, pista de patinaje y hermosos jardines.  Había bailarines folclóricos y una comida tradicional.  Raquel había avisado al maestro de ceremonias y toda la multitud le cantó a Mary.   Más tarde, en la casa, descubrimos que Eduardo, el hermano menor muy querido de Raquel, que tiene síndrome de Down, había lamido el glaseado del pastel.  Apropiadamente, nadie dijo una palabra y el pastel fue cortado en rodajas y comido como si nada hubiera pasado.  Qué inolvidable 40 cumpleaños para María.

Además, inolvidable fue nuestra salida.  Raquel no pudo llevarnos al aeropuerto por un conflicto laboral así que fuimos con Margarita, su marido Mario, su hijo Marco y Corina.  Cuando salimos del auto y caminamos hacia la puerta, vimos que estaban llorando.  Tal vez, pensaron que nunca nos volverían a ver. ¡Poco sabían!

Me siento tímido al admitir que, ahora más de 30 años después, nos hemos quedado con ellos en al menos 30 ocasiones diferentes.  Nuestra aceptación fue tan completa, sin embargo, que Raquel dijo que nos conocieron como “Los Nics” para ser consistentes con las otras familias, “Los Chavas” (para los Chavarrías), “Los Freers” y así sucesivamente.

De hecho, la segunda vez que llegamos, de nuevo con inquietud por lo bien que nos habíamos comunicado, nos encontramos con diecisiete personas que nos bañaron con confeti.  Nos sentimos como estrellas de rock.  De vuelta en su casa, un grupo aún más grande estaba esperando, esta vez aumentado por la hermana de Raquel, Eugenia, su esposo y sus cuatro hijos.  Una vez más, ¡fue una fiesta!

Como antes, Don Tino supervisó nuestra muestra de alimentos auténticos.  Una mañana, él y Corina se levantaron temprano preparándonos un desayuno campesino tradicional que incluía agua dulce, una bebida caliente hecha de caña de azúcar porque los campesinos no podían pagar el café.

En esta visita, pasamos más tiempo en la ciudad.  Tengo un recuerdo particular de una tarde lluviosa después de un día lluvioso.  El padre de Raquel y yo estábamos parados en la entrada de la casa.  Don Tino inició una conversación sobre la lluvia (Lluvia, Lluvia).  Nuestra conversación, debido a las dificultades del idioma, no fue muy profunda, pero fue larga.  Le dije a Raquel lo mucho que lo disfruté.  Ella respondió que su padre también lo hizo y que hablaba despacio y no le importaba hacerlo.  

Nuestros viajes siempre incluyeron un tiempo considerable disfrutando de la selva tropical, aprendiendo sobre la vida silvestre y buscando aves.  Para evitar el tráfico, generalmente salimos de la ciudad antes de las 6 de la mañana.  Me maravillé de lo ocupado que estaba todo.  Gente que va a trabajar o que ya está trabajando.  Vendedores ambulantes instalando sus productos.  Gente caminando por todas partes.    

En ese viaje, sin embargo, Raquel nos presentó otro aspecto de la “vida silvestre” de Costa Rica.  Nuestros hijos habían sido invitados a pasar la noche con una de las otras familias.  Raquel había sugerido previamente que fuéramos a la discoteca.  ¡Esta vez no teníamos excusa!  Tuvimos una noche sensacional seguida de una mañana temprano, yendo a varios clubes nocturnos.  ¡La última parada fue en la “Ciudad de Noche”, un centro comercial de clubes nocturnos que cerró a las 5 de la mañana!  Era una noche de semana, pero estaba lleno.   Un área tenía varias bandas de mariachis.  Las canciones eran familiares para la multitud porque muchos cantaban.  Recuerdo a un hombre, solo, cerveza en una mano, pero los brazos separados cantando apasionadamente.  No había gringos a la vista.  Qué experiencia tan increíble.   Raquel podría haber tenido poder de permanencia para el cierre de las 5 de la mañana, pero no nosotros.  Llegamos a su casa como a las 4.  Sin niños, pudimos dormir hasta las 10.  Después de ver el ajetreo de las calles temprano en la mañana y luego experimentar cuántas personas estaban en los clubes nocturnos tan tarde, nos preguntamos El Costarricense duerme:  ?El Costarricense duerme?

Un día más tarde, nos embarcamos en Rara Avis, nuestra primera visita y el escenario de gran parte de mi libro, TEN JUNGLE DAYS.   Aunque nos encantó allí, nos perdimos la diversión que estábamos teniendo en la ciudad y acortamos el viaje en un día para poder regresar temprano, algo que hicimos más de una vez.  ¡Fue demasiado divertido!  Esta vez, fue Viernes Santo.  Nos esperaba un plato de palmito, con arroz y pollo, una comida tradicional para la temporada.   

Los padres de Raquel estaban ocupados decorando un pequeño brillo en su calle en preparación para una procesión, una de las ocho en Heredia, nos informó Raquel.  El santuario, que representa una de las “estaciones de la cruz”, fue bendecido por el párroco cuando pasó en procesión.  Raquel se divirtió porque este sacerdote era “muy gordo” e incapaz de caminar muy lejos.  Estaba bendiciendo solemnemente los santuarios mientras viajaba en una limusina abierta. 

Luego caminamos hasta la iglesia cercana, construida en 1797.  Aquí, una multitud se había reunido alrededor de títeres de María de 2 metros de altura y los apóstoles Pedro y Juan.  Hubo oraciones y cantos.  Luego, los títeres abandonaron el área para “buscar a Jesús”.  

Al día siguiente, nos encontramos con una procesión muy solemne.  En el frente había clérigos, una cruz, estandartes y un gran grupo de tamborileros.  Los tambores rítmicos y repetitivos reforzaron el estado de ánimo sombrío.  Detrás del clero, los estandartes y los tamborileros, había un gran grupo de penitentes turnándose para llevar una pesada estatua de la Virgen María.   Raquel explicó que participar en la procesión y, sobre todo llevar la estatua, se hizo para pedir la intercesión de María con su hijo para que se contestaran las oraciones.  Fue desgarrador ver a mujeres ancianas que tenían dificultades para caminar pidiendo turnos e intentando cargar la pesada estatua.  La expresión de la fe fue impresionante.  

La última noche del viaje, me sentí honrado cuando Don Tino caminó desde su habitación hacia la gran reunión, y lentamente me preguntó: ¿Beberás whisky?  Con usted?  Le respondí, ¡Claro!  Raquel me dijo más tarde que este era un ritual de aceptación para los pretendientes de sus hijas.  Me sentí halagado.   Hizo un gesto a la gran reunión y dijo que alquilarían un avión, y todos vendrían a visitarnos.  Luego, con Alfredo traduciendo, dijo que nuestra visita no era para Raquel, sino que era especial para todos ellos.  Una vez más, nos quedamos impresionados por nuestra buena fortuna de haber sido abrazados por esta familia.

Un terremoto significativo ocurrió unos días más tarde.  No solo murieron casi cincuenta personas, sino que un restaurante al que habíamos ido con Raquel en la ciudad costera atlántica de Limón había sido arrasado.  He relatado que las conversaciones telefónicas eran una aventura en aquellos días, pero nos preocupamos por nuestros amigos.   Llamamos y solo don Tino estaba en casa.  Fueron necesarios unos momentos antes de que nos reconociéramos.  Mi casa, dijo, ¡bien!  Nos dimos cuenta de que estaba satisfecho con nuestra preocupación.  

Debo dejar de mencionar que nos sorprendió en nuestra siguiente visita al notar que muchos edificios gubernamentales en Heredia habían sufrido daños severos, pero poco más.  La antigua iglesia del barrio de Raquel, perdió uno de sus numerales de su fecha de construcción de 1797 pero por lo demás salió ilesa, le preguntamos a Raquel al respecto, y ella se rió, solo los edificios construidos por ‘Low-Bid’ se cayeron.

Este tercer viaje, en 1993, siguió lo que se convirtió en un patrón familiar, llegada y una fiesta, unos días en Rara Avis, luego de regreso a la ciudad para más visitas familiares y fiestas.  A veces teníamos solo una semana con fines de semana contiguos, a veces dos semanas.  

De vuelta en la ciudad, Marta había preparado una cena a la luz de las velas porque habíamos mencionado que era nuestro aniversario.  Gente tan reflexiva.  Aprendimos a tener cuidado con nuestras palabras porque nuestros amigos harían cualquier cosa para complacernos.  Una vez, admiré una hermosa placa pintada nueva en la pared de la casa de Raquel.  Ninguna cantidad de protestas podría superar su deseo de que lo tuviéramos.  Ahora cuelga maravillosamente en nuestra casa.  

Luego fue un picnic en un terreno propiedad del hermano de Raquel, Tino, el homónimo de su padre.  Varios recuerdos persisten de ese día y del siguiente. Mary y yo admitimos que éramos padres “tensos”, criados de esa manera y por temperamento.  Los niños iniciaron un incendio y corrían con palos ardiendo.  Fueron observados, pero nadie dijo nada.  Mary y yo nos miramos, preguntándonos por qué nadie intervino.  Estábamos convencidos de que algo terrible sucedería.  Nada lo hizo.   

Más tarde, los niños fueron llevados a un parque de diversiones.  Cabalgamos junto con Margarita y Mario para recuperarlos.  En el camino, se perdieron.  Muchas parejas discuten y se culpan mutuamente en tales circunstancias.  A Mary y a mí nos va bien, pensamos, pero aún así nos volvemos testarudos y tensos.  En cambio, Margarita y Mario pensaron que era una gran broma y se rieron como un par de adolescentes.  Cuánto había que aprender de nuestra “Familia Tica”.

Al día siguiente, almorzamos con la hermana de Raquel, Eugenia, y su familia: su esposo Eduardo y sus cuatro hijos.  Me sorprendió.  Tenían un aro de baloncesto.  Me encanta el baloncesto.  Recibí premios por jugar en mi pequeña escuela secundaria y jugué intramuros en la universidad y en la liga de la ciudad en Grand Junction.  Adam y yo jugamos bastante en nuestro patio trasero.   “Futbal” es el deporte nacional de Costa Rica.  ¿Por qué había un aro de baloncesto en los Chavarrías?  Pronto me enteré de que el esposo de Eugenia, Eduardo, había estado en el equipo nacional.  Noté una sonrisa irónica cuando me vio disparar un par de veces y me di cuenta de que podía jugar.  Luego, a pesar de que ahora era fumador y tenía un poco de sobrepeso, se quedó allí y se hundió disparo tras disparo.  Escribí en mi diario que solo se perdió dos de los 30, un nivel de precisión con el que solo podía soñar.

Al día siguiente, estábamos de vuelta en su casa.  No recuerdo los detalles, pero Raquel, Mary, Corina y Eugenia estaban dentro charlando y cocinando.  Todos los demás se habían ido, excepto yo y el hermano menor de Raquel, Eduardo, el que tenía síndrome de Down.  Recogió la pelota de baloncesto y disparó.  Me recuperé.  Volvió a disparar.  Me recuperé.  Pronto estaba pensando, en todas las cosas que podría estar haciendo.  Debería estar escribiendo en mi diario.  Debería estar limpiando las fotos de mi cámara.  ¿Cómo puedo salir de esto?, pensé.  Él disparó y yo reboté.  Mi amigo Nic, dijo Eduardo mientras hacía una canasta, bombeó el puño y gritó feliz.  Pasó demasiado tiempo antes de que me diera cuenta.  No hay nada mejor que hacer para mí.  Esto es exactamente lo que debería estar haciendo.  Eduardo siguió disparando y yo seguí repuntando.  Pasaron dos horas pacíficas antes de que nos interrumpieron.  Tuve una tarde maravillosa.

Esa noche, nuestra última del viaje, el padre de Raquel me regaló una maquinilla de afeitar.  Parecía avergonzado por el acto, pero lo aprecié mucho.  Entendí que quería darme algo, pero no quería agregar a nuestra colección de camisetas y recuerdos.  Disfruté hablando con él y aprecié su cuidadosa anunciación y el ritmo lento de sus palabras.  Entonces las madres y los niños vinieron a despedirse rápidamente y tuvieron pequeños regalos para Ann y Adam.  Cuando todos se fueron, Adán estaba sollozando porque teníamos que irnos por la mañana.  Marta entró en su habitación y salió con otro regalo, una pipa de pastor, para él.

En 1995, Raquel se había casado, dando ahora a la familia inmediata un tercer “Mario”.  Debido a que ella y su nuevo esposo vivían en un pequeño apartamento, nos quedamos con su hermano Alfredo, su esposa Viviana y sus dos hijos, Patricia y Carolina.  Inclinarse por sus vidas, su investigación agrícola y su tiempo en los Estados Unidos fue fascinante.  Viviana, oriunda de Argentina, nos introdujo en el mate y la tradicional bombilla de acero inoxidable para beberlo.  

Cuando vimos a Don Tino en ese viaje, tristemente, dijo Estoy enfermo, aunque sus hijos se apresuraron a decirnos que, aunque sus quejas eran considerables, todavía iba a su “club” en San José todos los días.

Raquel nos había mostrado el “club”, ¡My father love! dijo.  Era un edificio elegante.  Si bien nunca estuvimos seguros de su título de trabajo, Don Tino se había retirado de una posición de importancia sustancial dentro del gobierno.   Raquel tiene una foto de él y Corina yendo a un evento formal.  Tino es majestuoso, de pie sobre Corina, en unos escalones, con corbata negra ligeramente torcida.  Podíamos imaginar lo que estaba sucediendo dentro de ese club: los ahora retirados ex líderes del país tomando café y resolviendo los problemas de Costa Rica y del mundo.

Como de costumbre, habíamos alquilado un coche y visitado algunas reservas forestales.  De vuelta en la ciudad, planeamos una excursión de un día a un resort de playa favorecido por la familia, Punta Leona.  Dos de los “primos” fueron con nosotros, los hermanos Daniel y Eduardo.  Raquel se sorprendió de que pudieran ir, diciendo que su hermana, Eugenia, era muy protectora.  Ella nos dijo que era otro ejemplo de cómo éramos parte de la familia.  Por supuesto, la propia Raquel nos hizo prometer que no dejaríamos que los chicos entraran en el agua más allá de las rodillas.  ¡Derecha!  ¿Cuatro adolescentes?  Me hubiera gustado verla tratar de lograr ese tipo de control.  

Nuestra siguiente visita, tres años después, en 1998, no comenzó bien.  Nuestra hija Ann ya estaba en Costa Rica participando en un curso intensivo de español.  En ese momento pensamos que la razón por la que nadie nos recibió en el aeropuerto, todos estaban en una fiesta familiar, incluida Ann, fue mi culpa.  De todos modos, las fechas se habían confundido. Mary y yo soportamos las súplicas de numerosos taxistas y agentes de viajes en la vana convicción de que alguien llegaría.  Finalmente, tomamos el último viaje desde el aeropuerto esa noche y fuimos al Hampton Inn.

Todavía estábamos confundidos sobre los apellidos españoles y cómo deletrearlos.  Raquel y Mario se habían mudado recientemente a su nuevo hogar.  No teníamos ni idea de cuál era su apellido.   Fuimos a un teléfono público, examinamos una guía telefónica y llamamos a varios nombres que pensamos que eran correctos.  Sin respuestas.  Recuerdo que Mary dejó un mensaje diciendo: No sabemos si esto es correcto o no, pero si conoces a Nic y Mary de Colorado, llámanos al Hampton Inn.  Pronto el teléfono comenzó a sonar.  El más humorístico fue del hermano de Raquel, Tino.  Él y su esposa Gisela no entendieron la llamada y estaban a punto de borrarla cuando sus hijos, que ya sabían mucho inglés, comenzaron a insistir, ¡Estan aquí!   Tino finalmente se convenció y nos llamó, al igual que Raquel, Ann y Alfredo.  Este último a menudo se alistó debido a su excelente inglés.  Raquel a veces tenía miedo de que algo se perdiera, así que nos hacía hablar con Alfredo solo para estar segura.  

A la mañana siguiente era domingo y caminamos hasta la plaza central de Heredia, donde había un concierto semanal de la banda.  La plaza siempre estuvo abarrotada de familias.  Varias generaciones asistieron con frecuencia.   Nunca olvidaré la canción que más aplausos trajo: fue introducida como swit yarja brown.  La pronunciación de “Sweet Georgia Brown” fue humorística para mí, pero enfatizó lo mal que sonaba mi español para mis amigos.  A día de hoy, el Mario de Raquel suele tener una expresión de intenso dolor cuando intenta descifrar mi discurso.  

Experimentamos muchos incidentes memorables en este viaje.  Habíamos ido al Parque Nacional Tortuguero y, nuevamente, tuvimos experiencias maravillosas viendo la vida silvestre en la pequeña isla en la que nos alojábamos, así como en viajes en bote por los canales.  Habíamos volado allí, pero arreglamos para que nos entregaran un coche de alquiler en un cierto muelle al norte de Limón, al que nos entregaron en barco.  No había muelle, solo un montón de tierra.  El auto fue entregado sin ningún papeleo por un hombre que no hablaba inglés.  Su autobús se iba, así que prácticamente huyó de nosotros.  Bueno, teníamos las llaves y el coche, así que no hubo problema.

El área estaba en medio de plátanos y plátanos y más plátanos y mientras conducíamos, pronto vimos a la gente mirándonos extrañamente y a los niños riendo.  Estábamos perdidos de nuevo.  Llegamos a una pequeña tienda y enviamos a Ann adentro para obtener instrucciones.  Adam la acompañó.  Cuando salieron, se estaban disparando el uno al otro.  Adam insistía en que los hombres que daban las instrucciones se reían del mal español de Ann.  Ella, que había estado estudiando intensamente y viviendo solo con hispanohablantes, estaba indignada.  

Pronto supimos la razón de la alegría de los hombres.  Siguiendo las indicaciones nos llevó a un puente que nos habría conectado con la carretera principal si no se hubiera derrumbado en aquel terremoto tres años antes.  Ese incidente sigue siendo la única vez que alguien a quien hemos pedido ayuda no cumplió.   

Ese viaje terminó con otra barbacoa familiar.  Toda la familia estuvo allí al menos parte del tiempo.  Lo notable fue que vino don Tino.  Raquel dijo que no había estado fuera de la casa durante meses.  Ella dijo que la razón por la que vino fue para vernos.  

Necesitaba mucha ayuda para subir y bajar del auto e incluso ir al baño, triste para un hombre con un porte tan distinguido.  Me dio una gran sonrisa de saludo.  Nos sentamos y hablamos lo mejor que pudimos durante mucho tiempo.  

Esta vez no hubo escapatoria una vez que la fiesta se volvió bulliciosa.  Todos los adultos estaban hablando, comiendo e interactuando con los quince niños de las familias combinadas.  Don Tino pidió que se moviera su silla para poder sentarse en medio de los niños, un gesto que todos notamos.  Tal vez, fue profético.  Murió diez días después.  

Barbacoa de 1998, faltando solo un par de miembros de la familia, puede ser la última foto de Senior Bolanos (en el medio).

Mary, Adam y yo habíamos regresado a los Estados Unidos, pero Ann todavía estaba allí y estaba incluida en las actividades familiares.  Nos complació poder tener un representante de nuestra familia presente.  Ann se sintió notoria cuando la gente asintieron con la cabeza hacia ella preguntando quién es ese.  Conoció a muchas personas, incluidos dos ex presidentes de la república.   

Ann describió el funeral como espectacular.  Había flores por todas partes, en toda la casa, donde ocurrían las visitas, y en la gran iglesia.  El ataúd, adornado con flores, fue llevado de la casa a la iglesia en una procesión.  La música y el canto eran hermosos y había un ambiente de celebración.  Después, hubo una procesión al estilo de Nueva Orleans al cementerio, dirigida por música, un coro y las flores.  Luego se celebraron nueve días de misas en honor a Don Tino y a los que asistió toda la familia.  Fue un final apropiado para un hombre amable que generosamente aceptó extranjeros en su hogar, los hizo sentir bienvenidos en su país y dejó una familia tan buena como su legado.