Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Stuff I love #2: Keen boots

     Last October, my wife and I spent a lovely, if strenuous day hiking the length of the Glen Onoko Falls Trail, in Lehigh State Park, about 90 minutes outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There, we saw two signs that caught our attention, signs the likes of which we had never seen on a hiking trail before, in all our years of tromping around this beautiful country.
       One had a skull and crossbones, to drive home the danger of the trail, which was wet, and rocky, with stretches that paralleled fatal drops. 
Glen Onoko Falls Trail
     The other was the sign above, that told hikers without proper hiking boots to "turn back now."  I smiled, confidently to myself, because I was wearing my Keen boots, the best hiking boot I've ever put on my feet. 
     I bought them at REI in 2009, when my boys and I were preparing for our epic 7,000 mile, nine-National-Park odyssey across the country. They're size 10, but somehow fit my 8 1/2 EEE feet perfectly. They've carried me up mountainsides in the Rockies, through fern-canopied paths in the Redwood Forest, splashed in the Pacific and the Atlantic, trod the deserts of South Dakota, Nevada and Utah, scampered around Wyoming, been up to Canada, striding through the woods in Nova Scotia and across the canyons of New York City and London and Chicago. 
Keens doing their job in
Southern Utah.
     Keen is a relatively new brand; founded in 2003 by Martin Keen, an outdoors lover and sailor who was looking to make a better shoe for use on boats. The Portland, Oregon company—same hometown as Gerber knife, featured here yesterday; must be the water—amazed backers with its rapid growth, and why not? The shoes are comfortable, light, rugged, water resistant. Low cut, they're easy to get on and off. They don't slip.
     I've had a number of other brands of boots that fell far short. A pair of Timberlands that quickly split between the uppers and the sole come to mind, bringing a shudder every time they do. 
     Even the best boots will wear out after years of hard use, and Keens are no different. (My wife blames the snow: I'd wear them to shovel our driveway, a mistake). When the left boot developed a hole in the upper, I did something I've never done with hiking boots or any other footwear for that matter. I took them to the shoemaker and had them patched. The patches are obvious squares of brown, but I don't care. If I get another few seasons out of them, it's worth it. When they wore away at the heel, I reinforced them myself with REI ballistic tape. Then I started gluing the tape to the seams.
     "Buy new hiking boots!" my wife sensibly commanded. But I can't. Not yet. I'll never find a pair like this. They fit my ducklike feet. They've been with me all over. At some point they'll fall apart—in my heart I hope I fall apart first—and I'll grumble and get another pair of Keen boots. I'm hoping they're as good, being made by the same company and all. But they'll have very big shoes to fill. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Stuff I Love #1: Gerber pocket knife

    Let's take a break, ignore the Punch & Judy show of Chicago politics and the banshee howl of the country's burgeoning population of crazy people, to visit the comforting world of tangible objects, with a brief reprise of my popular 2013 series, "Stuff I Love." 

    Just before Christmas, a reader wrote and said that he needed a gift for his nephew. He remembered my gift guides of the past, and wondered what I would recommend.
     I thought for a day or two, but only came up with one thing: this Gerber lock blade knife, the L.S.T. Drop Point, Fine Edge. 
     I've carried one in my pocket for at least 25 years. It's very light—just 1.2 ounces—yet sturdy and solid. It can be opened easily with one hand by a flick of the wrist.  Lightness is important—ultralight backpacking guides rave about it—since knives spend the vast majority of the time in our possession not cutting stuff but merely being carried. The stainless steel blade is strong and smooth; it's a joy to run your fingertip along its flat surface. The half-checkered, fiberglass-filled nylon handle is light and easy to hold. When the company brags the knife "just feels good and satisfying when you open and close the blade," they speak the truth. I probably open the knife and close it far more than anything else, even when I don't need it, just to have something to do with my hands. 
     Not that the knife doesn't get put to a hundred practical uses, from slicing apples to cutting rope. It'll trim cigars, razor articles out of the paper, even open a can in a pinch. Someone will be fumbling with a package that needs cutting and before anyone can think, never mind say, "Anybody got a knife?" mine is out and open, proffered with pride, accepted with gratitude and returned with reluctance. It sharpens in an instant, with a stone and honing oil. 
     I did pause, recommending the knife as a gift for a teenager.  It is a weapon, I suppose. Our schizophrenic society is such that while adults are waving their assault rifles around convenience stores, a kid can find himself trundled off by a SWAT team for forming his finger into a handgun at school. I can imagine the excitement this knife could cause pulled out at the wrong moment.  So I hope, if this kid's uncle gave him the Gerber, he gave him some advice too, and the kid has the good sense not to bring it to school. 
     Once you hit adulthood, however, it can go almost everywhere. Back before 9/11, I remember airport security opening it up and giving it an admiring look—at 6.1 inches, open, it just squeaked past airplane restrictions. Post 9/11, I once tried to take it through airport security at Denver, and they had me put it in an envelope and mail it home. But it returned, safe and sound. It always does.  
    Once I forgot I had the Gerber and tried to take it to Cook County Jail; the guard suggested I go outside and push it into the ground under a bush. I did, retrieving it afterward, muddy but none the worse after a quick rinse. They're simple, a single blade and open body, so clean up easily. 
    The LST isn't really a defensive weapon but, finding myself walking through a sketchy area at midnight, I'll keep it in my hand, in my coat pocket, as a talisman if nothing else.
    That said, the knife is so light, it has a way of disappearing for a while—I own two, just so one is usually around—but then they always turn up, buried in a pocket, in the bottom of my briefcase, on a table, and finding one is a burst of the Christmas I never knew. And should I ever really lose it, well, no big deal. If I ever need to replace the Gerber they usually sell for under $13. You can buy a knife for twice or 10 times that, though I can't imagine why. 
    There is, I suppose, a cool factor. Gerber is headquartered in Portland, Oregon and many of its knives are assembled in the USA.  Hunter S. Thompson mentions Gerber knives in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—and while the "Mini-Magnum" is the style of Gerber his attorney waves around, it is bigger and looks almost like a kitchen knife. I'll stick with my LST. 
    You can buy it from Amazon here. You'll never need another knife.  And if you lose it, you can get another one for 13 bucks. In fact, buy a few and save yourself the trouble. They also make great gifts. It's a beautiful thing.  I gave my wife one and she keeps it in her purse.
   LST, by the way, stands for "Light, Strong, Tough." I can vouch for all three. Carrying it might not make you, yourself, any of those three. But it sure will encourage the illusion. 

Monday, January 4, 2016

First a phallic flower, now this...

     "I hate to criticize the Botanic Garden," I said to my wife as we strolled along its trails Sunday, "but the flowers are more ... subdued than usual."
     A joke,  or an attempt at a joke, high spirits being necessary for an hour's walk in temperatures in the upper 20s with a brisk wind. While there wasn't much in the way of colorful blooms, it was compensated by an utter lack of people in the more far flung regions.
     "Hell," as Jean-Paul Sartre writes in No Exit, "is other people." 
     My wife observed that it was the first time we went through the entire Japanese gardens without encountering a soul. The Japanese gardens, a pair of islands connected with quaint bridges, are particularly beautiful this time of year, filled with evergreens like the Jack Pine above, and with subtle decorations like stone Japanese lanterns, whose gently spreading tops are designed to hold snow.
Baha'i Temple
    There were more people at the Wonderland Express, the train diorama the Botanic Garden sets up for the holidays. The last day of the season was Sunday, and we decided to go in, in part out of curiosity, in part to get out of the cold.  I had a memory of visiting the place with the boys, a dozen years or more ago, but only the vaguest recollection.

Mariana Towers
     The Chicago architectural landmarks the trains were going around and over were all constructed from natural materials: twigs and bark and mushrooms and seed pods and such. 
     Sometimes the effect was impressive, such as the Baha'i Temple. Sometimes, well, not so much. I was not charmed  by the Marina Towers constructed of shelf fungi, and said so, prompting my wife to praise the corncobs, or, I suppose, mushroom cobs, I suspect out of the notion that someone took the time to construct it and their feelings must be considered. 
     There was one part of the display we both agreed upon. A model of the Bean or, if you're an employee of the Chicago Tribune, "Cloud Gate," that had been rendered from what seemed like a gourd painted silver, only one that lacked the necessary bean-like smoothness but had a slight cleft that made it resemble something else entirely.
     "It's a tush!" my wife exclaimed, and before I could agree, a British father and his kids came by, and he said aloud, to no one in particular. 
     "It's a bottom!" 
     Nothing wrong with that, and it did add a certain adult, Rabelaisian flair to the otherwise sedate, charming and child-friendly holiday tableau. My wife suggested that perhaps it might be best to place a single Hershey's Kiss directly below the Bean/butt. "Or a some mini Tootsie Rolls!" I suggested.
     "Ewww," she laughed, and we pushed onward. Something to bear in mind for next year, the holiday season now being officially over, with nearly six weeks of winter until a brief respite arrives in the form of Valentine's Day. 


Sunday, January 3, 2016

Flock of Armed American Loons spotted at its winter nesting ground

     The warblers have left the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and gone south for the winter. As have most of the tundra swans. Few of the 320 species of birds which make Malheur a mecca for birdwatchers remain for the harsh Oregon January. If you search hard, though, you might find some common goldeneyes, mergansers, and perhaps, if you are lucky, the rare Eurasian widgeon.
      This week, though, an exceptional ornithological event: a flock of not-so-rare, sadly, Armed American Loons has abruptly established a winter nesting ground at the nature preserve on the southern shore of Malheur Lake, about 30 miles south of the small town of Burns. 
    "This refuge — it has been destructive to the people of the county and to the people of the area," Ammon Bundy told CNN. He led a band of undetermined size, calling for other armed radicals to join their stand, but not, as yet, declaring the bird sanctuary a caliphate. 
    Twitter mocked the group with hashtags like "YalQaeda" and "VanillaISIS"  and "Yee-hawdists." 
     "Wow I'm sure glad the NSA is monitoring emails and telephone calls to warn of home grown terror incidents," tweeted Pat Ondabak.
"Terror" somehow seems a little harsh. While some wanted to make a point that if it were Muslims we've have drones shooting missiles, the incident does seem to invite more ridicule than fear, at least for now. I couldn't help thinking: "Boy, I'm sure glad we kept all those Syrian refugees out of the country; if we hadn't, they might have armed themselves and taken over a bird sanctuary."
The group announced it intends to be there for years, and open up the area to logging and mining and other activities that Republicans just love. The federal government, prudently, announced it has no plans to go in and drive them out by force, but will just wait until they get bored and go home. And as much as I'd personally prefer the Army to sweep in and kill them, on general principles, I have to grudgingly admit that patience is probably the right path, at this point. We don't want to make them into the new Branch Davidians. 
One wonders what the birds make of all this.

"That'll do her, Dave"—Memories of the Flood, Pt. 2

    The Mississippi River flooding going on now prompted me to look at the stories I filed from the great flood of 1993. This one was one of my favorites, about when the river was re-opened to navigation. I was so taken with meeting the fifth generation of river rats that I pitched the story to Life magazine, which was still around then. They passed, which I thought a shame, since, as you'll see, they were quite an interesting crew.

     MOLINE — With its twin 250-horsepower Caterpillar engines roaring as if all the noise in the world were trapped inside, trying to get out, the James P. Pearson edges into the center of the Mississippi, bound for another appointment with 2,000 tons of sand and gravel.
     One of the numerous river workhorses idled for weeks by the flood, the Pearson, a towboat, is now pushing barges six days a week, trying to catch up.
     "We're only supposed to work five, but with the flood and everything, we're way behind," says Dave Williams, deckhand of the Pearson's two-man crew.
     A self-described "river rat" with five years on the Mississippi at the ripe age of 21, Williams introduces himself as the fifth generation of his family to work the river.
     At least a dozen relatives still do; one of them, his cousin, Shawn Olson, is pilot of the Pearson. He shows up for work with a bad cold, a briefcase filled with rock 'n' roll cassettes, "enough cigarettes to kill any man" and a supply of juice to combat the sweat-wringing 95-degree weather.
     Unlike larger boats making the trip "from Saint to Saint," (St. Paul to St. Louis), the Pearson is a small boat making a local run - four empty barges to drop off at the Moline Consumer's sand dredging operation in Cordova, Ill., swapped for four full barges of new sand to be brought back to Moline and Bettendorf, Iowa, where it is made into concrete mix. Round trip is about 50 miles.
     They are pleased as can be that navigation is still bottled up down river.
     "We wish it would stay like that until next year," Olson says, not wanting his run to be delayed at Lock and Dam No. 14, the only one of the Mississippi's 27 locks that the Pearson needs to go through.
     Going through the lock is fairly quick and simple: The boat and its barges enter the lock, the south gates swing shut, six feet of upriver water is allowed to flow in, the north gates swing open and the Pearson goes on her way on the higher portion of the river. It takes about 15 minutes.
     On a good day.
     But if there are any boats waiting in front of it, there is delay — sometimes for hours, even days, as the Pearson queues up behind larger boats maneuvering their big clusters of barges into the lock.
     Because of flooding conditions lingering downriver, there are practically no boats on this part of theMississippi. There is no wait at the lock. In fact, the Pearson passes only one commercial boat in nine hours - the immense Conti-Arlie, pushing a dozen grain barges. "Fifty-six hundred horsepower," Williams says, reverently. "That's a real working boat."

    Mostly the Pearson has the river to itself. The only sound, outside of the clangorous engine room, is the splash of the river against the barges and the sawing of cicadas in the trees lining the shore.
     Olson steers casually between the wide channel markers, barely needing to touch the wooden and brass rudder controls.
     Williams does his real work when the boat drops off or picks up barges, or goes through the locks. He scampers nimbly over the wet steel barges, securing ropes, winching steel cable. It is hard work in the hot sun, and Williams doesn't seem to have enough fat on his body to make a good butter pat.
     "My job is hard to explain," he says. "People say, 'You're a deckhand? What do you do? My grandfather (Don Williams, captain of the Queen of Hearts casino boat) used to say he told people he was a trucker, so they won't ask any questions . . . the majority of people around here are just society. They don't know anything about the river at all."
     Although both Williams and Olson complain about working on the river - Olson pointed out that "nobody got rich as a pilot" and Williams says he would like to find a "white shirt" job - they both obviously love what they do.
     "Some of the nicest people you meet on the river," Williams says. "They'll take care of you, free of charge."
     At Cordova, four barges containing 1,950 tons of sand and gravel are waiting in a large cove carved out of the shoreline by years of sand-dredging. Olson angles the empty barges next to the company's dredging machine as casually as if he were tossing cards into a hat.
     "Look at that big old bird up there," he says, pointing to something flapping over the forest, just as the barges ease against the dock. "That must be an owl, I betcha."
     Williams unleashes the barges, then takes time for a quick dip in the river, executing a neat jackknife dive into the cool water. "Ah yes," he says, breaking the surface.
     The journey downstream is a lot quicker - about 90 minutes less than it took to fight the current. There is still plenty of time to sit on a timberhead and enjoy the warm, soft breeze (river life is filled with quaint, anachronistic terms. Timberheads are the capped pegs used to secure lines - once cut from logs, they are now steel. At the lock, the little tram used to tow barges, if necessary, is called "the mule," a nod to its animate predecessor).
     A long Soo line freight train pulling auto carriers draws alongside at the river's edge and gives a few friendly toots.
     "That's the competition," Williams says, and Olson says hello back with a few blasts of the air horn.
     The James P. Pearson is almost home now. The sun is setting, a huge orange ball peaking out from behind the trees. "Is that beautiful!" Williams says. Olson opens the front window of the pilot house and turns up the volume on some vintage Allman Brothers Band.
     "Lord, I'm southbound," sings an Allman. "Lord, I'm coming home to you."
     In its final minutes, the sun puts on a display rarely seen outside of English Romantic oil paintings - bands of orange, blue, pink, purple and even green, radiating from the horizon. The gold light shimmers off the ripples, swirls and eddies formed by the barges cutting through the river.
     Two barges are left at the Bettendorf dock, below the bucket crane which will empty them before the Pearson returns at noon the next day - gingerly empty them, because the sand is so heavy that, if not unloaded uniformly, they can easily flip over.
     The other two barges are left at the Moline dock. The Pearson ties up at 8:23 p.m., about as early as she has ever returned from a full day's work.
     "That'll do her, Dave," Olson says, and he gives the horn a few celebratory blasts.
     Williams goes down to the engine room and shuts down the twin Caterpillars, which sigh to silence after nine hours of work.
     The only sound now is the gentle lapping against the wharf of the mighty Mississippi, now tamed to a gentle purr.
                            —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 30, 1993

Saturday, January 2, 2016

The Great Mississippi Flood of 1993

Photo by Al Podgorski

    The Mississippi is flooding again. The last time it was this bad was 1993, when I was a grunt reporter, and the City Desk sent me down a number of times to report on the disaster. Even after nearly a quarter century, thinking of the flood conjures up unforgettable images: the Mississippi, swollen and wide, racing along almost at the base of the Arch in St. Louis. Whole towns turning out in places like Grafton and Alton trying to keep their sandbag levees intact. Townsfolk keeping their wallets in Baggies.
     And a solitary stone house, which photographer Al Podgorski — who snapped the photo above — and I came upon in Saint Genevieve, Missouri.  An extraordinary sight: a peninsula of sandbags, jutting into the swollen river, protecting a single stone structure. I wrote about the efforts to save the house, and ended up on the stand bag line, trying to keep the wall in place. It was scary. I remember watching water trickling through the cracks between the sandbags thinking, "A guy could die here." But the wall held. None of the historic homes in Saint Genevieve were seriously damaged by the flood. 

     STE. GENEVIEVE, Mo. — This house north of town is called the Rock House because of its solid stone construction. Built in 1805, it is the oldest stone dwelling in Missouri.
     The house has seen a lot of history in its nearly two centuries of existence. It was, for a while, home to a slave trader. It was, for a while, a brothel. 
     It should be under water up to its second floor, and about 50 feet into the swollen Mississippi River.
     But it's not. 
     Walk up to the house, and the mind almost rejects what the eye is seeing. The house is surrounded on three sides by the river, kept out by a fragile sandbag and plastic levee. 
     The house also is called the Myers house, for the owner, Frank Myers, and it was his determination, along with his family's, that has kept the house safe. 
     "When he had resigned himself to fate, it was really when a lot of the family said 'No, we have to save it,' " says Stuart Johnson, Myers' son-in-law, who took over when Myers went into the hospital for a coronary bypass last week. (Ask anyone whether the fight to save the house put Myers in the hospital and the answer is always: "It didn't help.") 
     They have been fighting the river since July 4, and how it will work out is anyone's guess. On Friday, the river crested at Ste. Genevieve, a town of 4,500 about 50 miles south of St. Louis, at 49.6 feet, the highest point ever. 
     Around the Rock House, water seeps out of the bottom of the levee in sheets, forming a considerable creek at the base, where two pumps throw it back into the river. 
     The family has been aided by hundreds of volunteers, from the local girls basketball team, to the National Guard, to prisoners from the Farmington Correctional Facility, who endeared themselves by being concerned about getting the floors muddy. 
    As with much of the efforts to fight the flood, there is a factor of human nobility — or perhaps irrationality — in the fight to keep the river out of the Rock House. The walls are 3 feet of stone; the river probably wouldn't sweep the house away. Why not just give up and put all that effort into cleaning up afterward? 
     "I'll give up when the water brings me out the back door," says Johnson. "When I'm swimming out the back door, then I'll decide what to do next. 

Sandbaggers Get To the Nitty-Gritty

    Sandbags have a rhythm, a mantra. They are too heavy, and you need too many, for it to be otherwise.
     In creation, they require four people, as any volunteer can tell you, in something close to a nursery rhyme:
     One person holds it.
     One person fills it.
     One person ties it.
     One person stacks it.
     The parking lot at Valley High School here looked like a factory producing brown and green pillows.   Tens of thousands of 40-pound sandbags, piled about 3 feet high on wooden pallets, filled most of the area. Around the perimeter, volunteers worked feverishly, making more.
     Grab any sandbag team here and you find a cross-section of Midwesterners who left their lives, temporarily, to drive for hours to do back-breaking work in the hot sun for free to help total strangers.
     Mary Boyer, from Vincennes, Ind., held an empty bag. Ron Lyon, from Caledonia, Ohio, took a shovel and filled it — three shovelfuls to the bag. Nancy Hendrixson, also from Vincennes, tied it, and Marilyn Anderson, from Olney, Ill., did the stacking.
     "We brought a van load of goods donated by the town and dropped them off at the Salvation Army, then came to sandbag" said Hendrixson, explaining how they got there.
     "It's a chance to help out," said Lyon. "To give somebody else a break, to step into the breach."
     Jim Runstrom walked up. He had just driven 10 hours from Waterford, Mich. He asked if he could fill in for anybody, and Anderson let him take over the stacking.
     "I've been seeing these people on TV every day, and they look like they need help," he said. "So I came down."
                             —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 9, 1993

Friday, January 1, 2016

Have a Boswell New Year!

     Friday is New Year's Day. A time of resolutions, of personal goals solemnly set.
     Some are general: be a better person. Some are very specific: lose 15 pounds.
     Less clear is how to go about trying to reach those goals: how to eat less. How to be that better person.
     I'm going to suggest something out of left field: consider James Boswell.
     Famed as the 18th century biographer of British man of letters Samuel Johnson. But a fascinating figure in his own right, an ordinary man with a genius for hanging out with the most brilliant minds of his era. As a teenager he knocked on rationalist David Hume's door, barging in to talk philosophy. Later he argued about God with Voltaire and invited himself to be the house guest of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, hospitality he rewarded by eventually seducing Rousseau's wife.
     I'm not suggesting you spend 2016 cuckolding the great philosophers of our day — our era doesn't really have prominent philosophers. But Boswell's energetic efforts to give his life meaning can be emulated, and they start with one practice that anybody can do, right now, with no special equipment or training: keep a journal.

To continue reading, click here.