Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Photo by H Dragon

In November of last year, I got an email from Ross Borden. He wanted the Matador Trips team to publish this article:

"Where to Find the Largest Redwoods on Earth"

and this photo essay:

"The Oldest, Most Massive Living Things on Our Planet -- Seeing the GIANT Redwoods"

I ran with the prompts and started research. I exchanged emails with Mario Vaden, a tree enthusiast and professional horticulturalist from Oregon, and did a lot of Internet digging. The pieces I later produced were the funnest I've written for Matador, and both got some decent pageviewage:

Guide to the Redwood Groves: Where to Find the Tallest Trees on Earth
Photo Essay: GIANT Redwoods, the Tallest Living Things on Our Planet

But that wasn't the end of the story. Or the beginning.


I've always been a climber. Rocks, walls, roofs, trees. I'm not sure what appealed to me more as a kid, the actual act of climbing or that feeling of getting to a place that lets you see things from unusual angles. Probably the second, since I also spent a lot of time squeezing through drainage grates. Suburban safari.

Sam and I used to walk the streets--Parklane, Stanford, Luther, Belvidere, El Prado--scoping for a good-looking magnolia or oak or pecan, hop the chainlink and start up it. The neighborhood wasn't a 1930s, upper-crust subdivision. It was a forest.

In high school, I remember being pretty fumed when Jon's neighbors butchered the limbs off their 65-year-old oak. I thought I might make them an unmixed tape that played only one song--Jefferson Airplane's "Eskimo Blue Day." The refrain is "doesn't mean shit to a tree." I guess I was a treehugger back then.

But I forgot about trees in New England. It's hard to climb trees up there. They're sappy and snowed on. I forgot how it felt to see things from unusual, secret angles.


In my digging for the Matador pieces, I found an NPR interview with Richard Preston, author of The Wild Trees. The interview was intense and interesting, and I used this quote in my article:
"…the truth of the matter is that redwood rainforest is exceedingly difficult to move through, physically. You get out in there, and it takes a physically fit person up to 12 hours to move two miles. You’re belly crawling, you’re crawling through thorns, your skin gets all bloody, you can’t see anything. It’s absolutely thick.

And then you come across these piles of redwood trunks that have fallen down like pick-up-sticks. These are trunks that are anywhere from eight to 12 feet in diameter piled up, and…you get a wall of wood that may be 30 feet tall. And as you climb over it, if you slip down into a crack, you can fall into the pile — 30 feet — and break your leg and never be heard from again."

My eyes didn't catch just on Preston's words, but also the familiar title of his book. My wife and I had bought it on Amazon a couple years earlier to give to her father for his birthday. The Wild Trees.

I also started to remember why my father-in-law had wanted that book. About his discovery of technical tree climbing, the skill set traditionally used by arborists to gain access to tall trees that had become something of an underground sport, with periodic competitions. Kinda like those lumberjack tournaments you see on ESPN2, only climbing trees instead of cutting them.

And then I remembered just last Christmas we'd set him up with a technical tree climbing course, run by the South Georgia Tree Climbing Association outside of Atlanta. I'd watched a video from them that covered the basics: how to hook a line over a limb using a weighted sack, how to belay a climber, like in rock climbing.

I thought it was a little weak. I thought climbing a tree with ropes wasn't really climbing a tree.

But things were coming together. The Matador stuff, the redwoods, the technical climbing. It felt like the right time to read Preston's book. I borrowed my father-in-law's birthday gift and dug in. I loved it.


We're going to a wedding in San Francisco in July. I'm psyched for the family time, to see the city, and to celebrate with the bride and groom. But as soon as I heard the location, I knew I'd be taking a week after the ceremony and heading north.

Up Highway 101 through that huge chunk of California that it's easy to forget about. Up about 5 hours to Humboldt Redwoods State Park and the Avenue of the Giants. Then farther, through Eureka and Arcata and into Redwood National Park and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. Way up to Crescent City and Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.

I don't want to belly crawl through thorns and poison oak, or fall through a pile of dead redwood pick-up-sticks. I don't want to search for Hyperion. I don't want to hang from a rope 30 stories off the ground. Not this trip anyway. I just want to see them.

Photo by briandrum

Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Story of Two Photos

The road out from Turco was unpaved, just like the road to Turco, but the ride went quickly, the white peaks of the Nevados de Quimsachata bulging bigger against the white sky.

Chachacomani is one of those pueblos that disappears into the mountains behind, so it wasn't till we got within half a km that I saw it, even with the line of sickly electrical poles running out of it, down the Altiplano and to the horizon.

I was pretty nervous. This was our first "site visit," the first time we'd left the Energética offices in Cochabamba and gone "into the campo" to see what it was this organization was up to. We'd been in the car for something like 12 of the last 24 hours, conversing with Don Fredy and trying not to expose just how shitty our Spanish was. After a night in an Oruro hotel, we'd driven on to Turco, dropped our stuff in a cold mud-brick room, and continued west on the road past Sajama to this tiny pueblo 5km from the Chilean border. I felt lost.

We were supposed to be "documenting." Doing photos and interviews about the energy situation in rural Bolivia. I don't think Don Fredy knew what to make of it. He didn't offer help. He was busy trying to collect the community leaders and get some feedback on how the new power lines were working and what their current needs looked like.

Care and I slid out of the Land Cruiser. We looked at our feet. Nothing seemed to be happening. We kind of zigzagged, in that time-killing kind of way, down a grass-covered lane. In about 100 meters the pueblito ended. Nothing by shrubs, garbage, and llamas out there. We photoed the llamas. They got nervous and jogged away, up the first slopes of the Nevados de Quimsachata.

Back at the "main plaza," people were gathering. There were some chicos with heavy metal t-shirts and nice-looking bikes, showboating, hopping curbs and big rocks. Some cholas were sitting on the curb in front of the church, each with a dozen skirts and a bowler cap. They were drop-spindling llama wool.

Non-Bolivians with cameras are drawn to cholas. I slipped over to them, trying to find an opening in their quiet Aymar-llano. I went for it, said hello, explained what the hell I was doing in their nice little village by the mountains. "Puedo sacar una foto de Uds.?" There was a short comprehension lag, and then a forceful shaking of heads. Nobody moved. One of the younger ones smiled because of the tension. The others waited for me to leave.

I walked back to the car. "That's a no," I said to Carey. I turned around and snapped a photo of the huddle, from the outside.

The whole thing, our project, looked like it was going to tank. Don Fredy had better things to do than give us a proper introduction. Everyone was ignoring us. We walked off in the other direction, thinking we'd better find some more llamas to photo.

Chachacomani was bigger down the hill. There was a school, a health clinic, a two-story brick building.

We got to the other end. There were no more llamas, just the flat, brownish Altiplano spilling out like a flood to the east. We kept walking along the "main road," the one we'd driven up to get into town. North of us, Sajama's pyramidal bulk hid behind a sheet of blowing snow.

By the road, an old man in a green sweatshirt was mortaring together a small cubic structure. He looked at us and smiled.

"I'm gonna try," I said. I went over and gave him my spiel. "Energética," "voluntario," energía," "entrevista." He kept smiling, then nodded his head.

His name was Pedro Apaza Mamani. He'd come to Chachacomani 3 years ago looking for work, and now he was stacking together this outhouse by the road. He answered all of my questions, speaking into the dinky Olympus digital recorder, while Carey stood back and photoed. When I played it back a week later in Cochabamba, his voice was almost washed out by the wind. He said he was thrilled to have electricity in his home, even if it only powered a 25-watt light bulb. That was our first interview.

When we got back to the plaza, the Land Cruiser was packing up. Time to go, on to Campo Grande as the sun set, which is where the picture in the previous post was taken. Campo Grande means Big Country.