Beached in Greece

At the beach in Vouliagmeni, with the slap of backgammon and the thwock of paddleball filling the air.

A guy ahead of me in line looks like he spent the previous night pouring gallons of Rioja down his throat, without the benefit of tapas. He’s wearing soiled beige pants and a black and grey leopard-skin patterned nylon shirt. It’s too tight, though. Pale flesh oozes between his pants and shirt like a pouty lower lip. His hair sticks out at all angles, and his unshaven face is pocked with zits. By the looks of him, he ended up on some stranger’s floor just two hours previously, when a chute opened up and he went hurtling along its length, landing in the security area of Barcelona International Airport like a sack of laundry.

He looks bewildered, as if in mid-nightmare, with a where-the-hell-am-I, who-are-all-these-people look.

A security officer glares at him, and since he’s not budging, I take his spot. As I load up my trays, I glance back. The security officer, still glaring, says something — maybe, are you carrying any liquids? The guy reaches into his bag and pulls out a 1.5 litre plastic bottle of something carbonated, that might be Coke but isn’t. As travelers swirl around, he unscrews the top, tilts back his head and guzzles, his Adam’s apple bobbing like a kid on a pogo stick.

* * *

A splash of rooftop colour.


I offer the above as a palate cleanser, before our flight to Athens. We land late in the evening and meet our cab driver, who will take us to Vouliagmeni, a beachy suburb of Athens 25 minutes south of the airport. With its posh resorts and restaurants, Vouliagmeni is often called the Riviera of Greece, which is hardly a recommendation for me. But it did host the triathlon during the Athens Olympics. There’s a nearby ruin. Lots of expensive real estate. And oligarch-scale yachts prowling off the beach at the Four Seasons resort.

Apart from that, our place is perfect: A ten-minute walk from an excellent taverna and bakery. We have fresh figs, grapes, tomatoes and olive oil on our lunch table. And we’ve discovered a peppercorn-studded graviera cheese from Crete. I’ve never seen this cheese in Canada, and it’s so good that, if that slippery rat, Pierre Poilievre, stood up in the House of Commons and made peppercorn-studded graviera a central plank in his trade policy, I would vote for him.

You know where you are, in Vouliagmeni.

* * *


I had two grandmothers, whom I got to know when I went to grade school for a year in Greece. They represented two sides of my family; two sides of the Greek character, too.

One grandmother was plump and kind-hearted, and always quick to shed tears, whether in sorrow or joy. She lived in a small whitewashed house adjacent to the church, whose bronze voice would announce the hour and half hour, and burst into song each Sunday morning. I remember a few things from her house. Such as a bench by the fireplace where my mother had sat as a girl. Or the tiny screened cages hanging from the rafters, that would hold saucers of leftover stew or scraps of cheese, so the flies and mice couldn’t get at them. Or an ancient treadle Singer, whose gold decorations had faded after decades of use, and on which my mother had learned to sew.

When I visited again as a young man, I took her portrait with my camera. Later during that visit, she brought out a tape measure and held it to my arms and across my shoulders, around my waist and chest. She brought out her shears and, only by eye, cut pieces from a blue-striped raw cotton sheet, and then sat at her Singer to make a collarless peasant shirt, which I wore for years until it fell apart.

My other grandmother lived on the coast, and she was in many ways the opposite. Thin, severe, undemonstrative. She had been widowed young, when my grandfather was killed in the Balkan wars, leaving her to raise four children during times of war and hardship. Perhaps this had narrowed her. During the year I lived with her and my uncle’s family, my grandmother and I slept in the same room, with a chamber pot in the corner, herds of goats and sheep clattering by just outside, swallows swooping every evening, and dewy white roses wafting their morning scent just outside our open window.

Lying in our respective beds during the afternoon siesta, we would sometimes wake up together and she would read aloud from the newspaper, pausing to make comments laced with sarcasm. I didn’t understand a word of the formal Greek, nor anything about the political actors, but took her reading aloud as an invitation join her in bed. One afternoon, she began reading a letter from my mother in Montreal, asking after my health and progress in school. My father’s business in Montreal had failed, and my father had been obliged to find work on a troky.

My grandmother paused her reading. “What’s a troky?” she asked.

“A truck,” I translated. “My father is now working on a truck.” I thought this was an exciting development, and a fresh gust of homesickness engulfed me.

“Good luck to him, then,” she harumphed, before continuing the letter.

* * *

At the corner of Ermou and Agios Panteleimonos Streets, a few minutes from our rental place in Vouliagmeni, stands an ancient olive tree wearing a sign that suggests she’s 1,200 years old.

The yiayiá is gnarled and twisted with age, but her head is crowned with a lively thatch of twigs and silvery leaves. Elevated a few feet above the road, she stands behind a fringe of grass, honoured and remembered, as I remember my own yiayiádes and honour them with these words.

Officers of the law, steps from the ancient olive tree. They chatted and smoked for about an hour, before zooming off.

Lost in Barcelona

We are in Barcelona, threading our way through the crowds in a tiny square near the Gothic Quarter, and a plaque catches my eye. Plaça de George Orwell. After too many years of education, I’ve managed to memorize almost nothing of value, except this:

As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.

These are the opening words to a 1940 essay Orwell wrote as the Luftwaffe began their nightly pounding of London. I first read these words in my early twenties, and I’ve never forgotten their simple, revelatory power. As usual with Orwell, his plain words cut through the shit, capturing the strange and paradoxical chaos and cruelty our species chooses to live with.

Six years before, after journeying to Spain to fight the fascists — one of the greatest lost causes of the twentieth century — Orwell had written Homage to Catalonia. It initially sold only a few hundred copies, and is the chief reason Orwell’s name is today affixed to a Plaça in the capital of Catalonia. It’s a good book to read.

The Spanish Civil War, often called a rehearsal for WWII, pitted the usual suspects against each other, with infighting and betrayals and the cynical manipulation of trusting ordinary people. Orwell went there to join the fight, and instead wound up writing about it. Homage to Catalonia was the result.

* * *

The first time we visited Barcelona, nine years ago, I set out for a run and, as usual, got hopelessly lost. I’ve been lost before — in fact it’s habitual with me, and a source of strange pride. I’ve gotten lost on runs in Singapore, Seattle, Galway, Cambodia, and in plenty of other places. But this was different. I knew roughly where our apartments was, somewhere down that lane in the Gothic Quarter. But our door had simply vanished. I had no address, map, phone or phone number.

Tired and aching from my long morning run, as an implacable burning sun inched higher every minute, I began to succumb to dehydration. I know the symptoms well: fuzzy brain, crankiness, and a need to immediately lie down on a cool bed in a dark room. I was desperate for a bottle of water, but of course had no money. I felt a rising sense of panic. I wanted to cry, but that would further dry me out. Then I considered begging.

But how do you beg for directions?

Closure in Calella de Palafrugell

That was nine years ago. On this trip, I did not run in Barcelona. Instead, I’ve taken a few tentative runs and hikes around Calella de Palafrugell, the village on the Costa Brava where we’re now staying for a week. A smiling giant lies down and stretches his rocky arms out to the sea, enclosing a sun-washed crescent of small sandy coves lined with hotels, restaurants and bars that nestle in the giant’s chest. Repeat that image several times, and you have a good idea of the Costa Brava.

A distant view of Calella de Palafrugell, from a hiking path.

Calella de Palafrugell is an old holiday town, with sparkling seas and strolling tourists happy to be away from home. To the right and below our balcony, a large stone house with a clay-tiled roof sits right on the beach, with a dramatic patio on the second floor and a private sandy beach below. Apart from its prominent location, the building is not luxurious and looks as though it has stood here for centuries. But, by Old World standards, it’s relatively new, built by the son of the fabulously rich Mr. Velcro. Whether the family still owns Velcro Manor isn’t clear. But the origin story is this: Mr. Velcro, at that time a Swiss electrical engineer with a different name, returned from a hike in his native Alps one day and noticed that his dog was covered with burrs. That’s when…

Mr. Velcro’s famous Alpine walk occurred in 1941, with his first patent filed in 1954.

At the other end of Calella de Palafrugell, imposingly large houses snuggle against the giant’s left arm. These were built by former fishermen who discovered there was more money to be made harvesting cork trees than risking their lives with nets and hooks.

If you hike south from Calella de Palafrugell, over the giant’s right shoulder and along the sea, the path takes you to the sumptuous Cap Roig Botanical Gardens. I didn’t get lost on my way there, but did lose my way in the garden itself, looking for the cacti — always my favourites.

The garden was founded in 1927 by a married couple, the Woevodskys. Nikolai Woevodsky was a former Russian colonel, and Dorothy Webster an English aristocrat. Today, the garden isn’t as well-known as its summer music festival. Apart from Christina Aguilera and Sting, I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know any of the other acts in this year’s edition, as they’re all Spanish performers. But pre-Covid lineups included Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, Chick Corea, Diana Krall, Peppa Pig and Leonard Cohen. Bob Dylan has played Cap Roig Music Festival several times.

In the formal part of the Cap Roig Botanical Gardens. Did I mention I got lost in the gardens, looking for cacti?

* * *

The first day in Calella de Palafrugell, I went for a run, carefully noting landmarks at every turn. Left at the first roundabout; straight at the next three roundabout; then left at the stone building with the FUNKY TOWN sign.

I wear a running watch, but it’s not a fancy model, the kind that tells you where to go and when you heart will explode. But it does keep track of the basics: time, pace and distance. I tell myself to pay attention, look straight ahead, stay loose, keep going.

Running down to the sea.

Begging for directions

Soon after we arrived in Calella de Palafrugell, I located a book of Orwell’s essays and read “Marrakech.” Like many of his essays from that period, it’s a devastating indictment of racism and colonialism — subjects he knew first-hand, as a former colonial policeman in Burma (now Myanmar). He writes about the invisibility of the subject races, those with brown skin. A bundle of sticks moving down the road is just that, until one day you squint and see the ancient shrunken woman beneath the load. After that, you can never “unsee” her.

In Barcelona, where nine years ago I had been hopelessly lost, the beggars have adopted a new posture. They now prostrate themselves, knees on the pavement, arms outstretched on the ground, fingers balancing a paper cup — and always, always face down. The posture is the thing, you see, for now it’s easier to give. No need to engage, to see the beggar’s eyes. Nor to think about the transaction and what it means, why it’s necessary. Drop a coin into the cup, move on.

Yesterday afternoon I went for a run to the San Sebastià lighthouse, just over the giant’s left shoulder. The distance is short, but the paths are steep and the slanting sun was still burning hot and soon I was drenched in sweat and my pulse was climbing with dangerous insistence. So I kept reminding myself to pay attention, look straight ahead, stay loose, keep going and, above all, listen to my heart.

Tomorrow we fly on to Greece.

Sa Sebastià lighthouse, and a friend. Worth the climb.

Day three in Barcelona

Columbus sailed from Barcelona to “discover” the New World. But as I learned from my last visit, nine years ago, the keen-eyed explorer is pointing in the wrong direction. Art always trumps fact.

If you like the oldest parts of Barcelona — the Gothic Quarter (El Born), Barcelonetta, and the city’s extraordinary market, then you’re out of luck. Everyone else likes these places too. With every step, you’re surrounded by a vast and flowing shoal of humanity every hour of the day and night.

But no mind. We were only here for three nights, and on our last night we arrived early at La Cañeta and scored seats at the bar. There are booths and dining rooms at the back and upstairs, but the bar gives you front-row seats to the show. La Cañeta is a celebrated tapas place: noisy, packed and operating like a well-oiled machine. You can watch chefs in toques prepare tapas, while waiters in white jackets and epaulets dash back and forth, fetching and clearing plates, and making and pouring drinks. To a man — and they’re all men — they’re irresistibly charming and helpful and funny. You want to bring one home.

Our waiter sized us up and produced an English menu that may as well have been written in Catalan. But, with his help, and furtive glances at what our neighbours were eating, we ordered glasses of Cava and five plates. They were all exquisite to look at and delicious.

There was a reason for our bewilderment. The menu at La Cañeta lists some 50 dishes, under three categories: Appetizers, Snacks, and Specials. But there’s no discernible reason for these divisions. Each dish, in every category, could just as easily be in another category. And they’re all sized so you need several, to enjoy individually or share. Among those dishes was Laminated iberian prey with fine herbs (13.65€).

Walking back from dinner with a friend, we encountered La Pedrera, one of Gaudi’s famous houses, which we’d seen on a previous trip in the daytime. Ghostly and imposing at night, with some of the playfulness gone.

The entrance to La Pedrera.

Crypto in the kitchen

Back in the 90s, Spanish chefs popularized deconstructed dishes, foams, spherification and other culinary cons. It was only the beginning, before cooking spawned reality shows and dedicated channels. You can now watch competing chefs sweating, hating and crying. Always in pursuit of the next big thing.

It’s morning and a celebrity chef stares bleary-eyed at a mirror. A half-shaven face stares back. Business is down. Customers are fleeing. There’s a new place across town where they’ve developed a technique for laminating comestibles. They pioneered laminated Algerian snippets. Now they’ve turned their sights on iberian prey — with fine herbs, no less! The chef’s eyes suddenly widen. Of course! The answer’s been under his nose this entire time! He dabs at the Gillette Foamy on his cheek. Touches it with his tongue. Immediately picks up his phone and barks: “Loic! In the test kitchen in an hour!”

Jagger at the cathedral

The Cathedral of Barcelona.

In Pla de la Seu, there were long low benches crowded with tourists, such as ourselves, where you can rest your tired feet and admire the Gothic Cathedral of Barcelona. The topmost part of the cathedral was obscured by a Samsung ad for a Galaxy Z Fold4. Questions crowded the mind.

The 15th-century cathedral is dedicated to Saint Eulália, one of the city’s patron saints. According to tradition, the young virgin suffered martyrdom during ancient times, when the Romans stripped her naked and exposed her in the public square. But a miraculous snowfall in mid-spring covered her nudity, to confound the Romans — but only for a while. Because the Romans then put her into a barrel with knives stuck into it and rolled it down a street — an early form of Cuisinart, if you will. The body of Saint Eulalia, or what was left of it, is entombed in the cathedral.

We sat and marvelled at the elegant tracery over the cathedral entrance, every loop rendered in stone. Over the sound of children playing and parents shouting and hawkers selling, an old man with a guitar was singing love songs in a warbly old-man’s vibrato. I watched a boy of about six bouncing a soccer ball with his feet and knees, the ball never once touching the ground. It was a thing to behold. After a full three minutes of this, the boy tapped a pass sideways with his heel. His little sister, all of four, muffed the pass. He glared at her with disdain. But then dad, with a cigarette clamped to his mouth and wearing a vintage Stones t-shirt, stepped in to play with both and keep the peace.

On the second day in Barcelona, we saw a green-painted recycling truck stop in a narrow street to pick up piles of clear bags and stacks of cardboard. One of the green-suited sanitary workers was a young woman with a thick blonde braid halfway down her back. She wore designer glasses, lipstick and pearl earrings. She would have turned heads anywhere, except in Europe.

A fancy hotel near La Pedrera.

On the second day here, at breakfast in this aggressivelyh British-themed restaurant, we learned the queen had died.

Moments of Grace in Montana

Sitting by the pond behind our borrowed cabin in Montana, I’m reading Where the Crawdads Sing, a bestselling novel by Delia Owens. It’s so bad that I can’t put it down. So unspeakably awful that it’s now a major motion picture starring actors I’ve never heard of.

The Swamp Girl, you see, is the main character. Scorned by the townsfolk, abandoned by her mother, beaten by her drunken ne’er-do-well dad. And then befriended by a saintly Black family. Someone teaches the Swamp Girl to read and, before you know it, she’s a scientist. Authoring celebrated books on crawdads, shells and such. Then the Swamp Girl is accused of murder. Courtroom scenes ensue. When all she ever wanted was love. Did I mention she’s beautiful?

I bought the book by accident (don’t ask), and since our cabin lacks wifi, I’m now irrevocably stuck with it. Plus, I paid good money for the Crawdad book. So, just as I would never throw away a piece of barely edible leftover chicken, I’m going to plod through the whole damn thing.

“I want to know what happens to the Swamp Girl,” I say, just a little too defensively.

I’m gamely chewing on another chapter when a movement catches my eye. I glance up. Eighteen inches from my face, a hummingbird hovers, studying me intently, green iridescent body swinging gently between vibrating wings. Satisfied, the hummingbird zooms off.

Trouble in Paradise

In June of this year, record rains and mudslides washed out the northern road into Yellowstone Park, causing tourism to plummet in Paradise Valley. Visitors can still enter Yellowstone on foot, if they’re accompanied by guides. But if you want to drive in, you have to bypass Paradise Valley and enter the park on the south side, through Wyoming. It’ll take three years to repair the road, which is a big economic blow to businesses in Paradise Valley, especially following the lean years of the pandemic. The town of Gardiner, at the park entrance, is particularly hard-hit. When we visit, it seems empty, bereft.

Livingston, you can safely presume

The former rail hub and ranching town of Livingston stands at the other end of Paradise, and we visit one day. Livingston is a handsome town (A River Runs Through It was filmed here). You can easily imagine its heyday: hitching posts in front of freshly-painted buildings, wooden sidewalks, dainty ladies dragging their crinolines over the straw and horseshit as they cross the dirt road.

Icons in Livingston

In a downtown of carefully curated shops, cafes and bars, you won’t find a single fast-food outlet. Except at its very entrance, at Mike’s Beefburger In-and-Out. Mike’s has been here since 1954 (“fast food” entered Merriam’s in 1951), and is open during baseball season, April to October. I wanted to eat there at first sight, but it was Sunday and the place is a shrine, so the lineup was too long.

I returned during the week and was, briefly, the only customer. I ordered a double-patty cheeseburger, fries and a Coke, which I took across the street to a picnic table situated on a patch of grass. I sat and watched the parade of locals drive up and order food, which they mostly ate in their pickups.

Further on, past Main Street, you get to the Teslow, a 75-foot grain elevator, or “prairie skyscraper.” There’s a committee in Livingston dedicated to saving the silo, which would be a good thing.

The Teslow is a “grand example of vernacular architecture.” That’s how the fancy-pants committee dedicated to saving the Teslow phrase their description. They also claim that it’s “a monument to the industries that built our town — farming, ranching, and the railroad.” That, too.

Radio station KPRK, with its spiralling Futurama fake antenna, stands just beyond the Teslow. The station still broadcasts, but not from here.

Another moment of grace

After dinner with some friends in Livingston, we drive the fifty kilometres back to our cabin, along Route 89. In the half hour before dark, colour and depth drain from the Absaroka mountains, reducing them to a high jagged scrim. In the half-light, the mountains flatten to silhouettes: remote, abstract, forbidding. Not so much stone, as the idea of stone. And this, for some reason, chills the heart.

The following evening, our last in Montana, we’re invited to an outdoor concert at the Old Saloon in Emigrant, a dot on the map halfway between Livingston and Gardiner. W.C. Huntley, a South Carolinian who now lives in Montana, is playing his usual set of twangy, old-fashioned covers and originals. I’m told he comes from a family of professionals: doctors and lawyers, mostly. But W.C. can’t quit the old-timey music, knowing perfectly well he’ll never get rich chasing his dream. He’s compact in size but charismatic, with a strong tenor voice and a confident picking style.

In Emigrant tonight it’s drizzling on and off, so most of the saloon patrons are indoors, whooping it up around the bar and taking turns at the two pool tables. The die-hards are outside, in freshly pressed jeans and pale cowboy hats, belt buckles glinting under the stage lights. The appointed bouncer, a baby-faced carpenter by trade, chats with us, “Sirs” and “Ma’ams” softening every sentence.

Under the spitting rain, with the wind whipping down from the Absaroka range, a bearded rancher in heavy boots rises from a picnic table with his girl and, with uncommon dignity and grace, leads her round the dance floor. Soon they’re joined by others, and it’s a beautiful thing to see.

Cowboy at the checkout

Livingston, Montana. I’m at the checkout at Albertson’s, a big U.S. grocery chain, when I line up behind the cowboy. The man towers over me — easily six-foot-six, with a white Stetson that extends his altitude by another half foot. He has a ZZ Top-calibre russet beard, shoulder-length hair and curling moustaches that give him the mournful air of a bewhiskered nineteenth-century homesteader or a murderer. He waits patiently behind a woman unloading cases of Mountain Dew and chicken parts.

I move to another checkout line for a better view. He wears Wrangler jeans tucked into suede knee-high boots. Under a black vest, a long-sleeve maroon shirt and a red bandana. At his wrists, wide leather cuffs studded with green rhinestones. A gold chain emerges from somewhere on his person, makes a loop, and terminates at a vest pocket. (To a watch? A picture of his mother? Opera glasses?)

I see no evidence of six-shooters, spurs or chaps. But he is holding a basket with several tubes of toothpaste, bottles of mouthwash and hair care products.

As I puzzle over the toiletries, a cashier at another checkout calls to me, “Excuse me, Mister, I’m open now. Would you like to pay?”

I catch the cowboy’s attention: “Sir, I think you were here first. After you.”

He pauses, touches his hat. “Thank you kindly.”

* * *

Our hosts in Paradise Valley have generously lent us a cabin on their property, which is fitted with large windows looking east and west. To the east is a pond fed by mountain streams from Emigrant Peak (nearly 11,000 ft.), which is part of the Absaroka Range. We’re at the foothills of Emigrant Peak, and so the mountain dominates the view and the light. During the morning hours, the three peaks repeat their purple silhouettes in the still water, and all is quiet, until the sun finally rises over their shoulders to stir things up.

Our hosts tell us that in the fall, hundreds of elk descend from Emigrant Peak, where they have been summering, to graze on the stubbled alfalfa fields below and to wait for winter.

Another large window, at the opposite side of the cabin, over our bed, gives a view of the distant Gallatin Range across Paradise Valley.

Approaching our cabin, nestled in the wooded patch on the right. Above us, Emigrant Peak.

The pond, just outside our kitchen window.

* * *

The cowboy at Albertson’s reminds me of The Stranger, played by Sam Elliott in the The Big Lebowski. A hammy cowpoke in a bowling alley, narrating a story to a hippie addled with dope and white Russians. Nothing could be clearer than a poke in the eye. And if The Stranger is the narrator, maybe even the creator, like all creators he has perfected the dramatic device of disappearing at just the right moment.

A poke in the eye. This Cadillac was in a parking lot on Main Street, Livingston, Montana.

When the cowboy at Albertson’s paid, I set the contents of my shopping cart on the counter, fumbled to locate my USD credit card, grabbed my bags, and only then looked up to see where he’d gone. I scanned the parking lot. Vanished. I regretted not following him. Was he driving a pickup or a Civic? And where was he headed? To the open range, or to a kid’s birthday party, to make animal balloons and perform rope tricks? I’m glad I never saw him leave.

* * *

People fly into Montana from all over the world, to cast trout flies in Yellowstone River, which threads its way through Paradise Valley. They buy bear repellent, hike the mountains, ride horses, eat bloody steaks, stare wide-eyed at the vistas, and raise hell in bars.

A voice tells me I should be doing at least some of these things instead of sitting by this pond, watching the light change, moment by moment, along and below Emigrant Peak. I pay no heed.

At mile marker 49, Route 89, along the Yellowstone River, between Emigrant and Livingston, Montana.


A rattlesnake skeleton under glass, embedded into an adobe bench in the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe. The artist had one just like it at home.

When I was in grade school, I learned that if I brought home a picture book about snakes and opened it at random at the kitchen table, I would be rewarded with the sight of my mother going berserk.

“But, look! It’s not a snake, just a picture in a book,” I would protest, in Greek, as she upended her chair and fled from the room, screaming, while I chased her, the book still open and fluttering in my little hands. “You can’t be scared of a picture!”

The pleasure and satisfaction in the cruelty of it was a revelation, something new. For once, the roles were reversed and the adult was an unhinged screamer, the child a voice of reason. I didn’t even need a picture of a snake. An unconvincing stick would do just fine. Or a mess of badly scotch-taped loops of paper, with a splayed bobby pin stuck on the end, representing a forked tongue.

I’d waltz into the living room and toss that on the couch beside my mother. She’d hit the ceiling. I would dissolve in laughter.

I’ve been thinking a lot about snakes recently, after I saw one in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Over a couple of anxious days, I’d been firing off nasty emails from Santa Fe to a loan officer at our bank, back in Montreal. We felt that she had been too slow in finishing up some paperwork for a house we wanted to buy — our dream home in the woods. And so my emails were peevish and impatient. You know the tone. You’ve overheard it at airports and in hotel lobbies. People in Prada calling for the manager. Demanding upgrades. Making threats. Brandishing their Platinum EliteAsshole cards.

Our loan officer replied with an apology. A colleague had unexpectedly quit the week before and, overnight, her workload had doubled. Hence the delay. Plus, well, she now had Covid. No, she wasn’t on a ventilator, thank God. And her parents weren’t at risk, as they were now safely dead. Of Covid. But still, she had to work right through her recovery at home, if she ever hoped to clear the backlog. Thankfully, her kids were bringing her orange juice and leaving it by the door. This was over the weekend.

I wrote back with a weaselly apology: “…oh, terrible for you…no idea…but of course you understand…dream home… now slipping away…but thank God for your loving children…so if you could just…” etc.

I sent the email and went for a run along the Camino Real, which follows the Santa Fe River south. About fifteen minutes in, a shape appeared beside the asphalt path up ahead. From a distance it looked like a coiled garden hose. But as I drew closer, the hose moved. Outside of a zoo, it was easily the biggest snake I’d ever seen.

The snake sensed my approach and the head turned, tongue testing the air. For a moment we regarded one another. I took a step closer. A tail emerged from the coiled mass and began to shake crazily. No-No-No-No-No-No!

* * *

On the night Ronald Reagan won the U.S. presidential election, in 1981, I was squeezed into a crowded lounge at McGill, watching the results on a wall-mounted TV through a haze of cigarette smoke. We were booing and basking in our shared Canadian superiority. We watched the professional actor glide effortlessly, beat by beat: aw-shucks humility…self-deprecating quip…sobering setup…pause to let things sink in…steely glint…Repeat.

It was morning again in America.

Today, when we think of global disasters, the mind goes to uncontrollable wildfires and floods, to bedraggled polar bears drowning from lack of ice. But for me, the 1980s were far worse. A fever dream of high-waisted pants, mullets and pushed up jacket sleeves. The Eurythmics. That was a planetary catastrophe.

And another thing about the 1980s — during that first Reagan term, it suddenly became cool to be rich. Raw greed? Bring it on! Unreservedly shit on the poor? Yes, please!

I had a part-time job at a picture-framing shop, where we sold posters of couples in tuxedos and gowns swanning in front of ugly mansions and spooning caviar into each other’s mouths. The caption was, LET THEM EAT CAKE.

* * *

The snake regarded me a moment longer, sensed that I wasn’t going anywhere. The tail stopped its shivering and withdrew into its coils. In an instant, it slid down the riverbank and disappeared.

Back at our Airbnb, I googled New Mexico Rattlesnakes. I had committed the snake to memory — reddish-orange, with diamond-shaped ochre patches — but I needed a proper name for my dinner story. None of the pictures that popped up matched. I tried googling rattlesnakes from adjacent states, from Texas, Arizona and Colorado, in case my rattler had taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque. Again, I drew a blank. Then I read that some snakes have developed a ruse. They’ve learned to vibrate their tails to fool predators. Lookee here, pilgrim — I’m just a big ol’ rattler!

* * *

By Reagan’s second term, I had graduated from McGill and was freelancing for small ad agencies around town. When anyone asked what I did for a living, I said that I worked for the Ministry of Information. No one ever laughed and so I soon dropped it. In fact, I wrote ads for industrial valves and cheese. By then, too, I had a mullet and a moustache and was driving a Soviet car whose seats were upholstered with straw. I worried about car fires, fretted about my next job.

Then one day I landed a plum. An art-director friend at a big agency recommended me for a national campaign. Two weeks later, the two of us filed into a board room to pitch our ideas to the agency’s creative director, a tall, elegant woman dressed entirely in black. She listened intently until we were finished, thought for a moment, shuffled through the presentation boards and finally landed on one headed with the word WINNERS.

“This one,” she said. “This captures the mood of the times.” It’s too long ago to remember the details, but our idea was to make the customer feel like a winner. To declare them a winner, even when there was nothing to win, not a contest or a prize. She tapped the presentation board with a long finger. “That’s just human nature, isn’t it? Everyone wants to be in the winner’s circle, not stuck outside with the losers. Okay, we’ll go with that.” She rose from her seat and left.

I was thunderstruck. I hadn’t thought about it in exactly that way: You can’t really feel like a winner if someone else isn’t there to, you know — help out by being a loser. This had never entered my mind. The ecological balance, the absolute necessity of losers.

But still, it was a win for a young up-and-coming copywriter. And a big one at that. National reach, mass media, money in the bank, a yellow brick road of billable hours stretching to the horizon. I felt like Tom Cruise, whooping and dancing in my underwear, punching the air.

* * *

You absorb what’s out there, don’t you? Even when you’re sleeping. Even when you think you’re thinking about nothing. It happens all the time. You watch TV with the sound low. A man with a folksy smile, a reassuring tilt of the head. Laughing. He says something you don’t quite catch. Something changes, and you never see it coming.

Looking up, the mind wanders in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

A Thousand Forking Paths to Santa Fe

We walked into a gallery that specializes in 19th-century Navajo rugs and silver jewellery. Despite their age, these rugs retain brilliant colours and designs, along with eye-watering prices.

A silvery trickle has appeared in the dry gash that runs beside Camino Real, the ancient 1,600-mile route leading south, to Mexico City. The Santa Fe River is a river again. But still, only a trickle.

A homeless man sits on the steep bank, belongings scattered on surrounding rocks, boots off, soaking his feet in four inches of water.

Where he’ll go next, after he has dried off his feet and put on his boots, is anybody’s guess. A series of forking paths, from the time before his birth, through his childhood and adolescence lead to this moment. Ahead, more paths.

I wonder at the series of events that led me to Santa Fe. Contingency and chance everywhere: My parents’ decision to emigrate to Montreal instead of Chicago or Melbourne. A fall down the stairs at Avenue de l’Hôtel-de-Ville. A first glimpse of a familiar face. A mutation in chromosome 4p.16.3.

A Hispano wedding party poses in the churchyard beside the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis, as an intruder looks on.
Looking heavenward, in Sant Fe.

The Hispanos

On our second night in Santa Fe, I refer to the local people as Mexicans. It’s sloppy and stupid, and I feel mildly rebuked by our better-informed friend at the table.

The local people are Hispanos, and many of them are descended from Spanish settlers who came north centuries ago, long before there was a United States. They were part of large expeditions, pushing north to discover the rumoured Cities of Gold. Alas, there were no Cities of Gold, and rich Conquistadores lost vast fortunes on these expeditions.

But, by the standards of the day, their logic was sound. They had already amassed fortunes from looting and slaughtering ancient peoples to the south, so why not more wealth to the north? They came with hundreds of families of Spanish colonists, Indigenous labourers from Mexico (who built some of the earliest churches in Santa Fe), and herds of livestock.

Relations with Indigenous people in what would later be New Mexico, went sour, and they fled for their lives, back along the Camino Real (Chihuahua Trail). Other expeditions followed, and enough of those early settlers stayed on, seeding the families that still live here.

Gerald the Kid

At the New Mexico Museum of Art, I discover powerful painters I’ve never heard of. (Plus two or three canvases by Georgia O’Keefe.) The museum is small, but well curated. I wander through an exhibition of Ansell Adams photographs. Unexpectedly, most of them are portraits and prove that the man could do anything.

Near the end of my visit, I come to a startling portrait of a young cowboy in profile. The painter was Peter Hurd, who was born in New Mexico in 1904 and studied with N.C. Wyeth in Pennsylvania.

Hurd returned to New Mexico, and years later a local bigwig commissioned him to paint a portrait of the winner of the annual Billy-The-Kid-Rodeo (Billy the Kid was apprehended in Santa Fe, and a plaque at 208 San Francisco Street says as much).

The winner of the rodeo, 15-year-old Gerald Marr (above), was offered the first prize of an all-expenses paid airplane trip (in 1952!) to New York City and Washington, D.C., along with a portrait by Peter Hurd. Second prize was a saddle. The kid took the saddle.

Exterior of the New Mexico Museum of Art.
Inside the museum, in one of its two sculpture gardens.

A song for Santa Fe

I’ve done a lot of dreaming and I’ve travelled some
But I never thought I’d see the day
When I ever took a ride on the Santa Fe.

(when you go travelling, it’s best for you
to take the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe!)

It’s a tossup whether I prefer the Bing Crosby or Judy Garland version of this song. You can hear both on YouTube and both are pretty good.

The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroad is now defunct. Like most passenger railroads, it was killed by the car. Just as, overnight, the railroad killed the mule trains that inched along the Santa Fe Trail and carried tons of merchandise from Kansas City, Missouri to downtown Santa Fe. The journey was 775 miles in length and took 10 weeks to cover. Or, you could opt for the mountain route, which added 100 miles but provided more water for humans and beasts.

The Santa Fe railyard today, with its handsome water tower.
Just past the railyard, a house huddled behind a fence.

Gertrude Sanchez

In Santa Barbara, some weeks ago, I sat on a bench dedicated to Leo Hawel, Jr., who sang in a barbershop quartet. This fact was enough to imagine an entire life, to populate a book.

Here, a few steps from our rented place, a sign commemorates Gertrude Sanchez. But the sign is terse. It says that Gertrude merely endured, for 96 years, right here, on this spot. And now her house is gone, too. Not a hint of whether she raised a family, taught school, sang while she cooked, loved and was loved. She lived here to the end: from childhood to womanhood and into old age, her back window overlooking a deep and swift-moving Santa Fe River, that we may never see again. And maybe that’s all we need to know.

The trash barrel adds a forlorn note to Gertrude’s legacy. The land right behind dips sharply into the Santa Fe River.

Correction: In my last post, a photo caption placed the fire station in Los Cerillos. It’s actually in Madrid. Also, in the first paragraph Santa Fe was spelled Santa-Fe. This is what happens when you don’t have a copy editor.

The Turquoise Trail

In Los Cerillos, New Mexico.

After our O’Keefe-themed day, we took another drive along the Turquoise Trail, which stretches 53 miles between Santa-Fe and Albuquerque and follows the famous Route 66. At Tijeras, “Gateway to the Turquoise Trail,” you’re invited to experience the Singing Road, which is 1,300 ft. of roadway installed with rumble strips that, when you travel at the speed limit, play “America the Beautiful.”

We missed the Singing Road, since we began at the Santa Fe end of the Turquoise Trail and didn’t make it to Tijeras, but maybe next time.

However, we did stop at Los Cerillos (pop. 229). At the Welcome Center, I read that the town was “actually considered” a potential state capital during its mining boom. The “actually” gives it all away. Cerillos has tumbled a long way from its heyday, when it attracted prospectors, investors and mine operators from across the U.S. and Europe. The surrounding hills are rich with silver, copper, gold, iron and other minerals and semi-precious stones. Indigenous people mined turquoise and other stones for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. Today, the hills have been picked clean, and what’s left is uneconomical to dig up.

The Fire Station at Los Cerillos. It’s hard to get a handle on this town.

Lovely decrepitude

Cerillos is dusty, rundown, defiantly picturesque. Mostly dirt roads, ramshackle buildings and rusty barbed wire, but also a sprinkling of glossy art galleries and gated wealth. It’s hard to see whether the decrepitude is genuine or curated, as several movies have been shot here, so the Old West saloon you’re admiring may have been conceived on a sketchpad in Hollywood.

We parked in front of Mary’s Bar, whose faded sign could be the real deal (we’ll never know). Then, down a dirt road we finally locate Cerillos’s biggest attraction: the Mine Museum and Petting Zoo. The petting zoo is mostly chickens. As for the “museum,” it’s at the back of a souvenir shop, where you can rummage for hours among pieces of turquoise and other pretty stones.

A display of cheaply-made pamphlets caught my eye. Among them, one titled “New Mexico Bar Jokes.” Sample:

Q. Why did the American Siamese twins go to England?

A. So the other one could drive.

Madrid, New Mexico

The next stop was Madrid (pronounced MAH-drid). When its coal mine shut down in the 1950s, Madrid became a ghost town. Today, it’s more animated than Los Cerillos, with cafes, restaurants, shops and motorcycle gangs thundering up and down the main road.

From our spot at Java Junction (coffee and cutting boards), bikers rumbled back and forth continuously. Small packs of giant men wearing identical patches, inscrutable behind their shades. There was a Hispanic MC, as well as hard-ass retirees in gleaming too-new bikes, tricked out with carriers and lights. I wondered how the wolves and lambs greeted each other at gas stations and bars, whether they ignored one another, whether there’s a protocol.

The biggest gang on parade was hard to identify. A turf war in Albuquerque has pitted the Banditos with the Mongols. But these bikers didn’t belong to either MC. Based on their patch, I thought they were the Devil’s Diciples (note the mis-spelling), which is an established criminal gang with tentacles in dozens of countries.

But I’ve since learned they could also be the Disciples. Aside from being better spellers, Disciples are committed to Jesus. They’re a Christian MC, with the standard beards, tats and tonnage.

I can’t decide whether the patch says Diciples or Disciples.

For a better look at these guys, I strolled over to the Mine Shaft Tavern & Cantina, which boasts the longest bar in New Mexico (motto: “Madrid has no town drunk. We all take turns.”). The tavern is perched high over the main street and is adjacent to the Madrid Mining Museum.

Above me, large heads bent over plates and chewed.

Instructions near the entrance to the Mine Shaft Tavern & Cantina.

A case of O’Keefe

Near the entrance to the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe.

The streets of Santa Fe are lined with art galleries and, since they can’t all fit at street level, the second and third storeys of most commercial buildings are also jammed with galleries and their well-dressed proprietors. Most of the offerings are not that good, to put it charitably, and that’s to be expected. The sheer volume is ridiculous. But a remarkable proportion is very good.

Santa Fe is drunk on O’Keefe, and for good reason. She was just one of the many artists and writers that transformed Santa Fe, back in the 1920s and 1930s, into a desert Mecca for painters, photographers and collectors. But among those first, her star has risen the highest.

On our second day here, we made a pilgrimage to the Georgia O’Keefe Museum, where we viewed some fine paintings and learned about her early life, before she became an industry. Then on the weekend we visited the Georgia O’Keefe Welcome Center, in Abiquiu. Her home and studio at Abiquiu, where she lived from 1943 until her death in 1986, is just minutes from the Center, but we lacked the required tickets.

Instead, we trailed through the gift shop, where we had the opportunity to buy Georgia O’Keefe walking sticks, like the ones she carried in the desert; black, flat-topped gaucho hats, which the artist favoured; as well as the loose scarves and garments that gave the artist a gnomic presence among the rocks and rattlesnakes. We had pictures of the artist’s kitchen to look at, and a book that will make you cook like O’Keefe. There were archival-quality prints to buy, as well as stunningly produced portraits and photo books.

The lady was photogenic.

Before mandated access ramps, Georgia O’Keefe lived at this cottage at Ghost Ranch for several summers.

Ghost Ranch

To get to Ghost Ranch, where O’Keefe had a small cottage for some years prior to Abiquiu, we drove through a hot, dusty landscape of rocks and low scrub, with always a string of mountains rising in the distance. The 21,000-acre former dude ranch enchanted O’Keefe as soon as she saw it, and its owners eventually allowed her to buy the Rancho de los Burros cottage and its adjoining seven acres. She returned every summer for years, until she bought and renovated her more famous home in Abiquiu.

Today, Ghost Ranch is a Presbyterian retreat and a stop along the 4,873 km. Continental Divide Trail, which begins at the border of Chihuahua, Mexico, and ends at Alberta.

Ghost Ranch has many outbuildings and places for quiet retreat. As we sat to admire the landscape, two men set up folding chairs under a tree and began tuning their banjos.
(For you non-Greeks, agape means love.)
Another view of Ghost Ranch. On the way out, we stopped at a corral where a young girl gave us apples to feed the mules and horses.
Yet another view of Ghost Ranch.

The New Mexico landscape is austere and beautiful, but also an arena of vague dread, of menace and sudden criminal violence. When your first, formative impressions of New Mexico are through TV shows, such as Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, it’s hard to get the menace out of your head. By the time you get to New Mexico, it’s already too late. For the mind is already colonized.

Nor do the Presbyterian administrators of Ghost Ranch help to declutter the mind and refocus it on nature: I find a room whose walls are covered with posters of movies filmed in the area; movies packed with six-guns, blood and murderous Indians. (On my second day in Santa Fe, Michael Shannon and I strolled past each other. Google says he’s in town on a shoot.)

The planet is burning, part 4

Yesterday, on our way home from Cerillos and Madrid, both located on the Turquoise Trail, we pulled over to take the photo above. When we finally arrived in Santa Fe, the city smelled like a house fire. At night, the lunar eclipse was barely visible and the stars, normally bright, had vanished.

The other lady of Santa Fe.

Repentance in Santa Fe

San Miguel Mission, The Oldest Church in the Continental United States (1620), stands across the street from the Oldest House in the Continental United States. No one knows how old the house is, but I’m told it’s really old.

You’ll find a lot of that in Santa Fe. The Oldest, the First, the Very First. Try telling that to the Pueblo Indians. But then, everything is in dispute today, everywhere — history, identity, truth, the very origins of the universe.

To get to The Oldest House in the Continental Unites States, turn left at Top Crust Pizza.

As I stroll along Old Santa Fe Trail, for my first glimpse of the Oldest Church, I see a middle-aged guy and two young seminarians standing in the shade. With the ecclesiastical robes and caps, it’s a classic scene of disputation. Except, the middle-aged guy is hectoring, insistent: something about “the plasticity of tectonic plates,” and the ageless, endless flow of continents. He cites academic articles, fresh research.

I respect the seminarians’ forbearance. They listen attentively, hardly speak, and when they do, I can’t hear a word they say. The old guy blunders on, hoping to bust down resistance and make his point.

I move on, embarrassed by the general futility.

The disputants, across the street from San Miguel Mission.
Another view of San Miguel Mission.
Adobe is the most democratic building material. The Oldest and the Newest buildings, separated by centuries, look identical. This might be a bank. Or a laundromat.

The planet is burning, part 3

I’ve been trying to run since we arrived in Santa Fe, but the 7,000-foot altitude is more than I bargained for. I’ve been warned to go slow, build gradually, drink lots of water. But nothing works. I feel dangerously depleted even after a few kilometres. There’s no shade, and the sun is implacable, merciless.

I run along the Santa Fe River Trail, which is just a few steps from our front door. The Santa Fe River, which flows into the Rio Grande, is an actual river only when the authorities release its precious waters from the county reservoirs. Meanwhile, the geographic feature I run along is a dry, rocky ditch with trees growing along its edges, trees that must dream of better days.

I pause beside a plaque to catch my breath, and read about the watershed and the importance of conserving water. A sentence stands out: “See the hardpack on those mountains? It’s not just for skiing; it actually feeds our glorious rivers and provides water for our families.”

I scan the mountains in every direction. Nothing but grey and brown.

This 100-year-old double cottonwood stands just in front of the Georgia O’Keefe Research Centre. O’Keefe loved to draw cottonwoods, and this particular specimen has its own email address.

The next day, after my run, I pass an old guy at his mailbox who’s wearing a blue UBC hoodie. I stop and ask if he’s Canadian. He’s not, but his daughter went to the University of British Columbia and gave him the hoodie. She’s now settled in Vancouver, has married a Canadian and just had a baby.

I congratulate him and ask if he’s planning to visit soon.

“Oh, sure, I’ll have to visit. It’s just that, well…”

“You don’t like Vancouver?”

“It’s just…too much rain. I like it here better.”

Over his shoulder, up in the mountains, a pillar of smoke rises like a vengeful god.